Growing Hops in Nebraska

A freshly picked hop, split in two. (Photo courtesy Katie Kreuser)
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February 7, 2018 - 6:45am

About 98 percent of the total amount of hops grown in the U.S. happens in the Pacific Northwest. Research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is hoping to change that. A new study is looking at eight specific varieties of hops and attempting to grow them in Nebraska.

Hops being fed through a hop harvester. (Photo courtesy Stacy Adams)

Stacy Adams, associate professor of practice in agronomy and horticulture at UNL, is focusing on the science side of the research. Katie Kreuser works directly with growers and brewers in Nebraska.

One of the study's five acreage locations. This is near Scottsbluff, looking west. (Photo courtesy Stacy Adams)

Defining Terms:


Cultivar: Plants which are cultivated vegetatively rather than from a seed.

Pelletized: After drying the whole hops, they are hammer milled turning them into a powder. This sticky powder is put through an extrusion die and made into small pellets. They have visual similarities to feed for livestock.

Terroir: The conditions in which a food is grown or produced and that give the food its unique characteristics.

Previous NET News stories about hops:


Different varieties of hops chosen for the study along with input from researcher Stacy Adams

Centennial – This citrusy and floral tasting variety of hops was bred 44 years ago and first released by Washington State University in 1990. It is one of the more popular varieties of hops among craft brewers. Some have commented on the lemon flavor. This cultivar is preforming lighter in yields than projected and slightly less in meeting target in alpha and beta acids. Potential may exist for for uniqueness in aroma characteristics.

Chinook – Chinook hops were first established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, out of its breeding program in the northwest and released in 1985. Citrus flavor with hints of grapefruit and pine. This cultivar surpassed expectations on yield, hitting amounts that would be expected on mature hop plants. The alpha and beta acid contents are significantly less than target, however, potential may also exist for uniqueness in aroma.

Crystal – Another product of the USDA breeding program in the 1980s. This herbal hop was genetically modified from four different hops, including the ever popular Cascade hops. Found more in Oregon than anywhere else. It works well in many types of beer. Said to have a wood like, earthy flavor. Known for its bright green coloring. This cultivar was near weight projections for second year hops at or above both alpha and beta acid targets for all regions in the state except for the Norfolk location, which may be directly related to the excessive rains and organic production system being employed.

Perle – This German hops has low acidic properties with fruity and spicy flavoring. It is known to have a good tolerance to disease. This cultivar was generally a poor performer with very light yields (10% of target) and variable in all locations on qualitative attributes of both alpha and beta acid content.

Willamette – An aromatic, low-acid, variety of hops. Has flavor with hints of elderberry and incense. It is said to be a good partner to Cascade hops.  This cultivar was generally a poor performer having very light yields (approximately 20% of target) and variable in qualitative acid targets, meeting alpha and beta acid targets only at the Norfolk location but yields were extremely low (less than 16% of goal).

Columbia – Very pungent with hints of citrus. Was discontinued in favor of the Willamette hops in the 80s. It saw a renaissance in 2011 after being thrown back into production. This cultivar preformed extremely well for both productivity and meeting acid targets at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center. Other locations had light yields but acid targets were at or above than expected for this cultivar.  

Cluster – One of the oldest varieties of hops grown in the U.S. In the 1970s, it was among the top hops grown in the U.S. Very resinous with balanced bitterness and herbal flavor. Excellent performer for all locations, meeting and exceeding targeted productivity levels at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center and cooperator farm in Sutton, Nebraska, as well as, meeting expectations at Valparaiso and Norfolk. For all locations, this cultivar consistently met both alpha and beta acid targets.

Zeus – American hybrid, high Alpha acid and flavor base consists of licorice, curry and black pepper. High growth rate with mid to late seasonal maturity. This cultivar was an excellent performer, surpassing productivity levels expected at all locations and nearing expected maximum plant potential for mature hops at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center. This cultivar additionally met or exceeded alpha and beta acid targets for all locations across the state.

