By Charlie Crespo
Photography by Scott McIntyre
Invasive Species Brewing wants to grow your beer.
No, you didn’t misread that. Fort Lauderdale’s new brewery—officially opened in July by a team that includes head brewers Phil Gillis and Josh Levitt, as well as Laser Wolf co-founders Chris and Jordan Bellus—wants to grow its own ingredients, starting with hops, in South Florida.
Make no mistake: This is a radical idea. Hops are not supposed to grow in tropical climates. Instead, they thrive in temperate climates, with key production areas in Washington and Oregon, as well as Bavaria, Germany, far from South Florida’s humid shores.
And while Invasive Species Brewing’s infant hops program has the potential to shake up the Florida beer industry—and beyond—growing hops wasn’t even on the team’s radar in 2015 when Gillis and Levitt began to dream up their new venture. In fact, they had no idea growing hops in South Florida’s climate was even feasible until Levitt came across an announcement on social media for the Florida Hops Consortium’s Industry Update and Field Day, held at the Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in September 2016.
The conference, made possible by the University of Florida’s hops research program, brought together farmers, scientists and brewers to share that it was both possible and potentially profitable to grow hops in Florida. As farms across the state struggle to compete with imported produce, hops have the potential to be the next cash crop if a sustainable method of farming can be devised.
Armed with this knowledge, the Invasive Species Brewing team enlisted the help of Liz Dutra, a marine biologist by trade, to see if hops could be grown in Fort Lauderdale—what is thought to be the farthest south anyone had attempted to grow the plant in the U.S.
After realizing the hops needed more space than a backyard could provide, Dutra reached out to the Urban Farming Institute, a community garden in Oakland Park, to discuss launching the experiment on its grounds. The institute’s founder, Jon Albee, was immediately receptive and donated water, fertilizer and the growing medium.
In the first year of the trial, Dutra and Albee grew 22 plants and made a number of valuable discoveries. In traditional regions for hops farming, such as the aforementioned Pacific Northwest or Germany, the plants can grow 25 to 30 feet high; produce a single, large harvest; and go dormant for the remainder of the year. Due to particularities in South Florida’s light and climate, the hops plants grown at the Urban Farming Institute were producing smaller harvests and hop cones, but were doing so every two to four months. In addition, the young plants have the potential to produce flavor profiles unlike those found anywhere else.
“The plants take several years to age,” says Dutra, now the director of education and curriculum development at the Urban Farming Institute. “We’re in year one. By year two or three, the plants start to mature, and that’s where you pick up that Florida terroir.”
Dutra and the Invasive Species Brewing team plan to grow 100 plants within the next year and believe that in the future they can develop licensed hops strains unique to South Florida, just as widely used strains like Centennial and Cascade were developed by universities in the Pacific Northwest. If this proves successful on a small scale, Dutra and Levitt hope to share their knowledge while also collaborating with other hops farmers working in central and northern Florida.
Once these hops make it back to the brewery, Gillis and Levitt believe these theoretical new hops flavor profiles will be a perfect fit for their brewing ethos, which involves the creation of small-batch, distinct beers.
“We are using fresh, local ingredients whenever possible,” Gillis says. These ingredients include Fort Lauderdale water treated for styles of beer and wild yeast developed in-house. Dutra and Invasive Species Brewing are also growing a number of tropical fruits, lemon grass and cranberry hibiscus, which they will soon incorporate into their recipes.
This founding principle of incorporating local flavors has led to beers like BleuBird, a wild saison with brettanomyces (a type of yeast) that has been aged on Florida blueberries in French oak barrels, and StarDust, a wild saison aged on more than 400 pounds of star fruit in oak.
Invasive Species Brewing plans to stay small instead of focusing on distribution. Levitt and Gillis are aware they won’t be able to compete with the Cigar Citys and Funky Buddhas of the world, but they point out that this model provides them greater flexibility. They can regularly create new beers, use expensive ingredients and sell cans and bottles directly from the brewery.
“You’re not going to come in and see the same five core beers every time,” Levitt says. “I think the customers appreciate that. We just like making good, progressive beer.”
Luckily, they like growing it, too.