by George Looby
The past several years have seen a rather remarkable resurgence in the brewing industry in the state with almost 50 breweries now operating. These operations are mostly characterized as craft breweries, small when compared to the giants of the industry, but each catering to customers who have come to enjoy the unique character of their brew.
Connecticut breweries have to import almost all of the hops and barley used in production, prompting some forward-looking individuals in the state to ask, “why not grow hops here to meet the needs of this rapidly expanding activity?” Hops were grown here commercially over 100 years ago and it still grows wild here, sometimes regarded as a pest plant because of its very aggressive growth habit. One of the factors, which led to its demise as a cultivated crop, was the Prohibition Era. Further, powdery mildew is lethal to the plant, playing a significant role in its downfall as a commercial crop.
Investigators are now evaluating a number of varieties of hops to see which ones do best under Connecticut conditions. Many of the brewers in the state have expressed a strong interest in using native grown hops in their brewing operations, so it would seem almost a win-win for both the potential growers and the local brewers.
Start-up costs can run in the neighborhood of $10,000 per acre. After that initial period the potential exists for a profit of $5,000-10,000 a year.
One of the things that make hops an expensive enterprise is the growing habit of the plant. It is a vine that can grow to over 12 feet tall so poles of considerable length are necessary to support them. Twine bines are run from the ground to wires, which runs from post to post. The hops climb these and when harvest time comes, the bines are cut down and the hops are harvested. Researchers at the CT Agricultural Experiment Station are working on the development of a dwarf variety that would be easier to manage and harvest.
For readers familiar with the manner in which shade grown tobacco is grown in the Connecticut River Valley, poles are set in the ground with wires running from the top of one post to another on which netting is hung, providing shade to the crop. To those who have looked at fellow tobacco fields, it would seem they might provide excellent acreage for hops production. A group of interested individuals led by Victor Triolo, a retired professor and hops enthusiast, got together to form the Connecticut Hop Growers Alliance. Victor has been collaborating with the CT Agricultural Experiment Stations in both Windsor and Hamden in evaluating the many various strains of hops to determine which are best adapted for commercial growers in the state. His work is funded in part by a grant from the Connecticut Deptartment of Agriculture which stands solidly behind the program.
At this time there are several growers in the state who are growing hops — one is James Shepard who planted nine acres of hops at his Smokedown Farm in Sharon. Alex DeFrancesco’s farm in Northford is the site of another start-up hop operation. It recently hosted the first meeting of the Connecticut Hop Growers Association of which Alex is president. A highlight of the meeting was a demonstration of a hops pelletizing machine that Alex recently purchased with the help of a matching grant from the State Department of Agriculture. Brewers almost universally use pellets processed by machines such as this to prepare their dried hops for storage and transport because they preserve the hops essential oils, are easier to ship and store and do not clog the pipes of brewing equipment. In addition to using it in his own operation, Alex plans to offer pelletizing services to other local growers and brewers. The case for home grown hops is strong and they offer some rather obvious advantages, the biggest of which is their freshness and not having to be shipped from the Pacific Northwest, the source of much of hops used in the brewing of Connecticut beer.
Barring events completely unforeseen it would seem this group of fledgling operators is on to something that could easily have a significant impact on agriculture in the state.