March 18, 2010

Greetings Folks! Rosalie Madden here, your household hop enthusiast and dedicated researcher.

Welcome to the first post on the What’s Hoppening Blog. This is one of the mediums (media?) through which we will be conveying the latest on our research, regional hoppy news, pest warnings, fun factoids, and other interesting tidbits. There will probably be some corny jokes too, but, well, that’s how I roll. You’ll just have to bear with.

A quick background on who we are and what we’re doing… Dr. Heather Darby got involved with hops when Dr. Steve Jones from the University of Washington, her friend and collaborator on many projects, asked her if she wanted to partner on a grant. Despite not knowing anything about hops, she agreed, and UVM Extension was awarded some funds to do an organic variety trial in Vermont from the USDA, under the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. Through this initiative we will be planting a variety trial at our research farm where we will be evaluating 20 varieties. Please stay tuned for videos of us erecting our hopyard. Our objective is to find the varieties that do well in our climate in terms of yield and resistance to diseases and pests, while presenting desirable brewing characteristics to our many local breweries. We are also doing a cover cropping study to evaluate the effects cover cropping treatments have on two hop varieties, looking at everything from nutrient management to yield impacts to beneficial insect habitat. Heather and her team, including rather obviously, yours truly, are now also working in cooperation with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to determine the viability of hops in our region outside of pure agronomics, looking at harvesting logistics, packaging techniques, and the complexities around storage. We are also working with Rose Wilson, a consultant with the MA and VT Agencies of Ag to evaluate the economies of scale of hops production.

We are currently gearing up for our first Winter Hops Conference: Hopping To It, hosted by the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, VT. We had some unexpected interest in the event, thanks to an article appearing in the Burlington Free Press on March 12.  Despite our best efforts, we had to cap attendance. We will be recording the proceedings however, and they should be up on our website soon after the event. This conference is a follow up on our Hops Advisory Meeting that we held back in October 2009 at Four Star Farms in Massachusetts. Gene and Bonnie L’Etoile graciously hosted us, and we had area growers and brewers convene to discuss the future of hops production in the northeast. Growers outlined what they have been doing, and the problems that they have been facing. It seems that harvesting is really the most limiting infrastructural facet of production. Gene L’Etoile said that it took him two man weeks to harvest 150 plants at 1-1.5 lbs/plant… That averages out to a little bit over 2 lbs of hops picked per hour. It’s pretty hard to turn a profit at that rate. With this in mind, we at Extension, along with Rose Wilson, have started to look into some old hop picker patents from the mid-century and earlier. We’ve come up with a few designs that we think are viable, with the help of the Hingstons from Cherry Hill Farm, Ben Butterfield, James Rowe, and Hugo Gervais. (Hopefully we’ll have some prototypes up and running by the time we have to harvest our 540 research bines.)

When asked, many brewers said that they were interested in local hops, particularly aroma varieties. Some area breweries have been making batches with fresh wet hops, but as the supply is seasonal, they point out that they can usually only do one or two brews per year, and well, they need to brew all year long. Al Marzi from Harpoon points out that while his brewery uses 120,000 lbs of hops a year, only 1,200 lbs of that are wet hops. Generally breweries use pelletized hops, but pelletizing is a challenging art. Pelletizers usually heat up to levels high enough to degrade lupulin (pretty much anything over 130-140°F), reducing the quality of the hop – yet another challenge that we are devoting time and resources to. Solutions forthcoming, we hope.

At our October meeting, we also talked about the advantages and the appeal of marketing local beer. Our local breweries market a specialty product, aimed at a niche market. With the boom of the localvore movement, we believe that a strictly local beer (check out our research on barley) will be heralded by wide acclaim and laudatory remarks. Ever heard of terroir? From French, it roughly translates to “sense of place.” Hops, like wine grapes, will produce a different product that varies according to microclimate and soil type. If we were to plant a rhizome here from a Hallertau bine, straight out of the Hallertau Valley in Germany, it would not produce the same ratio of alpha to beta acids as the parent plant, nor meet other defining characteristics, even though they are genetically identical. This opens the door for producing a strictly regional hop, grown only for our brewers, not to be found anywhere else in the world. Kind of an interesting and exciting prospect…

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