POWNAL -- What started as an interest to see how hops grow in this region is turning into a 500-plant organic hop farm that will make the bittering ingredient in beers available to Vermont breweries and home brewers alike.
With Vermont having the highest rate of breweries per capita in the country -- many of which are chomping at the bit to find local, fresh hops to use in their beers -- Peter Hopkins, John Armstrong III and John Neville are entering into a market with a high demand and little representation in this area. The three men plan to begin Hoppy Valley Organics with four varieties of hops on an acre of land off Route 7 in Pownal.
"The demand is there so far as we've been able to tell," said Hopkins, who along with the others has had conversations with brewers who are eager to buy the ingredient that adds a bitter, tangy and sometimes citrus flavor to beer.
While the men -- Hopkins a writer, Armstrong the manager of Hillside House furniture, and Neville a retired donut maker -- are entering a new field by growing hops, they share an interest in agriculture and a love of beer that led to the new venture.
Hopkins' fascination with hops, which are picked from vines that often grow 20 to 30 feet high, began about eight years ago when he saw them growing at the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"I went there again a couple years ago and saw them again and said, "I gotta find out if I can grow these things. So I ordered hop roots from the northwest and put them in the back yard in pots, and they grew about 20 feet high," he said. From there, Hopkins got the idea of growing hops as a business.
"Peter called me over one day and said I want to show you this. I went into his back yard and he had one of these hop vines growing up to the second story of his house, and he said I really want to grow hops. I said, ‘I'm in.' That was it," Armstrong said.
In addition to supplying micro-breweries, the men said it is important to them that hops be available for sales in smaller increments to home brewers and others through a website Hoppy Valley is in the process of creating.
"In general, (our model is) small, local and organic -- believing that those three things combined into a small diversified agricultural operation is already a cornerstone of Vermont agriculture in the 21st century," Hopkins said.
A century ago the Northeast -- including Vermont and nearby New York -- was one of the largest hop producing regions in the country, but today most hops in the country come from the Midwest and west coast. Just a few small hop farms exist in Vermont. There is also a hop farm in Hoosick Falls owned by Browns Brewing out of Troy, N.Y.
Kurt Staudter, executive director of the Vermont Brewers Association, said there is always a demand for hops from the 30 breweries in the state. "We're making a ton of beer in the state of Vermont and the demand for different types of hops will be incredible," he said.
At Hoppy Valley, vines will grow up ropes secured to the ground on one end and a 16-foot wood beam in the middle to form the shape of teepees. With the ropes at 45 degree angles, each hop plant will have 20 feet to grow. Many larger hopfields have rows of vertical lines, but Hopkins said the teepee shape was most common many years ago. "This is the traditional way that it was done in New England back in the mid- to late- 19th century. That has a certain appeal to us with small, local and organics. As opposed to what's being done (at some places) with hundreds and thousands of acres, it's industrial agriculture. This has nothing to do with industrial agriculture," he said.
As hop vines grow they sprout cone-shaped flowers, which are the actual hops that are harvested and used primarily in beer, but also can be used in tea or herbal aroma therapy.
"They have little cones off of them sort of like little pine cones that are green and they contain all those alpha and beta acids, things that give beer its aroma and bittering qualities," Hopkins said.
In the first year after planting the hop roots the yield is expected to be about 20 percent, but by the second year there should be an 80 percent yield and the number of hops produced will continue to increase afterwards.
Armstrong said there was thought of going even larger than one acre but ultimately the decision was made to start off with 500 plants and if demand is greater than what they can grow the farm may expand. With 500 vines, Armstrong said Hoppy Valley is already larger than other Vermont hop gardens he is aware of.
Hoppy Valley will grow four common hop varieties -- cascade, nugget, centennial, and chinook -- which were chosen because of their coinciding harvest times, disease resistance, and bittering properties.
One lone teepee is in place now, but in the spring 36 more will be erected and the roots will be planted in April and May. Hopkins said when the time comes there will be a "planting party" for brewers and others who are interested to come down to the farm and help. In August, when it is time to harvest the flowers, another gathering will be held for anyone interested in helping.
Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi