For the past 10 or 11 years, depending upon who you talk to, a group of friends have gathered at Offshore Ale in late September to try the annual batch of Hopps Farm Road Pale Ale. This year they arrived last Tuesday afternoon, ready to try the bright orange-yellow ale made from hops organically grown on the Vineyard. Judging by the toasts and the comments after, this year’s beer is the best ever. But then again, Offshore’s brewmaster Neil Atkins said, “They say that every year.”
There are two main growers: Alan Northcott, who coincidentally lives on Hopps Farm Road in West Tisbury, and former Oak Bluffs selectman Ken Rusczyk. A few other smaller growers harvest their Chinook hops every summer and add them to the gallons that go to Mr. Atkins for brewing. This year 85 gallons of the small green buds were harvested. The brew master made 10 barrels of the fresh ale, and it will be sold exclusively on the Island at Offshore.
“People come from off-Island to get it; they don’t ship this. It’s for the locals,” Rusczyk said.
The whole concept began when Rusczyk decided he’d like to grow hops, so he sent away for the rhizomes — tiny twigs with little buds — and stuck them in ground next to his outdoor shower.
“This plant pops up and takes off, literally grows two inches a day in June,” Rusczyk said. After trying a few different varieties, the Island hop growers decided on the Chinooks they grow today. “They seem to love the weather on Martha’s Vineyard,” he said.
It takes three years for a hop plant to fully mature, Rusczyk explained, and now the roots are huge.
“Alan said give me some seeds, so I got 150 Chinook rhizomes and I thought ‘we’re gonna sell hops and make a million bucks,’” Rusczyk remembered. “Well, we’re not good businessmen so we ended up bartering the hops for a party with our friends so we could taste the beer.”
Before long, they realized they needed help harvesting the hops and now a core group of around 20 people help them harvest at the end of summer.
A few weeks ago, Dinny and Gary Montrowl helped harvest the hops grown at Cleaveland House in West Tisbury, where their aunt Cynthia Riggs has a garden. This year they started picking at 9 am, before a storm broke out and they had to run for cover. It was worth it in the end. Dinny’s mother, Ann Fielder, enjoyed a hearty rendition of “Happy Birthday” for her 92nd birthday at Offshore during the hops party last Tuesday.
“It’s become a fall ritual,” Mr. Montrowl said. “A lot of the people work on the Island all summer and when it’s finally over, this is a nice marker divide between the summer and fall.”
Once the harvested hops are delivered to Offshore, Mr. Atkins starts the brewing process the following day. The beer is ready after about two weeks.
Phil and Colleen McAndrews, owners of Offshore, say they’re happy to host the party — an annual gift to all the growers and harvesters.
“I think it’s great,” Phil said of this year’s batch. “Every year it’s different, in nature you never know what she’s gonna provide.”
Alan Northcott grows hops that climb up bamboo that’s 20 feet high in his garden. He said growing the hops began as a lark, but before long he had a real crop on his hands.
“I had a stockade fence around my garden and they took off like bloody weeds,” Northcott said during the hops party. “Chinooks do very well here. If they were a lot of work, they would’ve been sprayed with Roundup years ago.”
Now that he’s farmed hops for a decade or so, he’s familiar with the growing season.
“They smell like cut grass when they’re not ready, when they’re ready they smell like beer,” he said.
Northcott said his son bought him a beer-making kit a while back, and is still waiting for his first glass of homebrew.
“It’s a whole lot easier to come down here for a pint,” Northcott said.
Partygoers toasted each other and admired the Island’s bounty-in-a-glass from all angles.
Some of them offered up their take on the latest version of Hopps Farm Road Pale Ale.
Steve Parachini said this year’s batch was more citrusy than piney.
“It’s an easy-drinking beer. It goes down nice,” he said. “I wouldn’t miss it, this is my fifth year.”
Howard Harrison raised his glass and admitted, “This isn’t the only time we see each other and drink together.”
To try a glass of the Island’s own American Pale Ale, stop by Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs; you’ve got a week or so to taste it.