With more than 200 breweries in Virginia today, it’s never been easier for residents to buy locally made beer.
But Virginia breweries have few in-state options for purchasing one of their essential raw ingredients: hops.
On Wednesday, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors is slated to vote on a special-use permit that would enable Greenmont Hopworks to build the county’s first facility for drying and processing hops.
Andrew Cox, director of business management for Greenmont Hopworks, said the company would use the facility to process its own hops and rent it out for other growers to use.
“This facility will give farmers the ‘bandwidth to go online’ and start growing hops,” Cox said. “Brewers will be able to put together larger amounts [of Virginia hops], rather than having to do it piecemeal. And they would get to enjoy a higher consistency of quality.”
James B. Murray Jr., an investor and member of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors, and his daughter, Meghan Murray, chief operating officer of the Miller Center at UVa, founded Greenmont Hopworks in 2016. The business is based at the Murrays’ Greenmont Farm property in Keene.
Hops are used to add bitter and zesty flavors to beer during the brewing process. Greenmont Hopworks cultivates two acres of hop plants, primarily the cascade, Chinook, crystal and Newport varieties.
Greenmont Hopworks has submitted plans to build a 10,000-square-foot processing facility near the intersection of Plank and Scottsville roads. It would house machinery for removing hop flowers from freshly picked vines and drying, milling, pelletizing and packaging the hops. It also would include cold storage space for processed hops.
Cox said the facility would operate intensely during the harvesting season — July through September — and would remain mostly dormant for the remainder of the year.
The Albemarle Planning Commission last month voted, 6-0, to recommend approval of Greenmont Hopworks’ special-use permit.
“Agricultural processing is a category of use that we are hoping to encourage in [the county’s rural area],” said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Ann H. Mallek. “But we will have to see how Wednesday’s public hearing goes.”
While hops can last for up to three years when they are dried and refrigerated, fresh hops must be used within two days of being picked. Virginia had no processing facilities until Black Hops Farm in Leesburg opened one in 2015.
“We are looking to establish a more central location for growers in other parts of the state,” Cox said.
Hops remain a niche crop in Virginia. According to Hop Growers of America, only 30 acres were used statewide to cultivate hops in 2016. Three Northwestern states — Idaho, Oregon and Washington — produce an overwhelming majority of hops used by craft breweries in Virginia and nationwide.
Cox said the Pacific Northwest is less humid and has more hours of daylight than Virginia has during the summer months — factors that are favorable for growing hops. However, he said a lack of processing facilities for hops was a greater obstacle for Virginia’s growers than the climate.
Kevin McElroy, head brewer at Random Row Brewing Co., said the Charlottesville brewery has refrained from purchasing Virginia fresh hops due to their fleeting shelf life.
“[Fresh hops] are not ideal for production or planning,” McElroy said. “We are trying to streamline as much as possible, and we haven’t had the opportunity to make a fresh-hop beer.”
In its application for an Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development grant from the state last year, Three Notch’d Brewing Co. in Charlottesville committed to purchasing more than 1.5 tons of Virginia-grown hops in 2018 for about $67,000. That amount is still only a fraction of the brewery’s total hops purchases by volume, about 13 tons.
Robbie O’Cain, brewmaster at Starr Hill Brewery in Crozet, said more robust hops production in Virginia could reduce shipping costs significantly for the state’s largest breweries.
“We pay an enormous amount of money to ship hops from Yakima, Washington, to Crozet,” O’Cain said. “While the price of Virginia hops might always be higher, having more hops nearby would be much more financially viable.”
However, O’Cain said the quality of Virginia’s hops ultimately would be the determining factor for their success.
“People like [buying] local — until local doesn’t taste very good,” O’Cain said. “It’s important to support local agriculture. But in an ultra-competitive business, it’s not just about getting a raw ingredient; it’s about getting the best raw ingredient.”
“[Cox] understands that Greenmont Hopworks needs to create the infrastructure to support this on the East Coast,” he said. “If these ingredients are locally grown, that’s a win for everyone.”
O’Cain said Starr Hill is piloting a beer brewed with native Virginia hops from Greenmont Hopworks that will be available at its taprooms in Crozet and Roanoke next month.