Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Local hops for local beer

One late afternoon in mid December 2009, the threat of a snowstorm transformed a 45 minute car trip into a three and one-half hour ordeal, roads thronged with the slow-moving crush of panicking drivers.

There was, however, a payoff waiting for me at my destination, The Judge's Bench —a pub in Ellicott City,  Maryland, south of Baltimore City ...

It was a pint of Loose Cannon Hop3 Ale —the India Pale Ale (IPA) from Clipper City Brewing Company of Baltimore, Maryland— poured fresh from a firkin, a 10.8 gallon cask.

Tom Barse, hop farmer

A month or so earlier, Clipper City had purchased organically grown hops from a farm in Frederick, Maryland. Those local hops —Cascade and Centennial varietals— had been used by the brewery's cellarman, Stephen Marsh,  to dry-hop several casks of Loose Cannon.

The beer was there at The Judge's Bench. And also there were the farmers of those hops,  Tom Barse and his wife Carol Ann McConaughy. I got my pint and introduced myself. Quick with disarming smiles, they discussed Stillpoint Farm, and their plans for its future.

Sisson & Barse(s)
l-r: Hugh Sisson (owner, Clipper City Brewing);
Carol Ann McConaughy and Tom Barse.

In the 1870s, Tom told me, Frederick, Maryland, had been an important hop growing region. In fact, there had been a brewery, not far from where his farm is today, for which local farmers had supplied hops. Thus Tom, who grew up in nearby Rockville, Maryland, sees himself not so much as a pioneer, but as a revivalist.

A member of the Maryland Wine Growers' Association, Tom began growing wine grapes over two decades ago. He is experimenting with some grafting of various varietals, but he is not interested in operating a winery. "Heck why? I can grow hops."

He took another sip from his pint of Loose Cannon, made with his hops, and continued.

He believes that hops can thrive again in our area, if smart methods are used. Tom farms using organic and sustainable methods, but he won't be getting the certification. Hops have not been grown commercially in the region for over 100 years. As a result, black rot and powdery mildew haven't had host plants in which to thrive. But, he warns, once a hop industry takes root, it might be only a matter of time before infestation recurs. What happens, he wondered, the first time an organically-certified hop farmer has to deal with these problems?

Although the East Coast (and New York State, in particular) was the nation's primary hop-growing region in the 19th century, the industry was was moribund by the early 1950s. Compared to the hop yards in Oregon and Washington, now the premier growing region, the hop farms of New York and the mid-Atlantic experienced higher humidity (and thus greater susceptibility to infestation) and produced lower yield.

The 'organic' regulations themselves are somewhat suspect, he adds. For instance, copper sulfate is allowed under the rules to fight powdery mildew. The best farming practices include returning what you take from the soil back to the soil.

When he first began making plans to grow hops, he contacted farmer Glen Fuller who himself had recently opened a commercial organic hop yard (5 acres) in Colorado. Following his advice, Tom plants his rhizomes no later then the beginning of May, after the threat of a frost has receded. Each rhizome eventually will yield 4-6 hop shoots. He's noticed that the shoots seem to grow well at night, sometimes as much as 1 foot.

Barse entwines the hops on 18 foot high trellises, using coir: fibrous 'string' derived from coconuts.

He harvests the hops mid-August through the first week of September. Already, just with the two varietals he's grown, Tom has noticed that different hops ripen at different rates. Cacades are ready earlier than Centennial, and hops at the top of a trellis ripen before those below.

Tom has at most a 5 day window in which to pick the hops. If there's a late rain, it can be trouble: hops don't 'ripen' properly when wet. His 'signal' is the slightly yellow appearance of the bracteoles, and the pungent-sweet aroma of the lupulin.

Fresh hops contain up to 70% moisture by weight, and thus are very susceptible to rot. So, after harvest, he air-dries the hops to 7-8% by weight. Because of the region's humid environment, the process can take up to 4 days.  He then vacuum-packs them, and stores them refrigerated.

Tom explained that the hop bine (not vine) is a perennial. Thus, even though he took the plunge in 2008, he won't see full potential yield  until the 2nd or 3rd year.  His first harvest, although small, he described as beautiful. The Cascades and Centennial were bountiful; the Fuggles, Northern Brewer, Saaz, and Nugget, not so much. Stillpoint Farm comprises only 47 acres (and shares space with the horses and sheep Carol raises). Even so, Tom expects 2,400 lbs per acre as he gears up.

