Six months of the year, the first thing that I see as I walk out of my front door and head over to the brewery are the green canopies of hops in our yard towering over the rest of our farm. It’s an amazing way to start a day. Walking through the rows hot mug of coffee in hand, taking mental note of the plant’s growth and competing weed and pest situations, the morning dew soaking your feet and making putting on brewery boots that much more difficult.
Then, each year the wild activities that make up our farm brewery come to a crescendo. Over one hundred people ascend to the farm to help us take down the bines, pick a couple hundred pounds of cones getting thrown right into the kettle for a mixed fermentation harvest ale. It’s the beginning of the end of our farming season. It’s possibly my favorite day of the year; not only is it the most social and public day on the farm but it is the best opportunity we can provide to put the daily collaboration that takes place between the farm and brewery on display, to publicize and put the adage “No Farms No Beer” to work.
There’s a ton of work that goes into the brewery and farm, and the hop yard is one of the more challenging components. To have so many people come and join us in the harvest is as rewarding and welcome of an end to the season as we could ask. Yet there’s another part to making our harvest beer that too often goes unheralded, and that is the malt. Last year we used six row barley grown and malted in the Hudson Valley. This year, we’re beginning a new and exciting chapter of brewing locally. The malt used for our harvest beer, and all of our farmhouse beers for the coming year (and hopefully beyond) will be coming from fields in Farmington, CT; less than 40 miles away.
In early spring I received an email from Andrea at Valley Malt about someone in CT attempting to grow barley. I immediately reached out to Rob to inquire about his operation; methods, interests in working together, and whether or not this was a one time side project. Last year we found ourselves in a similar circumstance, and after bringing in 8,000 lb of malted barley from Rocky Hill, when we finally met the grower we were unpleasantly surprised by the fact that he had no interest in making a business out of barley – and that it was grown with more conventional methods than we had hoped. Thankfully, this time around things are very different.
Rob’s background is in machinery and asphalt, but last year he tested his hand at farming and planted a small crop of wheat which he successfully harvested and sold for seed.
For any “local” small scale hop or barley farmer the post harvest challenges are equally if not greater than the actual challenge of growing the crop itself. In some ways, they’r even more daunting. After all, barley and hops are plants. They both want to live. They don’t however have any preference as to whether they are dried to the right moisture, cleaned, stored and malted in the right conditions (barley) or pelletized and packaged in mylar bags filled with inert gas and stored below 30 degrees (hops). In both cases quality begins in the field, but counties all the way through the supply chain until it reaches the end user – the brewery.
Simplifying our supply chain is part of the reason we have chosen to plant only an acre and half of hops (a third of which is being replanted this fall) and use our harvest straight off the bine in a single batch of beer. This allows the qualities of our hops to come through in their natural state, make a product unique to the season and our farm, as well as avoid potential challenges (and costs) of drying and pelletizing smaller volumes of hops. Small scale pelletizers are either risky or extremely expensive. Hops are very sensitive to heat – to get the sense of a hops character you do a rub test. Break the cone apart and rub it between your palms to spread the lupulin oils and activate the aroma with moderate friction and heat. Just as if you boil hops for 90 minutes you extract more bitterness than if you whirlpool or use them post fermentation if you dry them too intensely or run them through a pellitizer without any cooling mechanism built into the dye and you’ll scotch out all the flavor and create (in our case an unwanted) bitterness.
Thankfully there are some larger yards being planted in our area – 5 and 9 acres respectively which will require and are investing and building proper harvesting, drying and pelletizing infrastructure. By the time our yard is at maximum yield, we hope to be able to work with our neighbors and begin utilizing our hops in additional batches of beer. In the meantime we are excited to begin bringing in the hops we have signed contracts for with Smokedown Farm and Pioneer Hops; the two largest hop growers in CT and only a short drive from our farm.
We have the luxury of a brewery just a few hundred feet from our yard (I’ve never measured) that most hop farms do not. So while those guys will surely have PTO harvesters attached to tractors rolling down their rows, we will hopefully have close to 200 people on our farm helping us pick, listening to bluegrass, enjoying some beer and a pig roast.
There are very different styles of harvest for small yards like ours and larger commercial farms like Smokedown Farm in Sharon and Pioneer Hops in Morris. But even for them, they could use their machinery for most of the farm and have a harvest festival for a small portion of the yard. Barley farms however, don’t really have that opportunity. Even the smallest barley farm’s social harvest would seem to be quite dangerous – imagine people walking around a field swinging sickles! It’s unfortunately much less dramatic, perhaps as much because of the nature of the plant as it is the process required to use it. I don’t know of any breweries who make wet barley beers; there’s no getting around the maltster.
