June 25, 2018
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Growing hops in Maine? Volunteers hand-pick crop in Aroostook County

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

WESTFIELD, Maine — The next time you sip a beer from Maine-based Allagash Brewing Company and Gritty McDuff’s, or New Hampshire’s Throwback Brewery, take a moment and toast the helping hands harvesting the hops that made varieties of those brews possible.

Aroostook Hops held its third annual Hops Picking Party over the Labor Day weekend and more than 25 volunteers showed up to pluck the succulent green hops cones from the vines at Jason Johnston and Krista Delahunty’s central Aroostook farm.

“We could not do it without these volunteers,” Delahunty said Saturday. “We simply could not get the crop in.”

Currently in its fifth year, Aroostook Hops has an acre of mature hops needing harvesting this season, too much for the young couple, but not enough to justify the expense of a mechanized harvester.

That may change next year, Delahunty said, when additional acres of hops mature to the point of harvesting, and she and Johnston are already looking at a small-scale mechanical harvester designed by a team from the University of Vermont.

But for now, it’s all about the volunteers.

At times on Saturday it was hard to tell where the work ended and socializing began as four dozen hands plucked hop cones from the vines in the farm’s garage so fast that Johnston was having a tough time keeping up with demand for fresh vines from the hop yard.

Chris Gee and Jay McDougal drove more than three hours from St. Albans and Hartland, respectively, to take part in the work.

“My son knows the brewmaster at Throwback and told us about this,” Gee said. “We saw it as an opportunity to experience this.”

Hop producing, McDougal said, is something they are considering.

“We wanted to see what was involved,” he said. “And to see if it is a workable concept for us.”

As she deftly plucked hops cones, Gee shot McDougal a look over the pile of vines at their station.

“May be something we get into,” she said with a laugh. “This all looks pretty labor-intensive from [what] I can see.”

Across the room there was the group from Portage, or as they were calling themselves, “the Portage Lake Hop Picking Society,” six Portage residents, plus one.

“She’s a wannabe,” joked Gordon Somerville, nodding in the direction of Debbie Johnston of Presque Isle, who was sitting at the head of their hops’ table. “We let her join because she can really work.”

This is the first time Somerville and his wife, Mary, had joined in on the hops party.

“It was either count loons today or this,” Gordon Somerville said.

Mary Somerville said she heard of the hops party from fellow Portage Lake residents Jim and Leslie Michael, who were also on hand Saturday.

“They told us about it last year,” Mary Somerville said. “Right away it went to the top of my bucket list.”

Ripe for picking this Labor Day weekend were the “Nugget Hops,” growing in 16-foot-long vines cut by Johnston using a hand shearer on a long pole.

The cut vines were loaded on an old snowmobile trailer and hauled back to the hop harvest room by the farm’s Kubota tractor, thus ending the only mechanized portion of the harvest.

The volunteers grabbed bunches of vines, gently laid them on chest high tables and immediately went to work plucking the walnut-size cones from the vines, dropping the green cones into baskets.

Selecting one at random, Delahunty pulled one of the cones apart to show the yellow lupulin in the center of the cone, the part that gives individual hops’ varieties their unique characteristics.

“The lupulin has a real piney and citrus smell,” she said. “After you’ve been picking them awhile your fingers start to get quite sticky.”

The baskets of hops are then dumped onto screen trays and placed in a temperature-controlled room called the “oast,” where they will spend a day or so drying before being packed in vacuum-sealed bales for shipping.

New to the operation this year is a baling machine that will compress and shape the hops into bricks for packaging.

The baler was designed and built by University of Maine senior engineering students as a special class project, Delahunty said.

“Up until now, we compressed the hops under two buckets with Jason sitting on them,” she said. “This is going to be much easier and quicker.”

In the three years Aroostook Hops has hosted the harvesting party, Delahunty said things have evolved.

“We have become more organized,” she said. “This year we got smart and did it as a pot luck meal, too.”

There was even live music, compliments of local musicians Dave and JoAnn Putnam.

Taking a quick break from hauling vines, Johnston stressed the critical role played by the volunteers.

“The 25 people working today have picked in just a day what it would take Krista and I five days to do,” he said. “At the same time, I know it is not sustainable to build a business on volunteers as we scale up to where we want to be in a year.”

That, he said, requires the mechanical harvester, but there will always be a place for a few volunteers at Aroostook Hops, he added.

Meanwhile, the party is “a great way to get the crop in and to socialize,” Johnston said, adding, “It really is pretty mindless work and we will be at it until midnight.”

Back over at the Portage pickers’ table, the socializing and banter was non-stop.

“You’re encroaching on my space,” Jim Michael said, as a fellow volunteer shoved vines in his direction. “This is why I went to get my own table.”

At least one member of the group came for more than socializing.

“I came because I heard Jason is serving his first batch of home-brewed beer,” Herb Andrews said.

“That’s pretty funny coming from a guy that only drinks non-alcoholic beer,” Michael shot back.

Molly Andrews, Herb’s wife and a retired teacher, remembered having a young Jason Johnston in her advanced English class at Presque Isle High School.

“I came because I wanted to show people how much I helped my former students,” she said with a laugh.

There was a bit of an international flare to the party one table over as 18-year-old Ying Zhang, newly arrived in the United States from Luoyang, China, picked hops with her family, including her uncle Chunzeng Wang, an associate professor at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

“This is the first time I have ever done anything like this,” Zhang, said. “It is really very cheerful with everyone working together.”

That’s a sentiment anyone would drink to.

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