When Marilla Coryell, owner and CEO of Dragon Hops Brewing, first decided to start a hop yard in Purcellville four years ago, the community of hop growers was tiny and the support offered to them was nearly nonexistent. “It wasn’t there,” she says. “It didn’t function.”
So, she had to forge her own path as a grower and eventually a processor. “The second year, I was having a fantastically huge crop and there was nowhere to dry it and process it and store it, so we went ahead and made a huge investment on becoming self-sustained,” she says. “We bought the harvester, we built the oasts, we bought the pelleter and the freezers.”
It’s a common misconception that hops aren’t suited to the Virginia climate. “Hops have been grown in Virginia since the 1700s,” Coryell says. “We are just about as far south as you can get and still have healthy, well-producing hop plants. Because the further south you get, the more they suffer. They suffer in extreme heat, but they also require deep cold in the winter.”
Today, she sees a burgeoning industry underpinned by the Loudoun Hops Association, which she started with a few other small growers. “We now can offer other growers support, data, information,” she says. “It’s a very expensive enterprise. With that kind of investment, you really need to have some help.”
Her mobile hop processing facility is also a resource to other growers who can hire out the equipment to use on their own farms. “We’ve already got other states calling us for information and help, so I think we’re really going to put Purcellville on the map for hops.”
The six varieties of organic hops that she grows in her hop yard are utilized at the brewery she and her team have been working on opening for the past 16 months. Coryell explains that each species has a distinct purpose: Cascade is universally used; Nugget and Galena are bittering hops with a high alpha acid content; Willamette is an aromatic variety; Crystal thrives in this climate; Tea Maker is a specialty hop used in tea because of its very low alpha acid content.
Coryell’s background in hops stems from her father and grandfather, both military veterans who learned about the hop industry from German farmers. Her grandfather was living in Europe after WWII and came to understand the value of the crop. Later, her father introduced her to the world of hops. The brewery’s name comes from a nickname her father was given by locals when he was serving in Vietnam.
Her affinity for brewing, however, came from her great grandmother. “It has been considered women’s work for thousands of years,” Coryell explained. “Women were responsible for making beer for everyone’s daily intake, so to me growing up, I thought everybody knew how to brew.”
The beers she and Head Brewer Mitch Pilchuk are producing at Dragon Hops are based on traditional recipes. “You’ll never have a chocolate mochalatta beer here,” she says with a laugh. “We’ll be doing a lot of lagers and Pilsners.”
On tap right now, they have a Belgian Single, an IPA, a farmhouse saison and a dark Irish stout. More styles will be added in the coming weeks and organic and gluten-free beers are on the horizon as well. They also plan to introduce seasonal beers brewed with the organic fruits, berries and herbs that grow along with the hops on their farm, which is about 10 minutes from the brewery.
Over the past several years, Coryell has seen major changes in the local hops landscape. While it’s common practice in the U.S. for brewers to buy hops online and have them shipped in, she says, “I do believe brewers have lately realized, ‘wow, I can have farm-fresh hops as opposed to dried pelletized stuff from another country or another state.’”
Coryell says the key to expanding hops agriculture in Virginia is to facilitate relationships between brewers and hop growers. “If we could connect that, I think hops is only going to increase.” She’s already seen evidence of growth as individuals come to her farm looking for resources to start their own hop yards.
Beer drinkers can get a taste of the hops starting this Friday during the brewery’s soft opening. The grand opening celebration will take place on Saturday, with a ribbon cutting, live music, giveaways, food trucks, catered sandwiches and outdoor games. They plan to open their own kitchen in a few months.
Coryell and her team, which includes her partner, Ryan Wilton, her son, Jamie Horris, Operations Manager Lauri Sisney and Jack Dalby in marketing, want to help Purcellville’s brewing industry continue to grow. “I think the future for beer here is bright, and it can only get better, and I believe it’s sustainable,” Coryell says. “Beer has been a constant in the world for thousands of years, so beer is not going to go away.” // Dragon Hops Brewing: 130 E. Main St., Purcellville