Hop pickers work up a thirst for local brew

Hopps grown on Martha's Vineyard are destined for Hopps Farm Road Pale Ale at Offshore Ale Company. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The fifth annual Vineyard hop harvest brought together about 40 cheerful, energetic friends and beer lovers on September 12 at Alan Northcott’s hop garden, at the end of the appropriately but coincidentally named Hopps Farm Road in West Tisbury. Working in shifts, they harvested hops from the morning until the mid-afternoon. After the hops were delivered to Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs, where they will be used to flavor a 310-gallon tun of seasonal pale ale, the harvesters stayed at the brew pub for refreshment and food.

“I believe this is the fifth year we’ve been able to harvest enough Island-grown hops to produce our annual ‘wet hop’ beer, Hopps Farm Road Pale Ale,” said Phil McAndrews, owner of Offshore Ale in a press release. “It has become a fall tradition for us to harvest and brew this beer.”

The hops are farmed by Island beer enthusiasts, harvested all on the same day, then delivered to Offshore. Mr. Northcott has the largest of the half dozen or so hop gardens on the Island. Smaller harvests from Ken Rusczyk, Jonathan Laird, Jim Pringle, among others, were also delivered to Offshore Ale on the harvest day.

Todd Hitchings of West Tisbury had the day off from his job at Offshore Ale, so he had time to help with the harvest. “It’s the first time I wasn’t scheduled to work on harvest day,” he said, “Now I have a more complete understanding of the beer-making process that I can tell customers about.”

Todd worked with several 20-something friends pulling the soft, bud-like, green flowers from the hop vines that grew up the curtain-like deer fencing around Alan Northcott’s vegetable garden.

The main group of harvesters gathered around a 16- by 4-foot table to perform the same task on vines that had been growing up 20-foot bamboo poles. Mr. Northcott cut the vines at their base, snipped off the retaining ties holding the poles in place and laid the poles on the table. The vines were removed from the poles as harvesters removed the flowers from the vines. The flowers were placed in buckets and baskets for delivery to Offshore.

Almost any beer lover can tell you whether he or she likes hoppy beers or less hoppy beers. But few know what a hop is or how it is used in the beer-making process. A former Oak Bluffs selectman, Mr. Rusczyk, is one of those beer lovers. He is an avid gardener, mainly of tomatoes and basil. About 10 years ago, he began looking into hops. After some research, he bought one hop rhizome that he thought might grow well on the Vineyard.

Hops is a major flavoring agent used in the production of beer. Its chemical makeup plays a role in the quality and freshness of beer, and it imports a flavor that neutralizes the natural sweetness produced by malted barley, a primary ingredient in beer making. There are dozens of varieties of hops, all with their own distinctive characteristics, most of which would not grow particularly well on the Vineyard, Mr. Rusczyk judges. The variety he purchased, Chinook, has done well here.

Some Island hop growers have had success with a variety called cascade and others grow fuggle. The three varieties are mixed for the Island brew.

Mr. Northcott, a friend of Mr. Rusczyk, thought the fast-growing vine might be a nice plant, like grapes, that would be a pleasant addition to his garden, so he transplanted some of his buddy’s hop plants to the base of his deer fence around his vegetable garden. After a couple of years he realized he got more than he bargained for.

“You can almost see them grow,” he said. “They grow over two inches a day.” The hop vines began to pull down his fencing.

Hops start from a rhizome, a short stem with buds, which doubles in size the first year. The next year it will produce some flowers. The third year is when production really gears up. Generally, the older the plant, the better the hops. They can produce for nearly a century.

When the hops are harvested the vines are cut off at the base leaving an ever widening and thickening mat of roots which can be difficult to remove.

“Just imagine sticking a pitchfork into a pile of fishing nets and trying to pull it up. You just can’t do it,” Mr. Northcott said in the New Zealand accent that hasn’t diminished much in the 30 years he has lived on the Island.

He planted a separate hop garden using Island grown bamboo sticks more than 20 feet long, tied to cross wires strung from two tall, T-shaped posts that look as though they were built as clotheslines for giants. The vines easily outgrow the sticks each growing season.

The only major commercial use for hops is beer, although it is thought to have a mild sedative quality and is sometimes used in herbal teas. Hops is a member of the small family of flowering plants, Cannabaceae, which includes cannabis, hemp or marijuana. Although it looks nothing like marijuana, Mr. Northcott said with a wry smile, the annual police fly-over spent about 45 minutes hovering over his hop garden a few years ago.

Most brewers use dry hops in making their beer, according to Offshore master brewer Neil Atkins, as he does for most of the beer he brews, but he thinks using wet, or green, un-dried hops gives the beer its own distinctive flavor. The Offshore dry hops are purchased from off-Island sources. The Island produces only enough hops for this one batch of beer, he said.

At about 7 the morning after the harvest, Mr. Atkins began brewing a new batch of beer with malted barley, yeast and water, creating what is called the wort. About two hours later, the Island hops were lowered in a cage like tea in an over-sized tea strainer, 10 inches wide by about two feet high, into the giant kettle of boiling wort. Left in for about a half an hour the cage was reloaded and the process repeated. The flavor of the final product is determined by every part of the process, including the quality and quantity of the hops and how long they are left in.

By far the majority of beer is brewed from malted barley, hops, yeast, and water. Other ingredients such as fruit, wheat, and spices are sometimes used for flavor. The yeast turns sugars in the malt into alcohol and the hops provide the bitter flavors in beer and the flowery aroma. The flavor of the beer depends on many things, including the types of malt and hops used and the variety of the yeast.

At the après-harvest party, there was lots of laughter and friendly chatter among the hopped-up (pardon me) pickers after the day of collective work. Harvesters David Maddox and Mr. Rusczyk, the point man for the harvest, said that the harvest group is like a club. They look forward to their annual meetings. There is no financial reward for the growing and the work does not produce a paycheck, but Mr. Rusczyk said the payback is in a couple of weeks when the beer is ready.

“No, I mean in four weeks,” his tongue planted selfishly in his check. The beer will be available for as long as it lasts, which by all indications, given the appetites of the pickers, will not be very long.