What's On Tap: The Pursuit of Hoppiness

By Brittney Hibbs

Published 02/13 2014 05:28PM

Updated 02/14 2014 10:45AM

The next generation of beer drinkers have made it clear, they love hops! From beers like ‘Heady Topper’ to Rock Art's ‘Double IPA’ hoppy beers are all the craze. Brewers say hops can be a bit tricky to find, especially since it’s now wanted all over the world. That has Vermont farmers wondering if something so foreign to our region could actually become a viable crop? Brittney Hibbs takes us to a farm in Alburgh, Vermont in the ‘Pursuit of Hoppiness.’

A hop is described as a green cone shaped flower that when added to beer gives off a bitter taste. It’s a taste the new generations of beer drinkers are in hot pursuit to find.

Mark Magiera, Brewmaster at Bobcat Café and Brewery says he can’t make enough of his IPA, “We go through IPA, after IPA, after IPA.”

Someone who knows the feeling is, Russ FitzPatrick, Head Brewer at Vermont Pub and Brewery, "The newest IPA is what people are drinking."

Magiera used to use a strain of hops called, Calypso, but they’ve been bought up and he can’t find them anymore. Since most of the hops grown are coming from the Pacific Northwest, local brewers are at the mercy of hop farmers nearly 3,000 miles away.

What if we could grow hops closer to home? It’s a question UVM Agronomist, Dr. Heather Darby, is working on and admits is proving to be anything but easy, “I had no idea what we were really getting into.”

The idea started in 2009, when her colleagues out west, wondered if she would consider trying to grow hops out east so they could better understand hop varieties in other climates. The timing seemed perfect as interest in hoppy beers was began to peak.

Dr. Darby admits getting started was the hardest part, “You can pretty much find anything on the internet, but you couldn't find how to build a hop yard. There is no one you can go ask, ‘Hey how did you grow those hops?’"

So to find out Dr. Darby and owner of Borderview Farm in Alburgh, Roger Rainville, flew west to Washington. In May of 2010, they planted in Alburgh, Vermont. To help future hop farmers, Rainville, created YouTube videos explaining from the ground up, how to replicate the process.

"I think people that are getting into hops now are going to have such an easier time than someone who started when we did," said Dr. Darby.

Flash forward to 2014, now 24 different varieties of hops are growing in the one acre hop yard. With Rainville's help, a team of UVM students and staff of technicians have managed to successfully plant, grow, harvest, dry and distribute Vermont grown hops to seven local brewers.

Magiera is one of them, “The quality has been exceptional. One batch last year I brewed my IPA with Vermont grown hops and then I didn't tell anybody. Most of my consumers didn't even realize it.”

To help Dr. Darby with her research, Vermont Pub and Brewery, created a hops evaluation sheet, “We get information that we need from the farmer and on the other side we provide our subjective analysis,” said Vermont Pub and Brewery, Owner, Steve Polewacyk.

And each year, VPB Head Brewer, Russ FitzPatrick says the hops get better and better, “We used to get these brown brittle things and now we get these beautiful green hops with great aroma.”

FitzPatrick says there is a distinct difference between west coast hops and the hops grown here, “West coast is very grapefruit, where the cascade here isn't quite as grapefruit but more lemon.” While the UVM hops project isn't striving to be a complete alternative for brewers, Dr. Darby feels the future has yet to be tapped, “I do think some brewers would be able to work with local growers to produce something that is year round.” FitzPatrick even believes the northeast could make a name for itself, “I don’t think it’s too far in the future where there will be a hop variety that New England is known for that you can’t make it on the west coast. You could call it the New England hop or even Camel’s Hump who knows.”

For farmers interested in learning more about starting a hop farm or if you want to learn more about the UVM hops program, Thursday, February 27th is the 5th annual Hops Conference. For more information on the event head to this website: http://www.uvm.edu/extension/agriculture/?Page=hopsconference.html.

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