Outside a weather-beaten barn, a John Deere tractor glints in the afternoon sun. A wind turbine spins quietly as cumulus clouds laze through the azure sky. The sweet aroma of hay and manure hangs in the air, while acres of green hop vines stretch into the distance. This agrarian landscape at The Hop Yard in Gorham reminds me of a simple, yet oft-forgotten truth: The beer we drink begins its life on a farm.
When I visit The Hop Yard, the farm is in the throes of its two-week fall harvest. As Ryan Houghton, hop farmer and co-owner, drives me down into the 8 acres of hops suspended from wires, he explains that during the harvest weeks, he and the other farmers need to be on the farm 24 hours a day.
Before I can ask if he’s tired, he plucks a corpulent hop cone from a vine and rubs it between his palms. He breathes in deeply and lets out a satisfying sigh. He yanks another Cascade cone off the vine and hands it to me. Rubbing the cone between my palms to release the oils and resins from the lupulin glands, I raise the cone to my nose and inhale. The sticky yellow resins release striking notes of pineapple, tangerines and cannabis.
Between sensuous breaths of hop resin, I ask how long it generally takes for these hops to go from harvesting to being used by local brewers to make the seasonal wet hop harvest beers.
“Most of the hops used for this fall’s wet hop beers go from field to kettle in less than 24 hours,” Houghton says. “In some cases, it’s less than a few hours.”
He explained that Sebago Brewing, located less than 5 miles from the farm, will pitch fresh hops into its brew kettle a couple of hours after being harvested from the fields.
The riches of this year’s harvest from The Hop Yard and other Maine hop farms will be on display Saturday at Thirsty Pig in Portland for Hoptoberfest. At this event, beer lovers can tipple hop harvest ales from a number of Maine breweries, including Sebago, Rising Tide, Bissell Brothers, Austin Street and Liquid Riot, among others.
Houghton, who grew up on a potato farm in Fort Fairfield, where The Hop Yard has 2 additional acres of hops, explains that after local brewers acquire whole cone hops for their harvest ales, the majority – about 80 percent – of this year’s harvest will be baled and shipped to Oregon to be turned into pellets. The hop pellets will then be shipped back to Gorham and sold to local breweries in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
As the hop vines sway in the late-summer breeze, Houghton tells me that the most important aspect of hop farming is being consistent from year to year with the flavor profile of the hops.
“It was hard at first, because we didn’t have anyone locally to ask questions. No one had grown hops in Maine for over a hundred years,” he says.
With hop farming becoming more prevalent in the state, The Hop Yard and other local hop farms have created the Maine Hop Growers’ Association. The group’s main purpose is to allow information-sharing among the farmers. This will help strengthen the quality and quantity of locally grown hops, bringing beer lovers more brews with Maine-sourced ingredients.
Houghton’s phone rings, and he excuses himself. I’m left alone in the silent row of undulating hop vines. I pluck another cone and open it up to expose the sticky yellow glands, marveling at the simple miracle of soil, air, sun and water that brings us beer.
WHEN: 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: 37 Exchange St., Portland
WHO: This event will feature hop harvest ales brewed with Maine-grown hops from Maine hop farms, including The Hop Yard.
ON DRAFT: Beers from, among others, Sebago, Rising Tide, Bissell Brothers, Austin Street and Liquid Riot
FOOD: Special menu from Thirsty Pig, including a pretzel platter and drindl dog topped with beer-braised sauerkraut and house spicy mustard, among other inspired pub fare
MORE INFO: On Facebook
OTHER BEER HAPPENINGS
Sunday through Oct. 21, various Bangor-area breweries and bars. visitbangormaine.com/beerweek
Bangor has firmly established itself as a must-visit beer destination in Maine. With a half-dozen breweries in the immediate metropolitan area and a number of brewhouses in the surrounding towns, Bangor is pumping out some of Maine’s best beers. Celebrate this thriving brew hub with the weeklong festivities of the Greater Bangor Beer Week. The dizzying lineup of events at local breweries and bars will keep you sated and fill you with awe for this formidable beer city.
6:30 to 9 p.m. Friday (weather permitting), 274 Jones Woods Road, Newcastle. On Facebook.
If you haven’t made the trek to Newcastle to check out Oxbow’s brewery and farm, let the Friday night bonfire series be your impetus. As a farmhouse brewery, Oxbow is dedicated to creating a brewhouse environment that is true to its agrarian ethos. In addition to the bonfire, Oxbow encourages patrons to roam the expansive property that includes acres of hiking trails and a scenic pond. The bonfire series continues each Friday night through the end of the calendar year. Expect fresh farmhouse ales and live music, and don’t forget to BYOS (bring your own s’mores).