By Brian Bokor
The past 15 months have been quite the ride for Jillian and K.J. Lynch, owners of Leaven Brewing, located at 11238 Boyette Rd. in Riverview. Not only did they have to scramble throughout 2020 to save their growing business, they also welcomed their first child, Winter Rae, in May. One of the ways the Lynchs were able to adapt also opens an interesting conversation for Florida brewers about locally grown hops.
“It’s so nice to get back to beer and being able to focus on the ingredients behind beer,” said Jillian. “It’s what makes craft ‘craft.’ We just received 10 pounds of locally grown dried Cascade hops to be used in an upcoming release.”
The two have experienced far more than expected since opening their neighborhood brewery over three years ago. The first two years saw steady growth driven by exceptional word-of-mouth reviews from around the community, then came March 2020 when the couple was forced to close the tap room and offer to-go only service due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Although distribution plans were in Leaven’s future, the immediacy of the situation threw uncertainty and untimely cost into how best to accomplish this and other goals for the brewery. Starting with crowlers, then bottle releases and eventually settling on six-packs, the staff worked continuously towards finding the best way to keep their business moving forward and at the same time keep customers coming back.
Legislative changes required a food service license, so again the couple was forced into making a costly decision by having to acquire their own food license to remain open. Fortunately, adding a kitchen was also in the couple’s long-range plans with a new kitchen concept for the brewery now being discussed.
“We had to reach into savings and spend when money wasn’t coming in,” said K.J. “Continuing to invest at a time when many businesses were closing their doors was not comfortable.”
Thanks to ongoing support from the local community (affectionately named ‘The Leaven Fam’), the brewery prevailed over all setbacks and came through stronger than before.
“We were able to keep every employee on staff throughout the pandemic and did not lose any of our 144 Mug Club members,” said Jillian.
As for those locally grown hops, in the mid-2010s, the University of Florida began experimenting with hops at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC) in Wimauma based on skyrocketing demand of the product thanks to the explosion of small craft breweries.
Florida brewers traditionally purchase hops from outside the state with the majority coming from Washington, Oregon and Idaho where the climate is ideal mainly due to the length of light received during the growing season. Shipping fresh hops, hop pellets and hop oil to Florida is expensive and can take days, with the harvest season limited to late summer and early fall. With Tampa Bay area’s nearly 80 breweries and approximately 300 statewide, the need for local sustainable hops in Florida was undeniable.
To solve the problem of not enough sun, research added LED lights over the crops in order to extend daylight until 11 p.m. during the growing seasons. Additionally, due to relatively warm winters, Florida farmers enjoy two harvests per season compared to only one from states in the northwest. The plants, which grow upward similar to vines, have been studied using two different types of trellis, straight versus ‘V’-shaped, as well as three different heights in order to ascertain which method yields maximum results.
Florida farmers are interested in the research, but the ability to grow the plant is not the only challenge. Overall, crop quality is what will be needed to garner acceptance of locally grown hops and ultimately test the crop’s commercial viability for both farmers and brewers. This is where Leaven as well as several other local breweries get involved with the program.
Brewers are invited to the farm and asked to rate the hops based on aroma strength and quality as well as oil and resin production. To date, the Cascade variety has shown the best results of the 14 planted, which is fortunate as this is a popular choice of many brewers with Leaven looking forward to using their 10-pound allotment in an upcoming release.
UF has taken the lead on this and other nontraditional crops being grown at GCREC in order to enable local farmers to sustain and profit from high-value products such as hops, artichokes, pomegranates and blackberries.
Visit UF’s Facebook page @UFHortLab or YouTube channel (UF Horticultural Crop Physiology Lab), where videos of the projects headed by Professor Zhanao Deng and Assistant Professor Shinsuke Agehara can be viewed. Visit www.leavenbrewing.com for more information on Leaven Brewing.