Thanks to Maine hop growers, this year’s hop harvest will be the largest in nearly 100 years, providing Maine craft brewers with ingredients for creating “fresh hopped” beers.
Hops – one of the four foundational ingredients in beer – are important to creating a beer’s overall flavor, aroma and bitterness. The female Humulus lupulus plants create hop cones or flowers that contain the chemicals that provide its pungent flavoring. Depending on the brewery’s size, brewers can use just a few ounces of any of the over eighty varieties of hops, or can utilize pounds at a time.
In Maine, and most of the Northeast, it has been much easier for commercial brewers to obtain hops that have been grown in Europe or the Pacific Northwest, where long-standing traditions of hop growing have thrived, and large quantities are produced annually.
In the Pacific Northwest, for example, there are hundreds of beers produced each fall made with freshly harvested hops – those that have been harvested and put directly into the beer within a few days of being picked. This can only be accomplished if the hop farms are in close proximity to their brewers – long distance transportation of fresh hops isn’t possible. The preservation of hops usually involves drying and pelletizing the hops (making them into small, compact pellets resembling hamster food in appearance). Fortunately, importing these pellets are what allow brewers across the country to create strongly-flavored hoppy beers year-round. The taste of fresh hops is significantly different than those of the pellets and their guaranteed freshness (hard to go stale if there’s less than 24 hours from bine to kettle) and strong character makes them desirable to brewers.
While there have been a handful of very small-scale (backyard-sized) hop farms in Maine – including some on brewery grounds like the yard at Gneiss Brewing – Maine is beginning to see the rise of a more substantial hop crop that might make more “fresh hop” beers possible in the future. The Hop Yard, a Maine hop farm with a locations in Gorham and Fort Fairfield, is contributing to that future with their crop – and is anticipated to be the largest Maine hop harvest in almost 100 years. This year, the mature hop plants are expected to yield approximately 2,000 lbs of wet hops. Overall, 80% of the yard’s plants are still a year from maturity, meaning that a significant increase in this harvest will be seen next year if all goes to plan.
These hop growing efforts have not been without challenges. Recent heavy rainfall caused the poles that hold up the hops in the Gorham yard to sag significantly, and the growers are constantly battling attacks from fungus and bugs. The labor to set up the poles and trellises for the yard and the time it takes to train every single one of the bines to climb the twine used to support them is not insignificant. In addition, each bine has to be cut down manually when harvesting- making for an intense effort. This year, growers at The Hop Yard will be testing a mechanical harvester, which runs the vines around a conveyor belt that “slaps” the cones off the plants using rubber protuberances – hopefully saving hours of hand-picking.
The crop from both farms will be sent to over a dozen commercial breweries in Maine – including Allagash Brewing Company, Sebago Brewing Company, Austin Street Brewery, Rising Tide Brewing, Bunker Brewing and more.
Without historical baselines measuring the hop’s characteristics from year to year under different conditions, the harvest presents a bit of an unknown. These particular hops are new to brewers, and come with a bit of uncertainty – but also with a sense of excitement and adventure. The plants’ environment-based character, or terroir, is virtually unknown, and the resulting fresh hop beers will be a true taste of Maine.
I don’t know about, you, but I’m thirsty already.
Fourteen Maine breweries have committed to this all-fresh-hop tap takeover. This is the best place to get a taste of what Maine brewers can do with local hops. In’finiti will be pouring a harvest rye beer, and there’s rumors that Allagash will be brewing two beers – once with Maine-grown Cascade hops and the other with West-Coast Cascade for comparison.