Standing along a row of towering hops vines, known as “bines,” Heather Wilson picked a pale green cone and broke it open to check for ripeness Thursday afternoon.
“Rub the cone between your fingers — it should be papery,” she said. “You can feel there’s a lot of moisture there and they still smell a little grassy — it’s not ready to harvest.”
The right amount of moisture — not too little and not too much — is key to growing, harvesting and brewing hops, a crop that has not been grown commercially in Connecticut since Prohibition.
Wilson and her husband Sam Wilson, who co-own Hop Culture Farms and Brew Company in Colchester, are in their third year of growing hops that they use in their craft brewery, which opened on April 13.
They are part of a remarkable revival in Connecticut that started around 2013, and has brought together grain growers, hop farmers and several dozen new breweries, many on abandoned farms like the Wilson’s.
In 2017, Thrall Family Malt, a farming family in Windsor with roots back to 1646, opened to provide high-quality malt to breweries with Connecticut-grown grain.
In Northford, Alex DeFrancesco a multi-generational farmer with a bent for technology, and head for helpful legislation, has built a small state-of-the-art hop-processing facility that will allow small Connecticut farmers to produce a quality and consistency of product needed by professional breweries.
Making beer came first
For the Wilsons, the journey to becoming professional farmers and brewers began with homebrewing.
“My husband and I were looking for something we could do together and we were craft beer hobbyists,” said Heather. “We did homebrewing for a while and about four years ago there was a hop shortage and we kept researching, asking why can’t we get this hop, so we said let’s try and grow some hops and see.”
The research led to learning about farming, and then “we kind of fell in love with doing the agriculture,” she said.
“When we came here, we had no water, no electricity, no irrigation up to our crops, so we really started from scratch, we did all the work ourselves, we didn’t hire anybody else,” Heather said, adding that they both work full-time jobs — she is an intensive care nurse practitioner and he is a fireman. “We’re not legacy farmers. We’re first-time farmers.”
Growing hops requires a serious commitment in time, money and labor, she said.
“It’s not something that you do half way, it’s a lot of infrastructure and a lot of hard work. They estimate that an acre of hops to put up costs about $12,000 to $15,000,” she said, adding that the farm has about 4,000 plants on about 3 acres and each plant must be hand-tied to a coir rope for cultivation.
Farming, brewing, then both
For Alex DeFrancesco, a farmer whose family has cultivated land in Northford since 1907, homebrewing was also the entry into growing hops and becoming a brewer.
“I would brew at night — I’d come in from the fields and the greenhouses and I’d be in the barn until midnight or 1 a.m. and then wake up early and repeat,” said DeFrancesco, standing in his climate-controlled hops pelletizer facility on the family farm on Friday.
DeFrancesco, who is president of the Connecticut Hop Growers Association, said hops are “probably one of the most difficult cash crops to raise,” in part because of moisture, which can bring mildew, fungus and disease.
“One or two of those variables can come in, blow in on the wind in some cases, and if you’re not constantly scouting it could go like wildfire overnight,” he said.
Connecticut was once one of the world’s leading producers of hops, but years ago much of the growing relocated west, and to the Pacific Northwest where it was naturally drier.
“The Hudson River Valley and a lot of northern states and we had no technology to combat mildew — it blew in and decimated all the farms,” explained DeFrancesco.
Growing high-quality tobacco replaced hops as a cash crop in Connecticut, but now the pendulum had swung back in the other direction.
The science of hops
The problem of mildew was one of the issues that drove hops growers west, to a drier climate, said James LaMondia, a plant pathologist with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in Windsor, who spoke by phone on Aug. 8.
LaMondia planted a hop yard in 2013 to experiment with managing diseases like powdery mildew with the idea that Connecticut could cultivate hops again. LaMondia keeps hop growers aware of diseases and pests that may threaten hops harvests, and growers like Wilson and DeFrancesco bring diseased plants to LaMondia for diagnoses.
