Updated Sept. 16
An experiment between beer-loving gardeners and Island brewers has grown over the years into a beloved annual tradition.
At the center of the nearly 20-year-old ritual is Hopps Farm Road Pale Ale — a crisp and highly drinkable session ale that gets its smooth flavor from locally produced ‘Chinook’ hops grown by a number of passionate contributors.
Although the final product is highly sought after (especially by the hop growers), it’s the work that goes into the process that makes the beer so special for those who toil among plywood tables for hours picking the green, fragrant buds from the vine.
For Alan Northcott, one of the original hop growers on-Island (and also an avid gardener) growing the winding vines and harvesting the hops is a labor of love that he looks forward to each year.
At first, Northcott said the entire tradition started as a joke between him and his friend, Ken Rusczyk. “Nobody really knew how the hops grew. Nobody knew anything about it, at first. It was really the blind leading the blind,” Northcott laughed. “But we started getting into it, and it ended up becoming this fun thing that everyone looks forward to.”
After the hops got established in Rusczyk and Northcott’s gardens, Northcott started delivering the harvest to the Offshore Ale brewpub in Oak Bluffs to be made into the special beer.
But for only a few pickers, the harvesting process was overwhelming, so Northcott wondered if the brewers would be willing to help pick. “I said, ‘Well, next year you guys better show up and help pick them, otherwise these hops are going to meet Mr. Roundup,’” Northcott said.
The first Offshore employee to attend the harvest was restaurant and retail operations manager Jessie Holtham, and from that point, the event snowballed into a highly anticipated happening among beer enthusiasts.
Now, Offshore brewmaster Neil Atkins has taken over the production, and he wants green hops, which are picked directly from the vine and added to the brew within 24 to 48 hours of harvest to add a fresh flavor. “The way you can tell they’re ready to pick is if you pick them too soon they smell like cut grass. When they’re ripe, they start smelling like hops,” Northcott said.
At first, all the growers involved were growing a few different varieties of hops, but one hop seemed to have the highest yield each year — the ‘Chinook.’ “The other hops would start with a hiss and a roar, and then fizzle out over time,” Northcott said. With that, the growers ripped out their old hops and replaced them with the ‘Chinook’ variety.
Throughout the growing season, everyone looks forward to the day when they can all get together and pick the hops from the towering vines.
This long-awaited event, dubbed Hop Day, has been refined over the years to be more efficient, and just as much of a party as a daylong chore (the only rule is no one drinks a sip of beer until the final product is ready).
Northcott explained that he has come up with the best way to remove the hops from the vine — a trick he learned from another grower’s relative from Bavaria, who said to lay the vines down on a table and pick them by hand.
“Many hands make light work. Everyone shows up to pick hops, they get a T shirt, and it’s just a great time,” Northcott said.
With a couple of sawhorses and some large pieces of plywood spread across them ready, the hop vines are cut, along with the bamboo shoots that support the plant during growing. The entire plant is then uncoiled from the bamboo and placed onto the plywood tables for picking.
For Northcott, one of the nicest things about growing hops is the simplicity and low maintenance involved. “If you can get them established, keep them weeded, and really get them going, you are good to go,” Northcott said. “And the beer is really good. It’s so popular that it’s usually only on tap at the Offshore brewpub for about 10 days or so.”
According to hop picker Gary Montrowl, Cleaveland House was recently introduced into the equation after Cynthia Riggs (Montrowl’s aunt) grew a boomer crop of ‘Chinook’ hops.
Traditionally, the largest portion of the hops have been grown and harvested at Northcott’s house on Hopps Farm Road (the namesake of the beer). But once Riggs grew an impressive amount of hops, the operation shifted largely to Cleaveland House, where she lives. Riggs and one other grower produced about 90 percent of the hops for this year’s brew, so it made sense to hold the Hop Day picking party at Cleaveland House. “It’s a great location for growing and picking,” Montrowl said.
For Riggs, her foray into hop growing started with her grandson breaking up with his girlfriend in Ohio, and moving to the Vineyard with the hopes of becoming a brewer. Montrowl introduced him to Atkins, who was happy to let him be an apprentice at the brewery.
While Riggs’ grandson was on the Island, he planted some hop rhizomes in her garden.
But shortly after getting his apprenticeship, Riggs’ grandson moved back to Ohio with his girlfriend, and the rhizomes remained growing here on the Vineyard. “They’ve been growing in her garden ever since. At first they didn’t amount to much, but in recent years they have really taken off at an incredible rate,” Montrowl said. “In the past two years she has contributed to the harvest. The first year it was a large amount, and even a larger amount this year.”
Because the group never knows the volume of hops they will produce in any given year, based on growing conditions, the brew tastes different every time.
“I don’t really know how [Atkins] comes up with the formula. I think he probably makes it up as he goes along,” Montrowl said. “There’s not really any other way to do it.”
Offshore owner Phil McAndrews has been a major supporter of the tradition, and has allowed Atkins to keep brewing the beer each year at the pub.
“We have a little celebration at the brewery for the tapping of the keg when the beer is first released, and he supports that, too,” Montrowl said.
The tapping party is normally held about two weeks after Hop Day. It’s a time for the growers to enjoy the fruits of their labor and toast to a job well done.
“It’s the camaraderie that everyone really enjoys. We love to grow hops, and we love to drink beer — it’s a lot more fun when we do it together,” Montrowl said.