Dan Gridley calls his 90 acre operation near Pittsboro, N.C. a “beer farm” because he grows the ingredients that are used to make the tasty brew.
“We are a diversified farm. We just grow beer,” Gridley said at the South Atlantic Hops Conference in Richmond March 5. “We grow barley; we grow wheat; we grow rye; we grow sorghum, and six different varieties of hops. Our goal is to be a farm brewery and we are getting closer to that.”
Gridley and his wife started Farm Boy Farms in 2011 to provide local ingredients to the growing craft beer and home brew industry in North Carolina. Gridley is a native New Yorker, spent time in Boston and Honolulu and has lived in Raleigh for 10 years. He inherited his 90-acre farm by marrying his wife. His goal was to use the 90 acres to produce high quality locally sourced ingredients for North Carolina’s microbreweries.
In 2009, Gridley reached out to North Carolina State University to learn what grain and hop varieties can be grown in North Carolina for beer production. “We grew as the market grew. When we started in 2009, there were 32 microbreweries. Now there are more than 160 and that number continues to grow.”
Gridley calls hops “the sexy of beer” because they are critical for the bitter taste that beer lovers crave. He said growing and marketing hops is an important part of his operation. For farmers who want to get into the hops business, Gridley says it is critical that they know the data of the hops they are producing and they must share that data with the brewery customers.
“When we started with hops, we made cold calls, telling breweries ‘here’s our hops.’ That was great, but you need to make sure you have your data” he said.
Before they buy hops, breweries by law must know the aromatic characteristics, the alpha acids, beta acids, moisture and oil content of each batch of hops. Hop growers need to send samples to either Virginia Tech or Appalachian State to be tested for the various characteristics brewers seek. Gridley explains that he sends a small sandwich bag of cones to Appalachian State to be tested and within 24 hours he will have the data breweries need.
Success cannot be achieved in just one year
“When we harvest, the breweries know exactly what they are getting,” Gridley said.
Providing the data brewers need is just one part of working with brewers which is crucial. To be successful, Gridley says it is critical for hops growers to dialogue with their brewery customers. “We let them know when our harvest is so they will be able go set their brewing schedule,” Gridley says.
In addition to selling hops, Gridley says rhizomes for other hops farmers or for backyard home brewers who want to grow their own hops. In April, North Carolina Beer Month, Gridley will sell potted rhizomes. “At this point, the rhizomes have sprouted and are usually a foot to two feet tall and people can buy the plant,” Gridley says.
As the microbrewery business grows in North Carolina, Gridley plans to expand his hops acreage to three acres. “I grow the hops by myself. I can manage three acres by myself,” he says.
Still, hops aren’t the money maker for Farm Boy Farms. “Our focus is on grain. That’s the money maker for us,” Gridley points out.
Gridley stresses that producing hops is a slow growth business. Success cannot be achieved in just one year. “You have to focus on quality, focus on data. You have to have a slow growth mindset. Hops take two, three, four or five years to become mature. Hops are something that you can put in the ground and have success four months from now or even 24 months from now,” he says.