While farmers were in the midst of harvesting traditional crops such as corn and soybeans this year, researchers at the University of Missouri’s Bradford Research Center in Columbia, Mo., were harvesting from plants not typically found in this area.
This was the first year for MU’s research on hops, a key ingredient found in beer. Though hops are typically grown in northern climates with less humidity, a growing craft beer movement has cultivated interest in producing the crop locally, according to Extension horticulturist James Quinn. Missouri is on the southern edge of where hops can grow successfully.
MU Extension received a specialty crop grant from the Missouri Department of Agriculture to research what types of hops grow best in Missouri. Quinn and another MU Extension horticulturist, Patrick Byers, planted more than 10 varieties on the ¼-acre hops yard at Bradford. The perennial plants can produce for more than 40 years.
Hop plants are climbing bines (vines without tendrils). The flower of the hop plant is a papery-thin, pale-green cone that is used to add unique flavors and aromas to most beers, especially small craft brews. The bitterness of hops balances the sweetness of beer’s malt sugars. They also are a natural preservative, extending the life of the brew. Hop cones dry in late summer and develop a strong odor. Most home brewers harvest the hops by hand; larger growers use specialized machinery.
According to a USDA report released at the end of 2016, hop acreage in the U.S. grew 72 percent over the past five years. To help this new wave of growers, universities such as MU are conducting research. Quinn says similar grant-funded projects are also under way in Nebraska, Iowa, West Virginia and North Carolina.