Which is why we are so thankful to be close with and growing alongside Andrea and Christian at Valley Malt. They produce an incredible product that is incredibly important not only to making beer – but to establishing viable farming options for new and experienced farmers alike.
Setting up a hop yard is incredibly expensive ($10-17k per acre!) for the distance to max harvest, potential yields and risks due climate, and supply chain issues that currently exist in the Northeast. As a perennial, once you establish a yard that is what you will be growing there. There are cover crops that can be grown in between the rows, or you can rotate your pasture raised chickens and pigs in the yard as well to utilize the space for as much revenue generation and free labor/fertilizer/pest control as possible; but for the most part and especially at larger scales a hop yard is purely a specialty crop with one primary end user.
Cereal grains on the other hand play an absolutely key component to our diet; and establishing local and non-conventionally grown barley and wheat farms go much farther than producing a locally grown beer – it can change the food system and viability of small scale or organic/non-conventional farming. It has been four years since NY State passed their farm brewery law, and while there is a lot that remains to be known about it’s long term affects, it is causing real change. The demand from breweries and distilleries for locally grown barley has risen such that it is now an insurable crop in NY State – letting farmers know that if they grow it, even in face of environmental challenges they will be covered. These types of changes can affect change far beyond the brewing and distilling industries, and is why farm brewery laws are important, but that is another matter entirely and this post is already getting long.
When I got the chance to drive out to Farmington and walk through Rob’s 10 acres of barley, taste the sweet, biscuity and nutty flavor of the seed picked freshly off the plant I became extremely excited. If there’s a terroir to beer, I think it must start with the most abundant ingredient – malt. Part of Andrea’s job as the maltster is to help new farmers with their farming practices – and in some ways play farming psychologist for the struggles that come about. Part of my job as the end user is to give a sense of security back along the supply chain so they can farm with confidence and not fret about sales. But even with post harvest processing – drying, cleaning, storing, malting all taken care of the challenges of how to make the other crops in a proper rotation viable are surely great. Rob is currently planning on taking over some corn fields in the fall to expand his acreage – planting beans to replace the nitrogen depleted in the soil by the corn, and eventually bring back to grain. Lets just say I wouldn’t be surprised if there were cows on the property at some point – but I’ll spare you the details and recommend you read Third Plate by Dan Barber instead. The point is that it all basically boils down to soil health – if you have good soil, and farmers dedicated to their process and flavor there is amazing results that can be had.
Just this past week Andrea came down to the brewery for a malt sensory exam. Without any discussion of friability, extract, and the other quantifiable statistics that you use in making a decision about what malt to use – we compared and analyzed over 24 different malts for flavor. The ability to taste wort from different varieties of barley side by side, malted in the same manner, or tank malted vs floor malted was an eye opening experience. It was unbelievable how much more flavor one variety had compared to some of the others. And will inform what varieties the collective “we” choose to grow, and how we choose to have them malted for our beers in the future; to ensure that quality and flavor are equally as important as extract potential.
That’s a lot about hops and barley malt. Let’s talk about yeast and microbes for a quick second. The yeast we use for Tiny House, our harvest ale is a mixed culture of our brett strains, lacto, and our farmhouse culture that has been going since our first batch of beer. So while we brew Tiny House, we will be releasing Fingerprint; our first beer with native yeast. This beer is a farmhouse ale aged in white wine barrels with wild yeast and microbes cultured off of fruit, flowers and hops from our farm when Derek and I first started brewing together a few years ago. The culture was stepped up using our old 15 gallon home-brew system located in what is now the farm’s egg washing room. It went from a small jar of fruit to several batches of various farmhouse ales and ultimately found its way into the wine barrels along with it’s base beer to age for over a year and bottle conditioned for four months.
This will be a small initial release, one bottle per person who attends the harvest. To have so many things local, native, and close to home in a figurative and very literal sense going on at the same time is wild. We could thing of no better way to celebrate local farmers, maltster, brewers, friends, family and community members alike than to combine all of these aspects into one very special day. It’s been quite some time since we have gone long form with a blog post about growing/brewing local or any other topic for that matter. It can be difficult to find the time or energy amidst all that goes on here, especially during the summer; but doing can be the best form of reflection and self-assessment on what our greater missions are. And while each and every day on the farm has its challenges, frustrations and daily dose of doubt; today, it feels like we are growing in the right direction and our excitement for this year’s hop harvest could not be greater.
We hope to see you there!
Tickets can be purchased in advance at www.campsroadfarm.com/harvest