There are more breweries in existence now than at any other time in U.S. history.
According to the Brewers Association, the U.S. craft beer industry is now a $22 billion industry and Florida is the fastest growing state market. There were 45 craft breweries in Florida in 2011, and as of 2016, there are 195 and counting.
Joe Dunham quit his day job at an engineering and construction firm to open Grove Roots craft brewery in downtown Winter Haven around a year ago. The place has been so packed as of lately, that the business recently expanded. Dunham said he has been using 500 pounds of wet hops to brew the good stuff every single month, mostly imported from places like Washington state and beyond where temperatures are cooler and drier. He is hoping that the small group of farmers who just started trying to grow hops commercially in Florida a few years ago will succeed so that he can use more local ingredients.
“Everybody is about fresh from Florida,” Dunham said.
With the surge in craft breweries and the spread of citrus greening wreaking havoc on the Florida citrus industry, scientists at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences received a two-year $158,000 grant to study hops as an alternative crop to grow in Florida in 2015. With scientific signs that it was possible, some of the scientists started speaking at area conferences, sharing the concept of growing hops in the Sunshine State.
Around a year ago two Polk County men who live in the Lake Wales area invited a third friend from the Ft. Myers area to attend the 2016 Florida Hops Consortium.
“I ran my hare-brained scheme by Tommy and he liked it,” said Caloosa Hop Company co-owner Kevin Updike.
Kevin, his elementary school buddy Brian Marston and their friend of 10 years Tom Kirschner all liked what they learned at the conference. On the way home they immediately started looking at where they could start growing Florida hops.
Kevin’s family has been in the citrus industry since 1942 and Brian has lots of experience in the citrus and nursery industries. Brian said the concept of growing hops was not about getting out of the citrus industry, it was more about diversifying and growing different things. Kevin said he was reading reports of shortages of hops given all of the craft breweries opening. In January 2017, the trio registered the business name Caloosa Hop Company and then they got to work planting.
The guys had enough farm experience between them to know that it would not be easy growing hops in such a hot, wet climate with plenty of pesky bugs. Some scientists from the University of Florida helped them pick which variety to plant and how to fertilize the soil. At first they planted around four varieties with another 20 varieties of hops on trial around four acres of land around Lake Wales.
The hops that seemed to grow best are a variety called Cascade hops, a somewhat pungent, bitter, citrusy-smelling crop.
Beyond the challenges of growing hops much further south than where they grow best, the trio had to start figuring out how to market their new product.
Their first harvest in March of 2017 only net around 30 pounds of hops, enough to make around four kegs. A brewery in Sarasota called JDub’s Brewing purchased a batch and threw a “Commander Wet Hopped IPA” party in June. A month later Grove Roots owner Joe Dunham brewed up a batch of Caloosa Fresh Hop IPA. The trio has also had partnerships with Crooked Thumb Brewery in Safety Harbor, Swamp Head Brewery in Gainesville, Swan Brewing in Lakeland and Wop’s Hops in Sanford.
"It was growing for months and was gone in a few hours,"Dunham said. “Brian’s wife Sarah got the last glass of the second keg.”
Each batch of hops takes a few months so there are multiple harvests per year. On the day before Hurricane Irma blew through the county in September, Brian, Kevin, Tommy, and their wives and children all gathered at Brian’s farm in Babson Park to harvest their second crop of hops. This time the local farmers got around 150 pounds of hops.
Hops are quirky-looking bines not vines, that can grow up to 25 feet per season. (Vines use tendrils to climb, bines have small, stiff hairs.) They grow upwards with the help from a trellis setup on the farm. Every three months or so, the plants are harvested. Using machetes, the adults cut the bines at the top and bottom with the roots left intact. Two other adults take the bines and feed them into a machine that separates the hops cones from the bines. Their children are in charge of making sure no leaves or stems got bunched in with the final product. Without use of the machine it would have taken the three families a week to harvest a half acre instead of a single day.
After the hops are all separated, they are placed in a homemade dryer before being sold to brewers. It’s a fairly small set up spread out on two farms, one in Babson Park and one near Bok Tower Gardens.
Brian said what they are doing now is comparable to a hobby but they are trying to turn it into a business some day.
Next up for the trio and their loved ones is chopping down another two acres of citrus to plant more hops.
“We are learning, not earning but we are hopeful,” Kevin said.