Top hops: local brew draws raves
When visitors come to Ken Rusczyk's Oak Bluffs home, they are usually impressed with his garden, but they are always amazed at the Chinook hop plants. They marvel at the delicate papery flowers, the vines that can grow a half a foot a day, and the oddity of finding a beer ingredient more commonly grown in England, Germany, or the American Northwest thriving right here in the salty climate of Martha's Vineyard.
But to Mr. Rusczyk, a former Oak Bluffs selectman, it doesn't seem like that big a deal. It just happened, quite naturally, he explains. "We like growing, and we like beer," he says.
The fruits - or, more accurately, the flowers - of his idealistic agricultural labors have culminated in a small batch of much sought-after brew, carefully crafted by Neil Atkins, the new brewmaster at Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs.
Photos by Steve Myrick
"The hops add a lot more character," says Mr. Atkins. "You get the aroma, that's what we were looking for."
Mr. Atkins pours a glass of brown ale made at Offshore with the normal brewing process. Then he pours a mug of brown ale from a separate cask.
The beers both started from the same brew kettle, but a small part of the batch was drained off, and finished by adding Mr. Rusczyk's organic hops to the mixture at the very end of the process.
The result is two very different beers, both good, but remarkably different. The brown ale brewed in the usual way has a yeasty aroma. The cask version had a very robust aroma. Partly because it is served warmer, and also because of the finishing hops, it has an especially full-bodied flavor. Though difficult to express in words, Mr. Atkins's description of a beer with "a lot more character" seems to fit just about right.
Mother of intervention
For Mr. Rusczyk and a few of his green-thumbed friends, growing hops stemmed from a threat to a cherished pastime: drinking beer. Several years ago, there was a large warehouse fire in Washington that destroyed a portion of the U.S. crop. In the same year, wet whether ruined most of the English crop. Giant brewing conglomerates, and scrappy microbreweries, were battling for the remaining supply, and hoarding what they could get. While some may see a bit of a leap in their logic, Mr. Rusczyk and friends forged ahead with a plan of action.
"Immediately, we thought we needed to fill the gap," says Mr. Rusczyk. "We can't have a worldwide shortage. We wondered how it would be accepted by the consumer to see Island-grown organic hops." A few Internet research sessions later, Mr. Rusczyk discovered that a particular variety, Chinook hops, might grow well here.
The first year, nothing much happens with a hop plant. They start from a rhizome, a short stem with buds, which doubles in size the first year. The next year it will produce some hops. The third year is when production really gears up, and in general, the older the plant, the better the hops. A plant can produce for nearly a century.
"Next year we're going to quadruple our production," says Mr. Rusczyk, in a tone that can only be described as giddy anticipation.
And that's just the start. Phil McAndrew, owner of Offshore Ale, is so enthusiastic about the locally grown hops, he bought about 100 rhizomes, which Mr. Rusczyk and his friend Alan Northcott planted on Hopps Farm Road, in West Tisbury. They swear they are not making this up. Though they will not likely be able to grow enough to become Offshore Ale's primary supplier, three years from now, beer gods willing, the partnership should be able to contribute enough to make a substantial supply of the unique local brew.
Location, location, location
"Certainly, when you're on an Island like this, everybody is looking for something local," says Mr. McAndrew. When he chalks the news up on the beer menu board, the beer flies out of the taps. "People love it," he says.
Hops were originally added to beer as a preservative. They tend to kill off microorganisms that can ruin beer. Mr. Atkins, a micro-biologist by training, says everybody got used to the flavor, and though better equipment and careful quality control have made spoilage less of an issue, everybody still wants their beer to have the bitter aftertaste and heady aroma of hops in it.
Mr. Rusczyk talks about hops like others talk about a an inspiring sculpture or a rare gem. "You're sitting there looking at it saying 'How did that happen,'" he says. "It's one of the most interesting things. They're very close to my shower so I see them every day."
It turns out Japanese beetles and a certain species of mice are natural predators for hop plants. "They haven't found us yet," says Mr. Rusczyk. "We want to keep it totally organic. If we get lucky, they'll never find us."
There are many variations in the brewing process, which makes hand-crafted beers distinctive. Next year, the Offshore crew is ready to pull out all the stops.
"The plan is to harvest the hops, and do a wet hop beer," says Mr. Atkins. Large growers usually dry hops in a kiln. Mr. Rusczyk dries them naturally, on a screen. Next year's crop won't be dried as usual, but left "wet." That will require some growing luck, and a little coordination between brewer and grower. "You get them into your brew kettle within an hour of picking them," says Mr. Atkins. Island beer enthusiasts should mark their calendars, and clear their schedules for late November, 2009.
"We're willing to try it," says Mr. Rusczyk. "We're willing to try anything."