MONROE, Maine — When people drive by Elm Hill Farm on Back Brooks Road in Monroe, many of them stop to gawk at the acre of thick, green vines growing on trellises that stretch toward the sky.
Some ask what Arthur Lewis is growing there. The most common guess is beans, he said Friday. When he was installing the wooden trellises, others wondered whether he was a devout Baptist busy putting up a field of crosses. But the real answer is Cascade hops, to be used in Maine’s booming microbrewery industry.
Lewis, 60, who works in the winters as a chef in Florida, bought some former farmland in Monroe back in 2000, and a few years ago decided to plant hop vines.
“I was really amazed at the vibrant agricultural culture in this area,” he said. “In Waldo County, it’s really unbelievable, what people are doing up here. I wanted to be part of that, but I really didn’t know how to do it. I wasn’t into growing garlic or tomatoes. I knew I wanted to do something different.”
He found that something in 2007, after reading a newspaper article about a western Maine man who was one of the first people in the state to grow hops commercially on a small scale. The northeast had a hops cash crop in the 1800s, but a series of blights did it in and the industry largely moved to the Pacific Northwest. Hops are an integral part of the beer-making process.
“Hops gives beer the beer taste,” Lewis said.
When he first sniffed a sun-warmed hops cone, the earthy, pungent aroma spoke to him.
“I knew I was home,” he said.
When Lewis decided to put in his own hobby crop of hops, he wasn’t alone. Two boat captain friends, Ken Tassin and Richard Jones, had purchased farmland adjacent to his near Marsh Stream in Monroe. Altogether, the three men owned 65 acres and each planted about an acre of hops, but Tassin’s hops crop has not been thriving recently.
“I’m looking into trying to get a brewer I know to adopt them next year,” Tassin said in a telephone call from a boat on the coast of Florida.
But the hops grown on Lewis and Jones’ properties are thriving. The vines, which can grow as tall as 25 feet in a summer, are teeming with tiny burrs which will fall off and be replaced by hops cones. Each vine can produce many hundreds of cones, Lewis said, and in the height of the growing season can grow as much as six or seven inches in a day.
Last year, his vines produced about 260 pounds of wet hops — hops which have not been dried. He expects to pick about 300 pounds of wet hops this year, most of which will find their way into beer made by Peak Organic Brewing Co. in Portland. Jones’ hops also will go to southern Maine, to the Sebago Brewing Co. in Gorham, which makes a “Local Harvest” seasonal beer with them in the fall.
“It’s the only beer we make with fresh, non-processed hops,” said Brewmaster Tom Abercrombie of Sebago Brewing Co. “People argue they have a different effect. It makes sense that fresher would be better.”
It takes between 30 and 50 pounds of wet hops to make 40 barrels of beer. The Sebago folks make an event of the hops harvest, Abercrombie said. Because time is of the essence when working with freshly-cut hops, workers will drive to Monroe, cut down some vines, put them in a truck and speed them back to southern Maine.
“Then we have a hop-picking party,” the brewmaster said. “Volunteers come here, we feed them and give them some beer.”
When the Sebago brewers make Local Harvest, they use hops from Monroe and also malted barley from Aroostook County. The resulting brew is available at the company’s brew pubs and also in four-packs sold throughout New England.
“It’s pretty neat,” Abercrombie said. “I think it’s one of our more unique offerings. I think it’s cool we can offer a beer where so many of the ingredients come from Maine.”
Lewis, who has been keeping busy this summer by hand-weeding and hand-watering his vines, said that growing hops has been a labor of love. It’s also introduced him to some new friends.
“It’s like I’ve entered into this craft-beer fraternity,” he said. “There’s a very passionate group out there, which I like. Those people are really into what they’re doing. The overalls have given way to white lab coats and goggles.”
But when it’s harvest time at Elm Hill Farm, the goggles come off and his garage fills up with people who drop in and pick the hops cones off the cut vines. Some are beer aficionados who come from as far away as Boston and Bar Harbor.
“The picking is the key to what we do here. We’re organic, and we really take a lot of care in what we do. It’s almost a boutique product,” Lewis said. “And we would invite anybody who’d like to stop by and pick hops. We always have some cold beer on hand.”
For information, visit www.elmhillfarm.com.