Growing hops in the Panhandle

Mark Gaschler
Scottsbluff Star-Herald
In this undated photo extension educator Gary Stone checks one of the hops plants being grown at PREC in Scottsbluff, Neb.

SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. - The Panhandle Research and Extension Center is in its third year growing hops, as part of a research project being conducted by University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Stacy Adams.

The experiment is to see how effectively hops can be grown in Nebraska, using plots across the state, from UNL's East Campus to the west in Scottsbluff.

"It's to see how well these plants will do here in the state and where they'll do best in the state," said Extension educator Gary Stone. The study will examine yields, disease and pest issues, and the flavor content of the hops being grown in different parts of Nebraska.

The Star-Herald reports that hops are grown on 12-foot-tall trellises. Stone, who manages the Scottsbluff hop garden, said he and the other workers at PREC cut back the hops' spring growth in May, which natural spread on the ground, to shorten the internodal lengths. He then tied a coconut fiber rope, called coir, to the trellis wire over the hops plant, anchored it to the ground among the plant, then encouraged the two or three bines to grow up the rope. If healthy, the hops will grow as much as six inches each day.

The hops produce cones, which have the appearance of a soft, green pinecone. The cones are harvested for their lupulin, a yellow, bitter-tasting powder that is commonly used to flavor beer.

At least in the Panhandle, there was already evidence hops could be viable. According to Stone, some varieties of hops grow wild in the region.

"Somebody probably brought them over and planted them years ago," he said. "They're still going."

Stone manages the PREC hops garden, which he said has not been difficult. "For the most part, it'll take care of itself," he said. "Once you get them trained to start growing up, just stand back and they'll take off."

In Scottsbluff, the researchers have grown 96 plants in eight varieties. Most of the varieties have thrived in Nebraska, although a few have not grown well. While the Panhandle has, for the most part, proven a good place to grow hops, there have been some issues. In early June of 2017 and 2018, high winds damaged the hop bines by cutting off growing points, limiting yields. For pests, Stone said the plants have issues with grasshoppers. But, for the most part, hops production has gone well at PREC, based on results from testing back at UNL.

"The cultivars met the alpha acid test," Stone said, which is part of what impacts the flavor of hops. "That's what (brewers) look for when they buy them, and it's met all the standards that they needed."

If the project goes well, hops could become a secondary crop for farmers in Nebraska.

"In the U.S., we import a lot of hops," he said. "We're looking at this, through the Department of (Agriculture), to see if this might be a viable crop." While it's unlikely hops would become a large-scale crop in Nebraska, the growth of micro-breweries could make it marketable on a small scale.

Stone added that hops have some uses beyond beer. "My secretary, she'll take five or six cones and brew them up and make a tea," he said. "It's a relaxant, it's a digestive aid, and it has some anti-microbial properties. It has some anti-cancer properties. Yes, beer is the major thing, but there are some other uses people are using for hops."