October 2013

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Any day now, Glenn Golden and Eric Johnson will drive up to a farm outside Gainesville to harvest their first batch of hops. The crop isn’t big, maybe an acre or so. But it’s significant, if only in symbolic terms. Hops, essential to making most beers taste good, can theoretically grow in many climates, but they thrive only in cool, damp ones. Think New Zealand. The Pacific Northwest. Germany’s Bavaria.

But under the relentless sun of a Georgia summer? That’s a tall order, and no one knows that better than Johnson, who, besides being the consulting brewer for Wild Heaven Craft Beers, is a horticulturist. “There’s no guarantee it’ll be successful,” he told me when we spoke in late summer. Golden, the founder of JailHouse Brewing Company in Hampton, is a bit more sanguine, excited about the implications. Which amount to this: Georgia is at the dawn of a beer revolution. I’d call it a renaissance, but that would imply that we’re rediscovering something we’d once done long ago. The fact is, there is no precedent in state history for what’s happening now. Breweries are opening statewide, and the artisanal movement has found its way to beer-making. It’s an exciting time, as a glance at our exhaustive cover story on beer this month will attest. But there’s still a long way to go before our beers are truly indigenous. The raw ingredients that go into Georgia beers—barley, wheat, hops—still come largely from out of state. Heck, the only ingredient that comes from around here is the water.

Golden and Johnson’s crop is an experiment. Their hope is to harvest the hardiest plants from the 500 rhizomes they planted last spring, then cross-pollinate them with different varieties of hops. The ultimate goal? To create a hop cultivar that can withstand a scorching Georgia summer. The two men are clear-eyed about the prospects: They don’t envision the North Georgia mountains covered with hops anytime soon. But their crop was looking good as fall approached. “We had an unseasonably cool summer, so they look fantastic,” Johnson said. “But if we had 98 degrees and 80 percent humidity, we’d have some real problems.” Hence the need for cross-pollinating.

Beginning to produce the raw ingredients that make up beer will mean local beer will get closer to being just that: local. And hops are a good place to start. Depending on the kind of beer you’re brewing, the price of hops can represent as much as half (or more) of the total cost that goes into producing each barrel. Georgia has shown that we can brew our own; now we just need to take more steps to grow our own.

Golden hopes he and Johnson can harvest enough hops that they can soon collaborate on a one-off beer made with Georgia-grown hops. That’s a beer I’d especially savor.

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