LaMondia said Connecticut’s terroir — the unique mixture of land and culture of cultivation that defines agriculture in the area — means that even familiar varieties of hops display a distinctive and local quality. Cascade hops, which for decades have defined the American style of IPA beer, have a fruitier, more tropical flavor when grown in Connecticut compared to the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s something unique — we’re not producing thousands of acres but it should give brewers the opportunity to do some unique brews,” he said.
Of about 40 different varieties, LaMondia has found about 10 or 12 well-suited to the region. He is also working to cultivate native hops that were already here when the Europeans arrive in the 1600s.
“Our role will be to look at these unique heritage lines and doing what we can do to protect the crops,” he said.
Technology for production
LaMondia has also studied the technology of pelletizing hops — a process of turning moist cones prone to oxidation into a form more useful and salable to professional brewers.
DeFrancesco’s facility provides pelletizing services for hops farms across the region and also pelletizes the Agriculture Station’s hops used for research.
“This is the largest pelletizer in the state and the only climate-controlled facility in the state and surrounding states,” said DeFrancesco. “Humidity was a big concern and being in New England, I knew we had to do something special so we went overboard on the cooling units to always make sure we could do a climate-controlled environment here.”
Built into the side of a hill, the facility uses geothermal climate control, has walls that extend four feet into the ground and maintains 70 degrees and close to zero humidity when pelletizing hops.
“The challenge that farmers have in Connecticut and a lot of the Northeast states is drying and preserving that moisture content from when they’re storing it to the facility where they’re getting their hops pelletized — whether there are holes in the bags or the bags are permeable or they’re drying appropriately but somehow in their travels, there’s a moisture uptake,” he said. “By doing this, we guarantee our customers that when their hops get here, we store them, and we check the moisture content when they arrive, and we get the pellets done in the next day or two.”
Because too much heat can also destroy the oils that hops provide, the pelletizer has special temperature-control mechanisms to keep the hops cool enough during processing.
Under recent federal rule changes, breweries also require that ingredients be meet a certified standard of cleanliness, which the pelletizing facility provides. Hops sold without a certificate can only be used for bittering purposes as part of the higher-temperature boil, and fetch the lower price of $5 to $8 per pound, compared to $12 to $15 per pound for certified pellets.
Putting it all together
DeFrancesco is planning a soft opening for mid-September for his Stewards of the Land Brewery, now well on its way to completion and installation of the brewery’s equipment. On the family farm he has already harvested a quantity of delicata squash, which he plans to use in a harvest ale.
“We’re the second licensed farm brewery in the state and we’re required to use a certain percentage of Connecticut ingredients in every batch of beer. In the first year, it’s 25 percent minimum and in the second year it’s 50 percent by volume,” he said. “We’re trying to do 100 percent from the get-go.”
A three-barrel, roughly 96-gallon, system is located downstairs, with special temperature-controlled beer-holding tanks that will connect directly with the taps upstairs. The brewery will seat about 50 people and will also have a homebrewing shop.
Both DeFrancesco and Wilson envision their breweries specifically as spaces where community can gather, come together and talk — like the concept of a town tavern.
Wilson designed her brewery, located in a refurbished cattle barn, with long tables flanked by reclaimed church pews where people can sit communally.
“I said I wanted it to be a big community table, someplace where people are forced to sit together and talk together,” she said. “Initially we started making beer and then growing hops and I think the reason we went full force is on this is we really want to build community.”
Of the two beers we tasted at Hop Culture, Wilson’s Bend and Snap, a blonde ale, was the stand out — perfectly balanced, dry and refreshing — a style which reflects Wilson’s self-described perfectionism and respect for back-to-the-roots basics of brewing.
Hop Culture Farm
Saturday Noon – 6 p.m. and Sunday Noon – 4 p.m.
144 Cato Corner Road, Colchester, CT.
Stewards of the Land
Opening in September