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Growers urged to give hops a shot at event

By RICHARD SKELLY
AFP Correspondent

EAST BRUNSWICK (May 1, 2017) — Hops production and grains grown for malting are very much a small niche in New Jersey agriculture.
But like other niche crops, its aspects of being locally grown and close to huge consumer markets offer potential for the crops.
Bill Bamka, Burlington County Extension agriculture agent and Steve Komar, Sussex County Extension agriculture agent, both of whom are part of Rutgers’ RU Brew Program, recently talked about the attempts thus far to create a cooperative of independent hops growers around the state and the possibilities of barley for beer making as well. 
“What we’re focusing on mainly this year is malting barleys as another component in the brewing industry for beer,” Komar said during a winter meeting panel discussion. “So most of the topics Bill and I are speaking about are barley and quality concerns associated with it, and how we can use agronomic practices to maximize the quality of the malting grains for the brewing industry.”
What is the difference between hops and barley?
“Hops is a perennial crop, and so there’s a lot more infrastructure investment to start a hop yard than there is with barley,” Bamka said. When harvesting hops by hand, Bamka argued this year as he did last year, “you lose your friends very quickly,” yet, to purchase a typical hops harvester, costs can run as much as $35,000, far too prohibitive for smaller hops farmers. 
Both presenters stressed the hops growing industry is very much in its infancy here in New Jersey, as opposed to states like Oregon, where huge expanses of land are available specifically to grow hops.
Yet barley is a traditional grain that many farmers are already growing, Komar noted, “so traditional grain producers growing barley and rye can take advantage of this.”  Both men stressed the market for micro-brewed beers is growing and New Jersey, nestled as it is between major population centers like New York City and Philadelphia, has enormous untapped market potential.
“This is something that would be unique for grain growers, and the problem with the growing barley is you have to have somebody to do the middle step, you need somebody to malt the grain,” Bamka said. “It has to be malted before the brewery can use it, so we’re seeing artisan or craft malters starting to pop up.”
Barley is malted by soaking the grain in vats of water “just enough so you get it to germinate; you get it to a point where it starts to germinate and then you suspend the process,” Bamka said.
Steeping the barley, or malting it, is a needed process to unleash the sugars for yeast to use in the fermentation process, he said.
Both Ag extension agents said they are cautiously optimistic about an eventual Garden State hop growers’ cooperative.
“There are a lot of logjams in the way,” Bamka said, “we’re just trying to get the dialogue going. These are all small scale hops growers in the state of New Jersey, about 20 hops growers in all.”
“We’re focusing on all the different crops for our grain producers and how they can grow barleys for malting and we’re focusing on the agronomy of it, and how, as the industry develops, we’re trying to maximize the productivity from the agronomy side,” Komar said.
There is a FaceBook page for the RU Brew Program, which interested hops farmers or microbrew devotees can join, “and there are a lot of informative videos posted on our website,” Komar added.
“What makes it attractive to farmers is the potential market,” Bamka stressed, for hops or barley growers.
“There’s 29 million people within 100 miles of Princeton, so what we need to do is take advantage of that market,” Bamka said.
The website with informative videos is located at www.sare.rutgers.edu or interested growers can look at the FaceBook page RU Brew Program.