Growing Beer: A Visit to Farm Boy Farms’ Hops & Grain Farm in North Carolina

published Jul 18, 2013
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(Image credit: Lisa Pepin)

WhoFarm Boy Farms
What: A hops and grain farm.
Where: Pittsboro, North Carolina

Pittsboro, North Carolina isn’t known for its beer. It’s a sleepy Southern town: small shops line the road to the county courthouse at the center of town, and the roads leading out of town quickly turn to farmland. But one of those farms is brewing up something big.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

A Home-Brewed Experiment

Farm Boy Farms, where beer’s two vital ingredients — hops and grain — are grown, sits on some of the most beautiful land in North Carolina. Hop cones, which add bitterness and a sweet floral scent to brews, grow on 20-foot bines. Barley and wheat are cultivated, harvested, and then malted, bringing out the sugars that ferment to make alcohol. When Farm Boy’s silos are filled, they have enough ingredients to make 80,000 beers.

Farm Boy Farms started out as an experiment for founder Dan Gridley. When Dan isn’t teaching elementary special education, he home-brews. A few years ago, Dan’s father-in-law invited him to try his hand at growing his own hops on the family’s farmland, and now the home-brewed hop-growing experiment is a full-fledged farm, supplying local microbreweries and the homebrewers they inspire with hops and grain. 

The microbrewery market here is growing quickly: by the end of 2013, there will be 86 microbreweries across the state, of which six — and counting — use Farm Boy ingredients. That growth keeps Dan and his team busy trimming the hops, harvesting and storing grain, malting, sending samples to be quality tested at local universities, and searching out new resources for the growing farm.

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“The Farm Runs You”

The year starts in October: two-row and six-row barley and wheat are sown to give the plants a head-start before the first freeze. In February, rhizomes from the hops are planted and cultivated to grow up a tall trellis. In late spring/early summer, the grains are harvested, and the seeds are cleaned and stored in silos for fall. Later in summer, hops are harvested, dried, vacuum-packed and frozen to preserve their aroma and flavor. Starting in fall, the grain is malted, bagged, and brewed. Then the cycle starts over again: “The farm runs you. You never run the farm,” is Dan’s family motto.

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Local, local, local

Whenever possible, Dan also tries to use his knowledge to educate. He’s teamed up with the Raleigh City Farm to grow ingredients for a downtown Raleigh beer within a city block, teaching city dwellers how to grow their own food (and drink) responsibly. He also talks to his students about how food is grown, and even lets them get their hands dirty helping out on the farm.

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9 Questions for Dan

1. What’s it like working on a family farm?
A family farm makes things personal. Constant communication is required to ensure effective work completion. Shared responsibility needs to occur, and a level of trust is required that the job each individual is completing is going to be up to the best standard possible. Also, a family farm is exhausting. There is always something to do. The old saying is “The farm runs you. You never run the farm.”

2. What’s your advice for first-time homebrewers?
When using whole-leaf hops, use a hop sack versus tossing the cones in the brew. This will allow for easier extraction.

When brewing an all-grain beer, allow for at least five hours from start to finish.

For your first all-grain brew, try a “brew in a bag” session, which allows you to use your own cooking pots that you already have to brew a 2.5 to 3-gallon batch, versus purchasing additional equipment when brewing all-grain versus an extract brew. Always ask questions at your local homebrew shop or where you obtained your ingredients. 

3. What is something most homebrewers don’t know about hops and grain?
Whole leaf hops create a different flavor, aroma and bittering in beer when compared to a brew that uses pelletized hops. Manipulation of the grain (amount of grain, mashing technique, sparging quality, fine grind vs. coarse grind, etc.) will create different flavor characteristics of your beer.

4. What’s the benefit of brewing all-grain rather than using malt extract?
Personal attention to crafting the perfect beer. Crafting your own beer using ingredients to meet your needs (versus an extract which is basically dump in and boil). Focus on quality local ingredients for your beers. 


What are some other ways to use hops and malt in cooking (spent grain or fresh)?
Use grain to make dog biscuits, pizza dough, chocolate chip cookies. Put hops in a pillow and use their aroma as an aid to falling asleep, or make a hot hop tea.

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6. How do you personally utilize your ingredients? What’s on tap at your house?

I am always brewing beers using our hops and malts. Here is a short list of some of the varieties, a little bit of everything. (Some beers are 100% Farm Boy Farms malts and hops while others included additional grain that was purchased at my local homebrew shop; yeast was purchased, too.)

  • American Pale Ale
  • Coffee Stout
  • Ginger Beer
  • Strawberry Pale Ale
  • Blueberry Wheat
  • IPA
  • Wheat IPA
  • Black IPA
  • Wheat Beer
  • Oatmeal Stout
  • Porter
  • Brown
  • Regular Stout
  • ESB
  • Pineapple Pale Ale
  • Saison

7. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned as a farmer? As a brewer?
Our family slogan: “The farm runs you. You never run the farm.”

My father’s side of my family has been farming since the 1700s and I have utilized the passed-down information to support our farming practices in conjunction with the input of my father-in-law, who grew up on a farm in Statesville, N.C. Watching the weather is a must. Keep up with equipment. Always plan ahead. Constantly move forward with research and collaboration with networks. 

8. What are some tips for growing hops at home?
Hops like full sun; south facing; trellis as tall as you can (ideally 20+ feet); if you can contact local hop growers or universities in your area/state/region, inquire about which varieties grow well (i.e. produce cones). Mound the growing area for the hops for adequate drainage; send two or three shoots up the bine on your trellis system to maximize cone development; plant rhizomes of the same variety two feet apart, and separate different varieties four feet apart. Trim the area around the base of the hop plant often (at least weekly) to minimize moisture at the base of the plant. Cones are ready for harvest when you squeeze the cone and it bounces back to its original size; if you squeeze the cone and it stays compressed, it is not ready yet. When you think the hops are ready, take one cone and open it to see the lupulin – if it is a vibrant yellow and extremely aromatic, the hops are ready for harvest; cut the cones off of the bines as quickly as you can and make sure the cones are in a dark location to dry to minimize browning. Once dry, vacuum seal and put in the freezer for future use.

9. What is your personal favorite hop variety, and why?
Cascade, because it grows well in North Carolina and the hop cones produce a unique aroma only found in North Carolina based on our soil type.

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Farm Boy Farms, in Pittsboro N.C. sits on 88 acres of land that used to be part of a dairy farm. (Image credit: Cambria Bold)

Thanks, Dan and Farm Boy Farms!

(Images: Lisa Pepin)