Home brewers are always willing to experiment and try just about anything to make an interesting brew — even to the point of growing their own hops. Geoff Keating is no exception. Keating, who lives in the Portland, Maine area, says getting to know a variety of brewers fueled his interest in growing hops; first for his own use and then commercially.
“It seemed like an interesting challenge,” said Keating. “I teamed up with Ryan Houghton, and when we saw that land prices outside of Portland were unapproachable, we went up to Fort Fairfield (about five hours north of Gorham) where his family had potato land. We established an acre of hops to see if we could grow and sell them. We had vibrant plants and brewers who were excited to get product from us. We took that energy, came down south and found a way to find a way to do it on a bigger scale.”
Keating says the Portland area has lot of new breweries, but many have never worked with wet, or unprocessed hops. “The majority of hops on the market are dried and pelletized and sold year-round,” he said. “What we do is harvest, pull the cones off and sell them immediately. It’s a unique process and only works when in close proximity to breweries.”
Convinced that they could grow hops commercially, Keating and Houghton connected with a Gorham, Maine landowner who was interested in using some of his hay farm for growing hops. They erected 18 foot poles for supports and planted a few acres in 2012. In 2013, they established seven more acres. This past fall, the group had their first three-year harvest from the small planting in Fort Fairfield, along some from what is now The Hop Yard.
Hops are grown from rhizomes that take about three years to mature. “The rootstock grows downward about 12 feet, and branches so that it has a lot more nutrient pull,” Keating explained. “After about three years, the plants produce several pounds of hops. In springtime, when the hops are a few years old, each plant has a lot of shoots coming up. We prune the shoots to make sure all the plants are at the same starting point. The plants put up another round of shoots, and we train those shoots, about four to five per plant, to a coconut fiber. That fiber goes from a metal cable at the top down into the soil.” Every spring, the crew must tie two knots for each of the 9,000 plants in the yard.
After the hops are trained to run up the fiber, growth is rapid – as much as one foot/day. Hops take up a lot of nutrients, so nitrogen and other amendments are added as needed. The hop yard is watered with a drip irrigation system, and this coming season Keating will add nutrients through the drip.
By early July, the plants have reached the top of the trellis. With nowhere else for the plant to go, lateral shoots start to spread horizontally. “Those laterals are where the hop cones grow,” said Keating, adding that the plant’s full potential is determined by early July. “We have to make sure they’re watered and fertilized properly the year before.”
Soon, the buds form, and each bud represents a cone. Throughout the next month, the cones fill out, and that’s when the trellis bears the most weight. “This is when we get a little nervous,” said Keating. “Last August we had a heavy rainstorm, and when we went into the yard the next day, we saw that a lot of the rows had actually pulled forward. The poles had bent because there was so much weight and we hadn’t properly anchored the outside poles yet.”
Keating and his crew start to monitor moisture content of the hops in early September. At first, they rely on several sensory measures including how the cones feel (papery) and odor (aromatic). “Then we use a more scientific method,” said Keating. “We take a sample of the cones and measure moisture. Different varieties mature at different rates and we have about a week to harvest. If we harvest too early, we get a vegetal, grassy aroma, and if we’re too late, the quality and appearance has deteriorated. The hops will be brown and smell oniony or garlicky.”
Since brewers seek the aromatic properties of hops, timely harvest is critical. Hand-harvesting one hop plant takes about one hour, so harvesting 9,000 plants solely by hand is a significant time investment. Last year, Keating purchased a small harvester and is in the process of importing a larger machine from Germany.
“Part of our mission as a business is to help grow the Maine hop economy as a whole; not just our own fields,” said Keating. “That translates to buying a bigger harvester so we can get through our own harvest and also create opportunities for growers who may not have the capital to continue to grow their own operations.”
Because of the monetary and time investment in establishing a large hop yard, Keating says it’s important
They grow varieties that will appeal to brewers over a long period of time. “The unique thing that we are beginning to explore is terroir,” he said. “The Cascades that we grow in Maine are different from Cascades grown in Oregon. We partnered with a west coast grower, Crosby Hops, who helps us. We bought all of our rootstock from them.” Keating noted that part of the craft beer movement includes a closer relationship between hops growers and brewers, so The Hop Yard is now working with several New England brewers on behalf of Crosby Hops to create a closer farm-to-brewer relationship.
In addition to improving harvest efficiency, Keating and his crew are in the process of making a mobile hop dryer that can be moved from farm to farm. “We’re building it with input from others,” he said, “but it will be unique.” The crew continues to look at options for pelletizing for the long-term future.
“The challenges for small growers is not being able to provide a consistent quality and quantity of wet hops,” said Keating. “Brewers schedule their beers months in advance — if a brewer is planning a wet hop beer because a grower says they can deliver and then the grower can’t deliver in the time period expected, the brewer is in a tough situation because they’ve already invested money. We’ve tried very hard to manage expectations and make sure that we’re conservative in our output numbers in these initial years.”
Keating says the most important thing to know for anyone considering a large-scale hop yard is the amount of money and time required. “It takes three years to get started, and you’ll be putting money in every year,” he said. “The rough numbers for year one establishment is about 12 to 15 thousand dollars/acre, and that doesn’t include drilling a well for water or harvest. It also takes a lot of time. It’s easy to overlook the real need for quality — without quality, there’s no value in the end hop.”