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What's hoppening? A beer crop

Andy Braznell is growing hops in Laurel Park. Andy Braznell is growing hops in Laurel Park.

LAUREL PARK — Andy Braznell says he and his dad told curious visitors all kinds of stories about what was up with the 18-foot high poles, the cross wires connecting them and the vertical string extending twice as high as a basketball goal.

People aren't used to seeing hops farms here.
Braznell and his father, Andy Sr., are among a small and adventurous band of farmers who have planted hops in Henderson County in hopes of making a crop that they can sell, probably to craft brewers.
The big breweries that are coming to the area, Sierra Nevada in Mills River and New Belgium in Asheville, have raised awareness of hops as the key ingredient in beer-making. Growers like Braznell probably will not grow for the big boys, though, because large brewers demand a consistent product in pellet form — and lots of it.
That hasn't stopped Braznell, who planted 900 hops plants on two plots at his home in Laurel Park just off U.S. 64.
"I'm hoping next year for 5,000 pounds," he said. "I've talked with some of the local brewers. You're not going to get anybody to commit (until they see the product). The biggest issue is processing. Everybody wants them pelletized."
That is among the challenges North Carolina hops growers case, along with the Southern humidity, the threat of fungus and the fact that a small-scale grower can't supply nearly enough hops for the big breweries.
Sue Colucci, a Hendersonville-based agriculture extension agent who is working with the few hops farmers in the area, said hops production long ago moved from the East Coast to the Pacific Northwest because of fungal diseases. The drier northwest is better suited for the beer-making cones, and that region has developed the best-suited species, adopted mechanized harvesting and cultivated broad markets.
Even as Sierra Nevada gears up for its first East Coast operation, in Mills River, it will probably continue to buy from suppliers out west.
"They need to have a consistent product," she said. "They're not going to buy local hops, not knowing our alpha and beta acid levels."
Still, that does not mean there is no market for small growers like the Braznells. Some craft brewers like Pisgah in Black Mountain and French Broad in Asheville use fresh hops in a process called wet hopping. It makes delicious beer, Colucci says.
Braznell has already looked into that. "If somebody was going to use fresh hops, you have to have the hops in hand within two to three hours," he says. Braznell says some local growers are talking about forming a co-op to market their crop and perhaps share in equipment costs.
He ordered the poles from the northwest. His father-in-law, Rick McMullan, fabricated a tower that bolts into the bed of a pickup truck so he can work the tops of the 16-foot vines. Hops, which are perennial, have a growing season similar to grapes, ripening in September or October. When they're ripe, the grower can pull them down and use a shaker machine to harvest the cones. Some farmers pick by hand.
A 2000 graduate of West Henderson High School, Braznell is not relying on hops to put food on the table. He is a contractor by day. He and his wife, Dana, a schoolteacher at Rugby Middle School, have a 2-year-old boy, Micah.
The Braznells have planted Mount Hood, Williamette, Cascade and Centennial hops, and will wait and see which ones grow best and produce well. Andy pointed to the small plants, the largest only shoulder high, and the tall trellises waiting for them to climb.
"Hopefully next year this is one big solid wall of green," he said.