Tom hand-picked the hops in 2009, but he's realistic about achieving a profitable volume. He will need to mechanize the process.  He is building build a hop picker, basing his design on that of two pioneering hop farmers in New York state: Larry Fisher of Foothills Hop Farm, and Rick Pedersen of Pederson Farm, both members of the nascent Northeast Hop Alliance.

Although Tom plans to increase hop production in 2010, and will be adding other varietals, he is realistic. He has no interest in competing with the Pacific Northwest hop industry. He can't. In addition to not matching its sheer volume, he would never be able competitively pay for the lab analysis to determine the alpha acid content of hops, that is, their bittering power. His hops would be better used for aroma, for which lab analysis isn't necessary.

Small farms, Tom notes, need to diversify their crops to be successful. For example, corn or soybeans yield maybe $300 per acre. The best vineyards in Maryland (all relatively small) average gross incomes of $5,000 per acre, and that's after a minimum of 5 years of operation.  The economics demand diversification into higher profit crops. The recent increases in hop prices make hops a potentially viable crop.

Tom and Carol (well, that would be Tom, Carol noted) even have plans to open their own brewery, producing 1,500 barrels per year. That would truly be a farmhouse brewery.

But ... how was the beer? How was the cask of locally-hopped Loose Cannon Hop3 IPA?

Maryland Hop3 Cask pour (02)

You have to understand that this was cask-conditioned beer. It was beer that was still fermenting within a 10.8 gallon stainless steel vessel called a firkin.  This was FRESH beer. The point of cask-conditioned beer is NOT to age the beer (even though you could). The point is to serve it NOW, to drink it NOW: fresh, bursting with just-prepared flavor. Storing cask-conditioned beer even for a week, let alone months, seems ridiculous. That's what a keg or bottle is for.

So, how was the beer? Redolent of yeasty flavors, and the piney, citrusy, character of fresh Cascade hops, it was, in a word, exquisite.

Hops confab
l-r: Stephen Marsh; Tom Barse; Kurt Krol, brewer.

I toasted Stephen Marsh, the cellarman at Clipper City Brewing Company who had prepared this cask and indeed prepares all of the brewery's casks (and who had invited me to this event), and, then, I drove back to northern Virginia, arriving home just as the snow storm, that would dump 18 inches on us, began.

A month after the event, I met with Hugh Sisson —general partner and founder of Clipper City Brewing. I asked him two questions.

YFGF: I imagine that hops from Stillpoint Farms cost more than those from the large hop merchants. Will you continue to buy from Stillpoint?

Sisson: Yes. The majority of our hops will be purchased elsewhere, but, as Clipper City is a Maryland-based business, we support other local businesses. The fresh flavor of their hops is wonderful. In fact, we are willing to pay a premium above and beyond the spot market price [which is significantly higher than pre-determined contracted prices]. But, he added, that's within reason.

YFGF [leading the witness]: Is Clipper City planning anything special for the next harvest?

Sisson: Yes. For the 2010 harvest, we're anticipating wet-hopped ales, and casks.

YFGF: Wet-hop: That's literally using hops within hours of their harvest, even before they've been cured. The flavor is a lot 'grassier' than with cured hops. Think of biting into a stalk of fresh basil, stems and all, rather than cooking with it. Many west coast breweries —much closer to the northwest US hop yards —do this already. By the time we get these beers —as good as they are— they've lost some of that just-harvested character.

I envision a truck leaving Clipper City in Baltimore, being driven the 45 minutes to Frederick, loaded up, and driven back to Baltimore, where the brewers would unload the hops and promptly brew the beer. Fresh!


  1. What a great night that was!

    Excellent write-up Tom. Exciting news about CC's 2010 plans to wet-hop. Mmmmmmmm!

  2. Awesome. Thanks for sharing this Tom. Can't believe I missed a local beer with local organic hops! I can only hope that they are converting Loose Cannon to all organic ingredients all the time - that would be really cool. Especially since they are getting rid of the Oxford Organic line.


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