Source: Stacy Adams, associate professor, UNL's Department of Agronomy and Horticulture.

Kreuser said Nebraska has seen a boom in local breweries in the state. There are more than 40 local breweries up and running in Nebraska, more than 10 breweries have opened in the past 10 years.

Researchers picked five locations in Nebraska to be the plots for testing. One is located in Lincoln on the East Campus. Another is at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff. Other test fields are located near Norfolk, Hastings and Scottsbluff and are run by local farmers who are cooperating with this research.

Brandon McDermott: Stacy how do you use this study in your courses with undergrads?

Stacy Adams: Hops is an interesting plant because it has so many different types of physiological functions and the morphology is pretty fascinating. In order to have best student engagement, I found out that we can teach the science but offer the opportunity for people to see how the plant is grown in commercial industry.


McDermott: Does hops have similarities with other crops?

Adams: It’s very temperature responsive so like corn when it's really warm it grows quite quickly. The hops plant during that speed growth – which is in the month of June – it's growing 12-14 inches a day. We kind of put all these different things together and try (to) grow hops.


McDermott: How about Nebraska weather – how could that affect hops and hops that are grown here in the state?

Adams: Nebraska has a very interesting climate here, because we are in the right climatic zone to grow hops – meaning that we have those long day lengths required to set the flowers on the plant. The other thing is we have really good warm-up temperatures in the spring. Sometimes the traditional hop growing regions struggle with having warm enough temperature for the plant to get to its maximum size in order to get a good flowering on there.

We also have very good air movement – which we all know –and that will help suppress the potential for some diseases in there. But on the other hand sometimes those high winds can also cause a little bit of problems with excessive drying of the plant and if a farmer doesn't maintain irrigation well, it can cause some damage. As well as we have some volatile weather  experiences, but the benefit – if you do have plant damage – the plant can generally recover really well unless it's during this four-week critical period.


McDermott: Speaking specifically of Nebraska weather, are there certain parts of the state you think would be a good place for hops to flourish?

Adams: Generally, Scottsbluff has been quite amazing. I think the temperatures haven't been quite as volatile out there and we've been able to provide cost irrigation. Their soils do drain extremely well so it's almost more precision on growing the plant. (With) these other locations we're dealing with heavier soils which sometimes the water (is) not accessible to the plant.


McDermott: Recently we've seen a significant growth in the craft beer market, is there a demand for more acreage as well?

Katie Kreuser: Right now the demand is for pelletized, high-quality hops. If growers can show that they can produce the quality hops than the demand for the acreage is also there. Right now we're seeing the farmers that are palletized in their hops – they are selling their hops and they're increasing their acreage. So, the demand is definitely there and growing.


McDermott: How have Nebraska Brewers you've spoken with responded to this study and this research?

Kreuser: They're really excited. They see proprietary hops coming out of the Pacific Northwest and that makes them excited for the breeding program here, for us to create our own proprietary varieties. But they see their customers demanding locally hopped beers from them. So, when they use local hops there's excitement from all angles.


McDermott: With Nebraska breweries directly influencing economic impact here in the state – estimates say its north of $400 million – how can research like this help them continue that growth?

Kreuser: So the growth with using new varieties, creating new beers it provides new ways for the brewers to expand their markets and to grow their customer base. As they continue to expand their customer base, the demand for hops acreage grows as well. So, the growth for all aspects of the industries – jobs, production – jobs at the end of the day are very important and there's huge impact there.


McDermott: The brewers you've spoken with, what have they said they're looking for when it comes to finding the right hops?

Kreuser: They want a unique Nebraska hop. They have seen and experienced brewing with terroir, the aromas from hops, that are influenced by the growing conditions and the growing environment that these hops are in. So essentially you can grow the same variety here in Nebraska and in Washington State, but when you put them in the same recipe and beer, they're going to provide two very different beers. There are some varieties that they’ve found terroir effects – just for an example cashmere is a great one – there's more demand for that hop from brewers, based on that terroir.




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