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Beer: The pursuit of hoppiness

An irrigation system helped Blue Mountain Brewery produce a bumper crop of 200 to 300 pounds of hops. (Mandi Smack)

Dave Bernard, a farmer in Nelson County, Va., is harvesting what might be the first cash crop of hops in the Old Dominion in anyone's memory. He's already reaped 400 pounds of Cascades, a strain prized for the citrusy, resiny flavors it imparts to ales. He has four other varieties (almost 4,000 plants in all) that he intends to pick within the next two weeks.

"This is my second year," he notes with pride.

Bernard has already lined up several customers, including local beer makers Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton and Devil's Backbone Brewing Co. in Roseland, as well as the recently opened Mad Fox Brewing Co. in Falls Church.

He hopes to set up a web site this fall to sell his hops, freeze-dried and vacuum-packed, to professional and amateur brewers alike.

Bernard isn't an anomaly.

The harvest at Blue Mountain Brewery will be used to make a wet-hopped ale. (Mandi Smack)

There are would-be hop growers in almost every state, says Ralph Olson, co-owner of Hopunion, based in Yakima, Wash., the nation's leading supplier of hops to craft breweries. At the height of the hop shortage a few years ago, which saw prices for key aroma hops soar, "I was getting two to three calls a day," he recalls.

Olson doesn't encourage tire kickers. Hops are a labor-intensive crop and highly vulnerable to insect and fungal pests, he cautions. Automated equipment for picking, preserving and bailing hops doesn't exist outside the Pacific Northwest, he adds. (More than 99 percent of America's hop crop comes from just three states: Washington, Oregon and Idaho.)

Moreover, he notes, prices are down. Cascade hops, which traded for $20-$30 a pound a couple summers ago, now sell for a modest $5.50 a pound. Instead of a shortage, there is a glut. "We took out 2,000 acres last year," Olson reports.

Bernard cites in his favor the burgeoning number of small breweries in Virginia (34 at last count, with seven of those within a 40-mile radius of his farm). Many craft brewers, he adds, are willing to pay a little more for ingredients that are locally harvested and organically grown. (Bernard hasn't sought organic certification, but says he uses no artificial fertilizers or pesticides.)

"It's all about keeping it local and green," states Bill Madden, owner of the Mad Fox brewpub, who has agreed to buy 300 pounds of Bernard's Cascades. Madden says he'll drive to Bernard's farm to pick up his allotment personally. After he returns, he'll add the raw hop cones directly to his brew kettle in a process called "wet-hopping." Wet-hopped beers have a delicate, herbal, green-leaf aroma and flavor that can't be obtained from dried and pelletized hops. Madden promises that his experiment in wet-hopping, probably an India pale ale, should be on tap by late August or early September.

Bernard originally had a partner, horticultural expert Stan Driver, but Driver chose to drop out of the venture and now works as a consultant for Blue Mountain Brewery, which has 500-600 hop bines of its own. Driver set up an irrigation system, which has helped the plants produce a bumper crop of 200-300 pounds in spite of the hot, dry weather, says brewery co-owner Matt Nucci. Part of that yield will be used in a wet-hopped ale that Blue Mountain will release later this month.

Hand-picking hops is no fun. The bristly bines grow 10 feet tall or higher, and can be an irritant. Botanists used to classify hops as a member of the nettle family.

Nucci solved the labor problem by offering a free lunch to whoever showed up for the harvest on Monday, Aug. 2. About 100 volunteers pitched in, with the brewery arranging for two live bands to serenade them.

Bernard says he modified a cherry picker to rip the bines off the trellises, and set up a system of pulleys to drop them into a tower, where three hired hands stood ready to pluck off the cones. "One of my guys found out that an Afro pick is the prefect tool for removing hops," he chuckles.

-- Greg Kitsock

By The Food Section  |  August 9, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags: Greg Kitsock, beer  
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I would like to provide a correction to Mr. Olson's comment. Commercial processing of hops into pelletized form is now available for the Upper Midwest through Gorst Valley Hops. Similar processing facilities are also being established in New York and North Carolina, which should both be on-line for harvest next year.

There are also numerous sources alpha and beta testing automated harvesting and drying equipment on this year's harvest for small scale growers. Look for equipment to be sold next year.

Posted by: gvh_dan | August 13, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse

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