Since moving back to Kingsport from Memphis a few years ago, Christian Humbert has looked for ways to get involved in agriculture.
Recognizing the booming market for craft beer in this area, Humbert decided to enter the market with a distinctive product: wet hops.
“They are freshly harvested hops,” Humbert said. “Most hops producers dry them, because (wet hops) have a very short shelf life. So unless you live near a hops farmer, you will not have the opportunity to make a wet-hopped beer.”
Humbert said hops are used in all beers as a bittering agent because beer would be much too sweet to drink without them. He said more than 90 percent of all hops used in the U.S. are currently grown in the Pacific Northwest, in a very different climate.
“In our area, there’s not a whole lot of people doing what we’re doing, and most brewers have not had access to wet hops,” Humbert said. “So we’re trying to build a market, one that hasn’t been there very long.”
Humbert got involved in growing hops after meeting Brant Bullock of King Family Farm in Piney Flats. Bullock began growing hops on his farm about four years ago, and he agreed to show Humbert the ropes.
Since last year, Humbert has stepped in to lead the production of hops on Bullock’s farm, which currently features 600 hops plants. Though he has experimented with growing many different kinds of hops, Humbert said Cascade has been one of the most successful in this climate.
“Cascade is one of the main types of hops that I’m growing, but they’re going to taste different than Cascade hops grown in the Pacific Northwest, just because of our environment, our soil,” Humbert said. “It’s just kind of brand new for most people, and a lot of breweries are interested in trying them.”
Humbert said many people are unaware of the difference between dry hops, which are used in most beers, and wet hops. Whereas dry hops can last for years, wet hops are more time-sensitive, because they must be kept fresh.
“I set up delivery times for the wet hops, and as I deliver them, (the brewers) are waiting for us,” Humbert said. “They have these big vats full of boiling water. So I show up with the hops, and as I walk in the door, they take them from me and put them straight in to brew, which is as fresh as it gets.”
Humbert said his goal is to provide wet hops to local microbreweries once or twice a year. So far, he has supplied hops to Sleepy Owl Brewery in Kingsport, JRH Brewing in Johnson City, Burial Beer Co. in Asheville and several others.
“They really got on board and used as much as they could, in every way they could,” Humbert said. “The brewers are excited to see us trying to do this here.”
Humbert said one of the most challenging aspects of growing hops in this area is the harvest. Whereas hops typically mature in the fall in the Pacific Northwest, they usually come in season in this area in late July.
The labor and upkeep involved in maintaining the hops have also been a challenge. Humbert said the vines are fast growing and very aggressive, reaching up to 22 feet tall.
“It’s an expensive startup because of the type of structure that you have to build to hold the hops,” Humbert said. “We use telephone poles and steel cables because of the winds and storms that come. So up-front, it’s a pretty high cost to get into it.”
Despite the challenges that come with growing hops, Humbert sees great potential for expansion. Because his wet hops are fresh and locally grown, he said they provide a level of individuality that many microbreweries are looking for.
“It’s something that you just can’t get, so that’s what our hook is,” Humbert said. “The market is getting saturated with small breweries, and now everyone’s trying to make unique beers with unusual flavors. So we think we have a real item here that can help them market an outstanding product.”