Maine farmers take on challenge of hops growing amid craft beer craze

Posted Sept. 20, 2015, at 11:18 a.m.
Last modified Sept. 20, 2015, at 8:32 p.m.
This time of year brewers around New England are crafting wet-hop beers, using fresh, unprocessed hops, including Gritty’s, Sebago Brewing Company, Allagash Brewing Company and Geaghan Brothers. Sebago Brewing has a 6.3 ABV Local Harvest wet-hop ale, using locally-malted grain and fresh hops from the Hop Yard. “You can brew wet hops in any style,” said Jason Perkins, brewmaster at Allagash. “You get a grassy character and fresh hops aroma.” Beer with hops from Aroostook Hops and malts from the Mapleton-based Maine Malt House will be featured at the first Aroostook County Brew Fest in October.

New England farmers gave up on hops around the Great Depression, and today even the most local of breweries get the bitter flowers from the Pacific Northwest or Europe.

That’s starting to change with the rise of a multibillion dollar craft beer industry, as more entrepreneurs are inspired to try growing the hops-producing Humulus lupulus plant — a difficult task, in terms of meeting craft beer-quality.

“Most of the hops I’ve had from New England are horrible,” said Ed Stebbins, co-founder of Gritty McDuff’s Brewing Company. “I wouldn’t brew with them.”

Since opening in 1988, Gritty’s has usually sourced about half of its hops from the Pacific Northwest and half from Europe, but this year, almost 5 percent is coming from Aroostook Hops, an organic farm in Westfield run by Krista Delahunty and Jason Johnston, two biologists who teach at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

“Hops is a good combination of hard work and a lot of thinking,” said Johnston, a Mapleton native and Bowdoin College graduate who started home brewing in the late 1990s.

After they moved to Westfield in 2007, around a national hops shortage, Delahunty and Johnston decided to experiment, knowing Aroostook’s soil and northern geography were right for the climbing perennial plant, which grows more than a dozen feet tall on trellises.

Today, they have one mature acre with five varieties of hops and three 4-year-old acres envisioned for an expansion in the coming years. Gritty’s, Allagash and other breweries buy their fresh hops for wet-hop ales — a “grassy” tasting beer, as Allagash brewmaster Jason Perkins put it.

“Hop growing involves a lot of investment financially,” said Delahunty, who’s originally from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Recently, they’ve purchased a mechanical harvester (replacing volunteers of college students and community members who’ve helped pick the thousands of flowers) as well as a drying rack and pelletizer machine to sell in the main wholesale market.

“It’s definitely a business,” added Johnston. “It’s not a hobby.”

Growing hops is big business in the Pacific Northwest, valued at more than $200 million in Washington State, where farmers harvest about 28,000 acres, or 70 percent of the total U.S. hops crop, according to Hops Growers of America. Oregon farmers grew more than 5,000 acres, Idahoans grew some 3,740 acres, Michigan farmers cultivated a modest 300 acres, and New Yorkers grew 150.

In Maine, Aroostook Hops along with the Hop Yard in Gorham were the two main commercial hops growers, contributing about 10 acres last year.

“We do weekend trips up and bang out two weeks worth of work in two days,” said

Peter Busque, one of four partners in the Hop Yard, which has fields in Gorham and Fort Fairfield. Busque is a computer engineer at Cisco and his other partners also have full-time jobs, but he said they could soon have a paid employee. “We want this to be a commercial business.”

Picking up where another generation left off

The Massachusetts Company first brought hops from Europe to the U.S. in 1629, and Aroostook County farmers gave the crop a try during the 1880s, along with farmers in upstate New York, Vermont and other regions north of the 45th parallel. Hops were grown in Mapleton and possibly Fort Fairfield into the 1930s and 1940s, Johnston said, and some are still around, surviving in a wild form decades after being abandoned, near a former drying house in Mapleton.

Most hops cultivation was “pushed westward in the 1920s by East Coast plant diseases, downy mildew in particular,” according to University of Vermont Extension professor Leonard Perry.

Farmers in the Pacific Northwest took up the crop on a large scale during World War II, and they’ve been prolific growers ever since, breeding varieties such as Willamette, Cascade and Mount Hood and supplying much of the country’s beer industry.

A relative of marijuana and hemp, hops has had an advantage growing in the drier Northwest.

Downy mildew, a fungal disease, thrives on hops in humid, moist conditions — like after a summer rain in Maine.

“It’s always sort of lurking. You have to control it with organic fungicides in our case,” said Johnston. “Downy mildew is less of a problem on the West Coast because it’s less humid.”

New England farmers might have one advantage in plentiful water, which hops require in enormous amounts. “Even with the water we get here naturally we still need irrigation,” Johnston said. “Sometimes they’re growing 10 inches a day.”

Busque of the Hop Yard said they’re still learning, especially in how to prevent and treat downy mildew. But he thinks the crop could be viable on a large scale in Maine if farmers adopted rigorous management practices.

“They still have their issues,” Busque said of growers in the Northwest. “They’re just better at managing it. They have it down to a science. They know when to spray and what to spray, finding and reacting to issues before they become major.

“I don’t see any reason why Maine couldn’t be a viable producer of a significant amount of hops,” said Busque. “There’s a lot of unused farmland.”

CORRECTION:

In a previous version of this story, incorrect dates were listed in three photo captions.

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