March 30, 2017

‘Hopping’ on board: Vermont begins to rebuild its hops industry

Kelly and Kathleen Norris launched Homestead Hops two years ago at their farm in Starksboro. Courtesy photo

Kelly and Kathleen Norris launched Homestead Hops two years ago at their farm in Starksboro. Courtesy photo

Dormant for a century, Vermont’s hops industry is growing again. Encouraged by Vermont’s strong and expanding craft beer industry, as well a heightened emphasis on locally sourced products, growers see a potentially strong market for hops. While the state’s hops renaissance is in its fledgling stages and growers face obstacles, interest is on the rise. The University of Vermont Extension supports that interest and offers resources to farmers considering a commercial hops yard.

UVM presented the eighth annual Vermont Hop Conference at the Sheraton Burlington in late February, drawing nearly 200 participants. The event featured several internationally known presenters and targeted established, new and would-be growers of the plant whose flower adds stability and flavor to beer. Other attendees included brewers, researchers and hops industry representatives.

Dr. Heather Darby, an agronomist at UVM Extension, said the conference reflects and supports continued interest in hops growing in Vermont.

Photo source: Homestead Hops

Photo source: Homestead Hops

“There’s excitement about hops,” she said. “The conference draws about 200 people each year — that number is not going down.”

Darby said a session for beginning growers at this year’s conference drew about 75 people, with both startup growers and people seriously considering the crop.

“Vermont is still in the process of building a successful hops industry,” Darby said. “It’s a niche crop, but that can be good. A few do it, they can maybe make decent money.”

UVM Extension operates a growing field for hops, as well as a pest-management field. Darby said work with hops is part of a bigger outreach effort of UVM projects. “We focus on how to grow crops and we work with a lot of new and nontraditional plants and crops,” she said. “We learn how to grow them, identify the ones that yield well, and produce high-quality, to see which make economic sense.”

Economic viability provides an important filter when considering nontraditional crops, Darby emphasized. An important first step for UVM researchers is to figure out which varieties not to plant.

“There are lots of great ideas, but they have to match up with the needs of the end user,” Darby said. For hops, “We can say with a decent amount of confidence which you shouldn’t be growing. Some may grow well, but not yield well — and to pay the bills you need a yield.”

Kathleen and Kelly Norris presented at this year’s conference almost two years after planting their first crop of hops and launching Homestead Hops in Starksboro. The couple took an indirect route to hops growing, according to Kathleen Norris.

“We acquired a family farm that included a small meadow that hadn’t been farmed,” Norris said. “We thought it would be a good idea to do something with it that could increase income and make a few mortgage payments.” She said they considered animals, grapes and a few other ideas.

“Then, we were on vacation in Arizona and happened to see a news piece on a national hops shortage,” Norris said. “We started researching and reading online, watching YouTube videos. Plus, we were lucky to have UVM doing research right in our backyard.”

Because they also sugar maple as Norris Sugarworks — and hops offer an opposite season harvest that complemented without hindering their other efforts — Norris said, “We decided to go for it.”

Homestead Hops’ first crop, planted in summer 2015, yielded an impressive 1,000 pounds. But the journey included challenges.

“I’m definitely not sorry we did it,” Norris said, “but it’s been harder than we thought it would be. Vermont doesn’t have the infrastructure in place yet — and it’s expensive.” She said with just a small number of growers so far, there isn’t the critical mass needed for a co-op or shared equipment. “We invested $35,000 in a harvester, built a bailer and bought a huge sprayer for pest management,” Norris said.

The challenges, in part, reflect the infancy of the reboot of hops growing in Vermont. “I think I was romanced a little,” Norris said. “Vermont used to be the second-largest hops state in the U.S., and it’s also something just different and neat. But this is a total start-over. I do feel like we’re pioneers.”

Homestead has also struggled to crack the local market with brewers, who require consistent volume and quality, something difficult for a young hops business to achieve. Because of that, many are involved in multi-year contracts with out-of-state growers, typically in the Pacific Northwest.

Todd Haire, a brewer and partner in Foam Brewers in Burlington, acknowledges the dilemma, but also sees great promise for Vermont’s hops industry. Currently, he said, Foam purchases most of its hops through contracts with growers in Washington and Oregon, as well as Australia and New Zealand. But he’s a fan of the local movement and has a track record of supporting it. He noted that all of Foam’s base malt comes from Peterson’s Quality Malt in Monkton, which malts barley grown in Vermont.

Haire said he got involved with UVM Extension when he was brewing with Switchback Brewing. “We used some of their hops to brew Extra Pale Ale, maybe five years ago,” he said. At Foam, he’s maintained the connection.

“Brewers are either into it or not, but I’ve always been intrigued to try what they have. Foam is such a small brewery — seven barrels — that we’re able to use their hops. We typically use Cascade, Chinook, and Nugget hops, which are some of the varieties they grow. And more recently they’ve been pelletizing the hops, which makes them more stable and is how most brewers use them.”

Haire said the craft brew industry and Vermont’s localvore dining movement have a strong impact on Vermont’s economy, and a flourishing hops industry could add to that. “We get a lot of terroir out of these hops — they tend to have a melon-forward taste,” he added. Developing that “taste of place” for Vermont’s hops industry would only heighten interest in Vermont among touring beer and food enthusiasts.

Darby noted that UVM’s work with hops started independent of the craft beer movement in Vermont. “A colleague at Washington State University was interested in organic hops and wanted to see how they’d perform in other regions. We got a grant and started research in 2010. Suddenly, there was local interest — from both brewers and farmers.”

The timing could be right for Vermont’s hops growers to experience solid growth, Darby said. “There is less risk today. There is actual information available now — and some success stories and models out there. The number of microbrewers continues to go up each year and, as they grow, interest in buying local hops grows, too.”

At Homestead Hops, Norris said she remains excited about the future. “It’s been hard work, but we now have about nine breweries buying our hops,” she said. “We have a long way to go, but those using our hops are happy with them.” She said opportunities to build networks among other growers and with brewers, such as the Vermont Hop Conference, are a big plus.

Norris said she hopes all involved will see the value in striving to build a Vermont hops industry that can fuel the state’s “crafted in Vermont” beer movement.

Haire wouldn’t rule out a hops growing boom in Vermont that could mirror the rise of its craft brew industry. “Brewers should take note — if you’d have told people 20 to 25 years ago you were going to get put out a shingle and try to sell this stuff called micro-brewed beer or craft beer, they’d have said it’s ridiculous. It started as a little snowflake and became an avalanche or craft beer.”

“World class hops were once grown in New York and Vermont, but infestation and downy mildew chased it west,” Haire said. “UVM is trying to revitalize that, bring a different type of agriculture back to Vermont. You need to start somewhere, and I think what they are doing should be supported. Give it time.”

More information on the UVM Extension’s soil and crops programs available at www.uvm.edu/extension/cropsoil/hops.

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