Hops, The Other Green Bud

Want fresh and local? As craft beer booms, hop farms are sprouting in the Garden State.

Hop rows at Oast House Hop Farm in Wrightstown. The hop plants use stiff hairs to climb their trellises.
Hop rows at Oast House Hop Farm in Wrightstown. The hop plants use stiff hairs to climb their trellises.
Photo courtesy of Oast House.

When thousands of bright green cones snaked up Beau Byrtus’s trellises late last summer, New Jersey’s hop-heads were ready.

Kane Brewing Company claimed most of his Cascade hops. Brewers from Triumph Brewing Company drove off with some Chinook hops that would be used for a double IPA. The Bent Spoon, Princeton’s beloved ice-cream parlor, whipped up a lemon hop sorbet, and the homebrewers in Byrtus’s community-supported agriculture group began plotting recipes for their annual shares.

Byrtus’s hopyard—Oast House Hop Farm in Wrightstown—is just five years old and an acre in size, but it is believed to be the oldest and largest commercial grower of hops in the Garden State. A number of other farms have followed, spurred by the expected demand from the state’s growing lineup of craft breweries and home-brew clubs.

“The grain-to-glass movement is similar to farm-to-table,” says Byrtus. “There’s a ‘buy local’ vibe in the brewing industry right now, just like there is with restaurants and food.”
Hops are one of the main ingredients in beer, along with grain, yeast and water. Much like herbs in marinara sauce, hops help brewers develop the flavors they want in their beer. While a chef would toss oregano and basil into a sauce, a brewer might use Centennial and Cascade hops to flavor an American-style pale ale.

Michael Kane, the founder and president of Kane Brewing—and a home brew veteran—is always keen to play with new ingredients. That’s what brought him to Oast House. Yes, he could have fresh hops shipped to his Ocean Township brewery, or rely on the dried hop pellets used in most of his recipes. But he says that like wine grapes, the flavors derived from hops change depending on where they’re grown.

Take the fresh Cascade hops that Kane buys from Byrtus and uses to make Deep Rooted, a limited-release imperial pale ale. Cascades usually have a citrusy aroma, but Kane detects hints of strawberry and watermelon in the Jersey version.

“As brewers, we generally all have access to the same yeast and malt and hops on a large scale,” says Kane. “So if you can find some local ingredients that aren’t available to other people, you might be able to come up with some interesting new flavors.”

While hop plants once were common in the Northeast, a disease called downy mildew—coupled with Prohibition and other factors—pushed the crop west in the 1920s. It’s stayed there ever since. Oregon, Washington and Idaho became the center of commercial hop production, and continue to supply most of the hop pellets for today’s brewers.

But in 2008, a worldwide hop shortage struck. That’s when Byrtus, who runs a summer day camp, and two friends he cooked with in barbecue competitions began tossing around the idea of their own hop farm in New Jersey.

Although hops are an imported species in New Jersey, Byrtus, 40, says it’s not hard to grow the crop here. In fact, backyard hop growers abound in the Garden State, and have for years. With well-drained soil and sturdy trellises, hops can grow almost anywhere. Still, patience is required; the bines don’t reach peak production until their third year in the ground. (Unlike vines that use tendrils, hop bines use stiff hairs to climb.)

Byrtus has had success with four varieties of hops: Columbus, Cascade, Nugget and Chinook. Prices vary; typically, fresh, wet hops sell for $10 to $15 per pound, says Byrtus.
Because expensive equipment is required, he has yet to begin harvesting and processing on a large scale. “The solution is going to be developing a hop farmers’ cooperative,” he says. “Right now we cut the bines down, throw them in a truck, drive up to the house, and then have 20 of our friends and family picking them off all day long.”

But with more New Jersey hop farms popping up, Byrtus may soon be able to share equipment and resources with others. Daryl Martin and her husband, Jeff, started farming hops in 2014 in Randolph. They have about 300 plants at Bitter End Hops Farm now and plan to add 600 more this spring. (They froze most of last year’s harvest, but some went to Nicole’s Ten, a restaurant in Randolph that used them in cocktails and a “brewschetta”-topped snapper dish.)

Then there’s Rope Swing Hops, a farm in Green Township that launched last year. Colin Ryan, one of Rope Swing’s four founders, says he’s planning to farm two full acres of hops this summer at the Sussex County spread. Like Byrtus, Ryan, 41, has yet to give up his day job.

Rutgers also has a growing interest in hops, although Rob Pyne’s plot is more test site than commercial enterprise. A PhD. student in plant genetics, Pyne is part of a team with fellow PhD. student Megan Muehlbauer, under James Simon—director of the New Use Agriculture and Natural Plant Products Program at Rutgers—that’s studying hop farming at the university’s Snyder Research and Extension Farm in Pittstown. The team is looking at how hops behave in Jersey soil, including expected yields, best-performing varieties, chemical composition, resistance to pests and potential profitability.

“We’re optimistic,” Pyne says, “but we’re scientists, so we don’t like to make predictions until we see data.”

A full report is planned for 2017, but Pyne will share some teasers. First, the Rutgers plot has had limited pest issues. (Ryan had the opposite experience. Japanese beetles “tore through our stuff,” he says.) Second, the yields have been good, especially for certain varieties.

The third part is more scientific. Pyne and his colleagues harvest their hops and bring them back to a lab on Cook Campus. There, they test each variety’s bittering acid levels and compare them to numbers from Hopunion, an online resource for brewers. They’ve analyzed the flavor and aroma compounds, too, and have continued testing last year’s crop to see how quality changes over time.

“There’s quite a bit of market-share opportunity that’s being missed out on here,” Pyne opines. “If we can get some data on growing hops and show it’s feasible and there is market demand, it could be a new crop for New Jersey and growers in the mid-Atlantic.”

People are already hopping on the idea. Byrtus says there are about eight hop farms in the state, and he gets frequent calls from budding hop-sters.

“I try not to persuade anyone either way,” he says. “But I do let them know that it’s a lot of hard work. You’re not going to just throw some magic beans in the ground and watch them produce lots of money for you.”

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in Collingswood.

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