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The Secret to Good Beer? Good Soil

As more craft brewers begin working closely with farmers, or growing hops and barley themselves, the notion of terroir is extending to beer.

Living in Nelson County, Virginia, hop grower Stan Driver faces big challenges. His farm lies on the low end of hops’ preferred location between 35 and 55 degrees latitude, and the combination of high temperatures and lack of daylight hours “impacts our yields tremendously,” he says. The hops he does grow are brought in from higher latitudes and are typically hybridized for those regions.

While hop-growing operations are tiny in Virginia—about 30 acres total throughout the state—and hindered by regional environmental conditions, some small-scale farmers like Driver are finding success by working directly with individual brewers, and by paying close attention to soil.

Agricultural products are inseparable from the environmental and cultural conditions in which their ingredients are grown. Soil, for example, along with local history and traditions, can factor into the taste, character, and quality of what we eat and drink.

This idea, known as terroir, is thought to have originated in 16th-century France, particularly with wine and cider. But today, as more craft brewers begin working closely with farmers, or growing hops and barley themselves, the notion of terroir is extending to beer. And with that, brewers are becoming more aware of the importance of soil.

Soil Quality for Hops

For optimal growth and flowering, hops need direct sunlight and 15-hour (or longer) days, as well as at least 120 frost-free days per year. That limits hop production to locations between 35 and 55 degrees latitude. Plenty of springtime moisture and warm summer days are ideal conditions for hops, so those grown in dry climates require extra irrigation.

Hops prefer deep, well-drained, sandy loam soil with a pH of 6 to 7, according to Cornell Cooperative Extension. Each Spring, hops need fertilizer that is rich in potassium, nitrogen, and phosphate, and it’s best to till the soil to remove weeds before planting. Farms should avoid growing hops in saline, strongly alkaline, or poorly drained soil; heavy and poorly drained soil can increase risk of diseases and rotting in hops.

“They’ll grow almost anywhere but they do much better in the fertile loamy loose soils with lots of organic matter, preferably with more minerals,” Driver says. “We have to amend for micronutrients; almost universally here we have to add Boron.” He also pays close attention to soil microbial life, encouraging other local growers to avoid pesticides and herbicides, to cultivate minimally, and use cover crops in summer and winter.

Soil Quality for Grains

Toasted cereal grains—including barley, wheat, oat, and rye—are referred to as malt, another essential ingredient of beer. Toasting the grains releases sugars and enzymes that are the foundation of any particular brew. The list of grain malts used in a beer recipe is called a grain bill, and there are numerous different malts for brewers to choose from, such as caramel, pale, and roasted malts. Malts are often made from barley, but certain styles of beer—like Witbiers or Rye ales—need other grains like wheat or rye.

Malting barley requires different management techniques than grain barley and other small grains like oats or wheat. For example, protein content in malting barley should fall between 9 and 12.5 percent, and protein levels depend on available nitrogen. So nitrogen fertility must be carefully monitored to avoid over-application. One recommendation is for 30 to 60 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre for spring barley, and 60 to 90 pounds per acre for winter barley. Generally speaking, malting barley should be planted in well-drained soil that has a pH of 6.3 or higher—other small grains are more tolerant of wetter soil and lower pH.

How Soil Influences Finished Beer

With the growing popularity of craft beer, more and more brands are pushing the envelope when it comes to flavor profile. They not only know varietals inside and out, from super strong and highly acidic Pacific Northwest hops to aromatic and mellow hops from England and Europe, but they’re also comfortable taking risks. Doing so requires an attention to detail from the ground up; ideal soil conditions lay the foundation for full expression of specific hops, which, in turn, make beer better.

It’s something Blue Mountain Brewery, near Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, has learned in recent years. The brewery teamed up with Driver to form the first hop co-op in Virginia, the Old Dominion Hops Co-operative. Now a group of more than 200 farmers from Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, and Tennessee, the co-op participates in crop research sponsored by North Carolina State, among other universities. Driver hopes it will result in a new hop that yields better results even in the less-than-perfect conditions of Virginia. Until then, he grows mostly Cascade, Chinook, and Nugget varieties, and pays close attention to soil health—he knows it’s the first step toward making a statement in the keg.