Iron Hand Brewing has recently began to host a series of “Beer Talks” at the brew pub, which are definitely worth the time and attention of anyone in our area who is interested in beer. Last month, Dr. Daryn Glassbrook, executive director of the Mobile Medical Museum, gave a fascinating talk on the history of Prohibition, complete with artifacts — including a bottle of Prohibition-era bottle of medicinal whiskey — from the museum.
Last week, Iron Hand hosted Dr. Steven Schultze, a climatologist at the University of South Alabama (USA), who has been spearheading the South Alabama Hops Project. Schultze explained that while the United States is the world’s largest producer of hops, 96 percent of those hops are grown in just three states: Washington, Oregon and Idaho; specifically in the Yakima Valley (Ore.), the Willamette Valley (Wash.) and the Treasure Valley (Idaho).
Hops, the flower that gives most beers their flavor and acts as a natural preservative, have been used in brewing for centuries, and have been grown in the Americas since the early 17th century, when English settlers transported them from Europe for beer-making. Since the 19th century, the Pacific Northwest has dominated hops-growing in the U.S., as it has an optimal climate for growing the plant: mild temperatures and long summer days with many hours of daylight.
Because of these conditions, hops production around the world usually takes place in areas between the 33rd and 50th latitudes; as Mobile rests farther south, at the 30th parallel, Lower Alabama is not viewed as a viable area to grow hops.
Enter Steven Schultze. Throwing conventional wisdom to the wind, he sought to see if he could create a viable hops operation in Baldwin County. His research deals with how crops interact with climate, and he had initially sought to see if he could grow wine grapes in South Alabama, as his doctoral work at Michigan State examined the connections between climate change and the wine industry, but found that Pierce’s Disease made it impossible to grow wine grapes here. So he turned to hops after learning that regions in Australia and New Zealand, with similar climates to ours, were having success growing hops.
Buoyed by some financial support from USA, and with access to some land at Auburn’s Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center in Fairhope, Schultze and a team of graduate assistants began planting hops in 2017. The first year of the project, however, was a disaster as hot temperatures, improper irrigation and the wrong varieties of hops all doomed the crop, and almost all the vines were lost.
Learning from their mistakes and making a number of adjustments, including an improved irrigation system and new varieties of hops from South Africa, New Zealand and Japan, all made a huge difference and most of the crop survived. This year Schultze has more ambitious goals.
“Last year the goal was just survival,” he told me. “This year’s goal is for more vigorous growth.” He has planted 120 vines — twice as many as last year — and is being more aggressive with both water and fertilizer.
The hope is that Schultze and his team not only will produce Gulf Coast hops on a scale that will allow them to be used by our local brewers — Iron Hand and Haint Blue breweries have already expressed interest — but that they will develop methods to help grow hops in areas previously seen as unsuitable to them. While one reason for trying to grow hops here is to provide our craft beer industry with locally sourced ingredients — really making Alabama beer, Alabama beer — another has to do with the threat that climate change poses to the hops industry. Because the vast majority of the nation’s hops are located in just one region, and one that it already seeing the effects of climate change, by diversifying the strains of hops that are grown and the regions that they are grown in, hops production would be insulated against climate disasters in one part of the nation.
The next Beer Talk at Iron Hand Brewing will be given by Dr. Tim Lombardo, a historian at USA, who will discuss the history of craft beer in the U.S. His talk, on July 23 at 6:30 p.m., is entitled: “The American Craft Beer Revolution, Past and Present.”
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