A hopping good time at Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs
Photo by Lynn Christoffers
It started as a joke, an outrageous lark in response to a news report about a world wide shortage of hops. Their expertise at growing the fragrant buds that give beer its bitterness and preserve its flavor lies somewhere between 'Hell, yeah,' and 'let's try it, it can't hurt.'
But when Ken Rusczyk, Alan Northcott, and Jim Pringle led a flock of eager pickers in a hop picking party at Mr. Northcott's garden on (where else) Hopps Farm Road in West Tisbury a few weeks back, it represented an organic gardening triumph of epic proportion. Either that, or a powerful thirst.
"The hardest part is learning how to control them," Mr. Rusczyk said, referring to the towering vines that can reach 30 to 40 feet in the air. We think that was what he was talking about. Perhaps, he referred instead to the decision to keep a supply of celebratory libations on ice until 65 gallon containers were duly filled with carefully plucked hops. "It has to be that way," Mr. Rusczyk said. "It would be a disaster if you started drinking before the picking is done."
"With this lot, it's pretty obvious," Mr. Northcott said.
About 14 hours later, Offshore Ale brewmaster Neil Atkins, using a variety of innovative methods including a "cheesecloth torpedo," incorporated the locally grown hops into a new batch of beer. "The fresher the better," he said.
The entire grand experiment culminated last Friday night at the popular brew pub in Oak Bluffs, when Mr. Atkins tapped the first of 19 barrels of Hopps Farm Road, a wet-hopped pale ale of distinction, all agreed.
The tap flowed non-stop for most of the evening, greeted with raucous enthusiasm by most of the people who grew the hops, many who picked them, and a steady stream of Island visitors who caught the buzz surrounding the local brew. Bar manager Glen Caldwell said only a handful of evenings over the last decade yielded higher sales. And the beer will stay on tap until all 19 barrels are empty.
But even before the din subsided around the Offshore Ale bar, Mr. Rusczyk issued a sobering warning. He said it is inevitable that the organic hop harvest will fall victim to a frightening array of pests. The vines are very susceptible to disease.
"Some day we'll be wiped out," Mr. Rusczyk said. "Every time we grow hops, we say 'Whew.'"
And with that sobering thought, he ordered another round.