Hops Industry is Brewing in North Carolina
The wine industry might be well entrenched in North Carolina, but there is another beverage industry that’s burgeoning: microbreweries.
Though they have only been legal — yes, legal — since 1985, there are a number of microbreweries producing a variety of beers in every region of the state.
The brewery staffs are small compared to international breweries such as Coors or Budweiser — Highland Brewing Company in Asheville, the state’s largest microbrewery, employs 18 people full time — but they provide well-paying and stable jobs to state residents, pump dollars into the local economy and could soon spur the development of new crops.
Uli Bennewitz, owner of Weeping Radish Farm Brewery, spearheaded the charge to legalize microbreweries after he purchased a microbrewery in Eastern North Carolina from his brother in 1985, only to find out he wasn’t allowed to operate one.
Bennewitz, who immigrated from Germany in 1980, said he was originally interested in farm management, and started the brewery as a backup plan in case his farming business was unsuccessful.
Around 2000, he became interested in the Farm to Fork concept, which essentially shrinks the distance between where food is produced and where it is consumed. He learned that food, and that includes beer, can be healthy if made from natural ingredients and consumed in moderation. Now Weeping Radish buys food almost exclusively from local farms and makes its beer from all-natural ingredients.
The benefits are plentiful: better, healthier food leads to lower health care costs, and the support of local farms helps the economy.
“We want to reduce the food chain from 2,000 to 200 miles…We’re trying to keep the operations very local,” Bennewitz said.
Bennewitz said that though breweries can’t buy any beer-making ingredients in-state because they aren’t grown here, hops could be a viable crop in the Western part of the state. If they were grown in-state, Bennewitz said he would no longer purchase them anywhere else.
“There is a movement afoot to get hops growing in the mountains,” he said. “If we can find some hops in the mountains, we’ll be up there like a shot.”
Small breweries are also economically vital to the state. They create well-paying jobs and they keep money in their communities, he said. More than 80 percent of the beer industry is owned by foreign interests, and he has no plans to grow Weeping Radish to compete with a beer giant such as Budweiser.
“The idea is about margins and quality,”he said.
Keeping the business local is an idea shared by Oscar Wong, CEO, founder and owner of Highland Brewing Co. Wong, who started Highland Brewing in 1994, has grown it into one of the largest microbreweries in the Southeast. He’s grown it so large, in fact, that he predicts by the end of the year, the company’s production will surpass the threshold for a microbrewery and move it into the ranks of regional breweries.
Like Bennewitz, Wong said that the agricultural impact of his brewery has been minimal, but the company gives spent grain, hops and yeast to local dairy farms, and is working with local agricultural extension agencies to begin hop production in the state. Wong said that he could see beer becoming a cottage industry similar to wine.
“I think (hop production) will come,” Wong said. “Wine has had years and years of a head start on us, and the demand for beer ingredients has only occurred in the past 10 to 15 years.”
Wong said he would gladly buy hops produced in the state, and is confident that they would do well on the cool slopes of Western North Carolina mountains. Local hop production would benefit the business models of state breweries as well.
“No question that there is a future starting with hops,” he said. “We would very much like to buy local ingredients since it would be a more practical, sustainable business. … It galls me to have to ship ingredients from thousands of miles away out of necessity.”
Big Boss Brewing Co. is a newcomer to the microbrewery scene. The craft brewery opened in Raleigh in 2006. The company’s distribution covers about 65 percent of the state and has grown about 250 percent in the last year, according to Big Boss Brewing Company CEO Geoff Lamb.
Lamb said that Big Boss tries to use state goods whenever possible and hopes that there will eventually be local production of hops or grains. The company is even researching a pilot aquaponics system to grow organic hops.
“I think there is more potential for North Carolina hop production compared to malt production due to the high capital costs of the malting operation,” he said.
In the meantime, the state’s microbrewery industry should continue to flourish. Wong said that there is no decline in the demand for tasty brews, and the recent trend of buying locally can only help microbrews.
“The importance of the brewery is fueled by the strong demand from existing customers,” he said. “It reflects a growing trend.”