Flying Dog Brewery and the University of Maryland’s agricultural school have teamed up to investigate the best way to grow hops, a popular flavoring agent in beer, in the state.
For Matt Brophy, the Frederick brewery’s COO, the idea came after some disappointing performances from fledgling growers at a brewery taste test.
“We held a blind taste test, and some of them, frankly, were unacceptable,” he said. “We gave all of the growers specific feedback, and there was actually one particular hop farmer — he was so upset that we didn’t choose his hops … that he told me, ‘You’d be better off buying some of these hops and throwing them in the dumpster.’”
The situation proved that hops farmers could use a guiding light, he said.
Brophy found a kindred spirit in the University of Maryland’s Bryan Butler, who had just begun a hops trial at the Western Maryland Research and Education Center in Keedysville.
“I’m trying to really help this industry really grow, but grow in a way that would be profitable for both growers and breweries,” he said.
Butler’s trial includes 24 different hops varieties, each planted three times. The first half was planted last May and will be harvested shortly, said Butler. The second half were planted in April, and aren’t due for harvest until next year.
Butler is evaluating how growing conditions in Maryland affect the ideal harvest date, levels of acid and oil in the plants, susceptibility to disease and overall economic viability of hops growing as a state industry.
Brophy decided to help Butler finance a mechanical harvester for the project, which will help him better examine the different strains.
Butler said growers’ difficulties may stem from the fact that the plant is mainly grown in cooler climates.
“It’s been many many many years since hops have been produced in Maryland. They were really never developed with the intention of being planted here. We can really collect data to try to help people make better decisions when it comes to deciding which variety to pick. … Some varieties that might do really well in Michigan or New York might be terrible here,” he said.
Flying Dog will use the hops to develop different beers, and will solicit feedback from customers whilst exposing them to local ingredients.
After the trials are completed, the university and brewery will team up to publish the first annual guide to growing hops in the mid-Atlantic.
The duo will also partner to create a limited edition variety pack of beers with local hops from Black Locust Hops in Baltimore County and Pleasant Valley Hops in Washington County.
Brophy said he hopes the effort will build a stronger hops industry in the area.
“The (hops farmers) who think that they’re going to make money and the people who think that Flying Dog and the other 68 breweries in Maryland are just going to be automatic customers — they’re naive,” he said, adding that he hopes to continue collaborating with Maryland hops farmers as well as those in neighboring states.