Mid-South farming experiment pursues a truly a local beer

With the emergence of craft brews, the quality and variety has increased for Memphis consumers. New advances at Agricenter International seek to cultivate a truly local beer, one that is made from hops and barley grown in the Mid-South region. 

To celebrate the abundance, locally-brewed craft beers will be on tap at the 8th annual Cooper-Young Beerfest on Saturday, October 14. A regional event, brewers are generally within a day’s drive of Memphis.

Lasting from 1 to 4 p.m., the event is more about quality than quantity. Cans are eschewed for bottles and kegs. 

Over the years, the fest has gained in popularity along with the overall trend in craft beer.

“Brewing has become in many ways a hyperlocal endeavor," said Jimmy Randall, Ghost River Brewing Company’s head brewer.

"We are already seeing marketplaces where if you’re not the local brewery – if you’re not within 100 miles of that particular marketplace, your beer is not going to sell as well because there are so many breweries popping up around the country, everyone is looking for that local, hometown flavor."

A beer may be brewed locally, but that doesn’t make it a local beer. To reach that distinction, all ingredients must be grown within 100 miles of the brewery. Farm to mug is a kind of gold standard among craft brews.

The malted barley for Ghost River beers is currently shipped in from a malting house in Wisconsin. (Kim Coleman)

And it’s not that there isn’t interest in the endeavor. It’s all about location.

Hops and barley are inclined to temperate regions and traditionally don’t fare well in the Mid-South’s too-balmy climate.

“Historic hop growing regions are Germany, Czechoslovakia, Britain and the border of France and Belgium. If you take a globe, run a straight line across these points and turn the globe with that same latitude, this is your prime hop-growing region," explained Randall. 

"If you flip the globe and work the same latitude on the Southern Hemisphere, that region, including South Africa, New Zealand, is a hop-growing hot spot. You end up with two regions with two growing cycles each year."

Domestically, hops are usually grown in the Pacific Northwest, Michigan and New England.

Fortunately, green thumbs at the Agricenter have set about to tackle the problem and grow the crops locally.

Bruce Kirksey, Agricenter’s director of research, says the idea behind their research is to grow hops and barley in the Mid-South. If a local brewery was so inclined, they would have all the local ingredients they needed that 100-mile radius.

In 2017, Kirksey and Agricenter president John Butler began experimenting with heat-tolerant varieties of hops and barley.

“Our main objective was to look and see what varieties out there on the market now would grow in the Mid-South,” said Kirksey.

The Agricenter planted five varieties of hops and two types of winter malting barley with five plants each. Three varieties held up well – no insects, no disease, good yield. Now, the Agricenter is looking at others varieties. After all, a palette of options is important for local brewers as different varieties bring different flavors.  

Researchers at Agricenter International are testing varieties of hops and barley for viability in the Mid-South.

The Cascade hop variety fared very well. It has a flowery and spicy, citrus-like quality with mild grapefruit characteristics. The hop is good for both flavor and aroma. It can also be used for bittering effectively, and is popular in craft ales, and is typical of American pale ales. This fall Agricenter will have 17 varieties.

“There are a lot of varieties that are available, but there just hasn’t been a lot of testing in the South. It will be very interesting to see how they survive, grow and yield,” said Kirksey.

During the pilot phase, the Agricenter will test its crops’ commercial viability.

“You never know what year two will look like so that’s why we plant and will look at different varieties. What did well and looked good may not produce the quality we need for local brewers. It’s finding the right variety for our environment that produces the right quality of product,” said Butler.

Unlike hops, Barley is not quite as challenging. Winter varieties exist that seem to do well in the Mid-South.

This year, the Agricenter is conducting a National Winter Barley Variety trial. When harvested, the barley will be malted and Its enzyme levels will then be evaluated to determine suitability.

“If we are able to do barley successfully – produce the right quality of barley that local brewers need – we would have to have a malting house as well,” said Butler.

