SAN AUGUSTINE COUNTY, TX (KTRE) - Craft brewers and microbreweries are growing in popularity here in East Texas.
The beer they make requires the essential ingredient of hops. The flavoring is usually purchased from the Northwest United States, but a Stephen F. Austin State University agriculture alum's current endeavor could change that.
John Elkins holds a master's in agriculture from SFA. Last year he had an "aha" moment while reading the Farmers' Almanac.
"And I was flipping thru the Farmer's Almanac reading," Elkins said. It started talking about hops in the article and I went, 'I wonder if I can grow that here.'"
Here is on the Polk Sharp Farm, in San Augustine County. The 200-plus acre piece of land has been in Elkin's family since 1852. Elkins is the caretaker in memory of his late grandmother.
"So I told her, 'I'll stay and I'll watch over the place," Elkins said. "And I'm going to do it like you want to do it."
Elkins' business sense told the beginner farmer the niche of growing hops could bring a higher profit margin than more common crops.
"Hops is essentially a flower," Elkins said.
It has a history all its own.
"And when they were shipping beer from England to India, they put double the amounts of hops because it made the beer keep longer," Elkins said.
The plants had never seen the red clay dirt of San Augustine County, but Elkin's late night research taught him hops grew in similar soil found in the Carolinas. Then he recalled what his advisor, the late Dr. Leon Young, SFA's own Dr. Red Dirt, taught him.
"With proper soil fertility, anything will grow here, more or less, so that's what Dr. Dirt would say," Elkins said.
Elkins knew he was onto something.
"So far this has done pretty good," Elkins said.
However, it wasn't without hard work and some trial and error. Elkins monitors daylight hours, fertilizer, temperature, and soil content. He frequently takes plants to SFA's soil lab for further scientific analysis.
"So, there's a little bit of geoengineering involved and maybe some luck," Elkins said.
Today pretty pine cone shaped buds are about two weeks away from harvest.
"When you break it open it has lupulin in it, which is the yellow," Elkins said.
The oily substance flavors beer and provides a rich aroma. The buds are dried in an oast.
"The oast was essentially a smokehouse," Elkins said. "It had a chimney to dry the hops in. More like a tobacco barn, and I used a blow dryer on this one, but I'm going to change that."
The homegrown hops are catching the attention of East Texas and Louisiana brewers who are looking to add another dimension of East Texas flavor to their home brews.
"And he threw it in his beer, and he sloshed it around in his beer," Elkins said. "He was a biochemist, so he was definitely testing my product."
Elkins is planning to expand the hops production next year, while always remembering the his two mentors provide him the encouragement he often needs.
"Sometimes I think it's Granny," Elkins said. Sometimes I think it's Dr. Young. It depends on what I'm doing."
Elkins said he had one challenge few other farmers experience.
A drug surveillance helicopter circled his operation for more than a week, paying close attention to his watering system.
Elkins visited with the sheriff to assure him marijuana wasn't being grown. Cannabis is related to hops, but is not hops.
The helicopter hasn't been back.