ATLANTIC CITY — Craft breweries have been popping up all over the state. But the hop plants that are needed to make strong, bitter beers? Not so much.
That should change, farmers and researchers at the New Jersey Vegetable Growers Association’s annual conference at Harrah’s Resort and Waterfront Conference Center here said Tuesday.
The state’s brewers want to buy Jersey-grown hops to market local beers, said Abe Bakker, who runs Rabbit Hill Farms in Shiloh with daughter Hillary Barile and son Blair Bakker. But they can’t find enough New Jersey grown hops, he said.
Their farm grows some hops, as well as grains and sod. And they run the state’s only craft malt house, which converts barley to the malt required to make beer.
Hops grows as a “bine” — a climbing plant that has shoots forming a helix around a support. Vines, in contrast, climb using tendrils or suckers.
It is an emerging crop in New Jersey, said Barile. There are only piecemeal counts of acreage under hops cultivation, and it’s a small total of acres.
It is tricky to grow, harvest and store the cones properly, Rutgers University researcher Megan Muehlbauer said in a workshop presentation.
Time, oxygen and heat are the enemies of hop quality, she said.
“The clock starts ticking as soon as the hop bine is cut,” said Muehlbauer.
The flowers of the plant, also called seed cones, are harvested. If sold as fresh hops, they must be used in brewing within 18 to 24 hours, said Muehlbauer. Many brewers prefer to buy dried, pelletized hops, which then have a shelf life of three to five years if kept cold enough, she said.
The one-day NJVGA event merged again this year with the state Department of Agriculture’s annual convention, which runs Wednesday and Thursday.
Bakker said it takes a lot of investment to grow, harvest, store and sell hops that are high enough quality for brewers.
“But it’s no bigger number than other people are spending on other crops,” said Bakker.
He said Cape May Brewing Co. has made Three Plows, a 100 percent New Jersey beer, as a special batch for two years. The name refers to the three plows on the state seal.
Rabbit Hill Farms called around and got as much Jersey grown hops as it could for the special beer.
Even the yeast came from a North Jersey microbrewery that has a relative of the original Ballantine Ale yeast, Bakker said.
“They wanted to do it year-round, but there were not enough hops,” Bakker said.
In 2016, there were 82 microbreweries in the state, according to data from the Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade association. That’s a 61 percent increase from 2015.
Brothers Bob and Mickey Clark run The Fir Farm, a Christmas tree and hops farm in Colt’s Neck, Monmouth County, they said.
Their 600 hop plants on almost an acre are harvested with the help of about 100 volunteers, who come out for their annual harvest festival, the Clarks said.
It’s a way to harvest the cones quickly enough to keep the quality high.
“We provide a barbecue,” said Mickey Clark. Local breweries bring their beers for people to sample.
Their hops and Rabbit Hill Farms’ grain/malt has been used to make one of the state’s only fully local beers, made by Jughandle Brewing Co. in Tinton Falls, said Bob Clark.
Seventy-five percent of the nation’s hops are grown in Washington state, while another 13 percent are grown in Idaho and 11 percent in Oregon, according to the Hop Growers of America, based in Yakima, Washington.