Malting houses are a growth industry nationally. For instance, North Carolina and California have new houses to produce barley for brewing. 

“It’s a function of the right commodity, the right package with the right varieties for this environment, and finding producers. The market is important as well,” said Butler. “It’s all economics. It’s market-driven. There has to be a demand for it.”

Manufacturers need to be willing to pay extra costs. Down the line, so should customers.

“Initially, there will be a cost infrastructure associated with it because it will take producers some time to learn it – there would be some cost associated with that learning curve in the beginning. I think we can be very competitive over time,” said Butler.

Randall, meanwhile, believes Memphis’ craft brewing business is in a growth stage. He also sees untapped potential in the market.

According to Ghost River's head brewer Jimmy Randall, locally-grown ingredients could increase the marketability of local brews.

“Cities comparable to Memphis in size – for instance Portland, OR - has 80 breweries within the immediate vicinity of the city. We might have 80 breweries in the entire state of Tennessee.”

By the end of the year, Memphis will have six production breweries. Ghost River Brewing Company was on the forefront of the craft brewing trend opening 10 years ago. In 2013, Memphis saw a blossoming of craft breweries with High Cotton Brewing Company, Memphis Made Brewing Company and Wiseacre Brewing Company all opening their doors.

Meddlesome Brewing Company is up and running in Cordova as of September. Later this year, Crosstown Brewing Company is slated to open in the Crosstown Concourse. Boscos Brew Pub and one large production facility in City Brewing are in operation as well.

“All of these different markets give southern producers and folks in the Delta alternatives and opportunities growers haven’t had before. For instance, malted barley is planted about the same time as winter wheat is planted but it comes off seven to ten days earlier," said Butler.

"We can be more efficient and effective producers because we can come back with late season crops seven to ten days earlier which gives a higher yield and makes producers more profitable. It’s a good market fit for the industry."

Locally-grown ingredients could increase the marketability of local brews.

“It’s something you could advertise well as a brewery, saying all the ingredients in this beer were grown within 100 miles of the brewery,” said Randall.

Eventually, the Agricenter will provide an agronomic package to area growers who are interested in getting into the hops game. Depending on the variety of hops, an agronomic package would consist of the fertilizer type, best row spacing and acreage needed, harvesting recommendations and a financial analysis for the crop. So for hops, a small producer can get by with a half-acre devoted to the crop.

The hops grown at Agricenter International will be tested for their quality.

With greater land needs, growing barley has its own unique requirements. The grain needs about 50 acres and an investment in heavy equipment for planting and harvesting like a combine harvester and a planter to lay the seeds down precisely in rows.

Kirksey estimates complete agronomic packages are about two years from market.

“Before a new variety is brought to market there are usually several years of data before it becomes commercialized. They want to know it works,” said Kirksey.

The proposed packages have drawn positive responses from local brewers like Ghost River.

“The first thing I thought was it would be great to brew a beer with ingredients that were all sourced from the immediate vicinity of the brewery. In some states, like Colorado, that’s more feasible. They have the right growing conditions for barley,” said Randall.

As the program progresses, the Agricenter will seek feedback from brewers to determine which varieties could work for them. Local farmers can then begin filling demand. With the likely addition of brewers in the future, there will be demand for a diversity of hops.

The process most brewers currently follow is more fluid. The influx of new brewers has only made the process more difficult.

“At times, we have to go with what’s available in the market. With more and more breweries popping up, there is less and less available raw materials to go around. It ends up becoming a yo-yo cycle where hop growers see an upcoming trend and shift their production accordingly, between going with bittering varieties and aroma varieties. Then the market changes again and they adjust their production,” said Randall.

But if enough varieties show promise, that may change.

“I’m really excited about it. I think it’s a great opportunity for producers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of hops grown here in three to five years,” said Butler. “We are open to everything. The more partners we have in this conversation the better off we will be,” said Butler.

Memphis’ first local beer shouldn’t be too far behind.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.