Brewing something magical
Northfield hop yard, Colrain farm bring local flavors, aromas to craft beer
By MAX MARCUS, Staff Writer, The Recorder, September 20, 2019
At 17 acres, Four Star Farms in Northfield is one of the larger hop yards in New England. That isn’t nearly large enough to supply a major beer brewer like Budweiser or even the semi-local Samuel Adams — but that’s not the point, says the L’Etoile family, who has run Four Star Farms since the 1970s.
Local hops farming, and the craft brewing industry that has developed around it, value the particular flavors and aromas that come from growing hops in this environment.
“Terroir” is the buzzword, which in French means the total set of local agricultural conditions that determine the character of a crop. Typically it is used to talk about wine grapes. In the past decade, it’s gained currency with craft beer brewers and hops farmers.
Four Star Farms started growing hops in 2007 as an experiment, planting threequarters of an acre. At that time, there may have been a few other small hops farms in New England, if there were any at all, said Liz L’Etoile, Four Star’s director of sales and marketing.
“We kind of got in on the ground floor. I like to say that it gives us an intimacy with our product and our equipment, to really appreciate where we are and where we’ve come from,” L’Etoile said.
Everything had to be built from the ground up, from the farming and harvesting techniques to the equipment. Historically hops were grown in New England, probably until the early 1900s, L’Etoile said; but the industry left with westward expansion, and took with it all the folk knowledge associated with growing hops in this region.
Now most industrial hops farming is in the Pacific Northwest. The smallest of those farms are a few hundred acres. Most are in the thousands. For comparison, Four Star Farms produced 12,000 pounds of hops last year; a typical industrial farm in the West harvests twice that much in one day, L’Etoile said.
To a prospective hops farmer, this means that all the equipment for harvesting hops is designed for huge farms. When Four Star had only its small, experimental hop yard, the farmers picked the hops by hand. It took an hour for one person to pick a full vine of hops, and took a full day of hard work to fill a small order of 35 pounds of hops, L’Etoile said. “We started losing friends,” she said.
West Coast-scale equipment was too expensive and would have been more than the farm needed anyway. But in Europe, hops farms are typically under 50 acres — meaning that there is equipment for farms of that size, but it’s harder to obtain, said Gene L’Etoile, who founded Four Star Farms with his wife, Bonnie, in the 1970s.
In 2012 Four Star Farms bought a hops-picking machine, made in Germany in the 1980s, which can process 200 vines of hops in an hour — what before would have taken 200 hours of work. It allowed Four Star Farms to begin expanding its hop yard, until reaching the present 17 acres in 2016, Liz L’Etoile said.
The growth of Four Star Farms’ hops business probably increased brewers’ interest in using local ingredients, and drew more people to start their own breweries, Liz L’Etoile said.
“We were growing with the demand, and I think we were also contributing to the increase in demand,” she said.
Four Star now sells to 40 breweries total, from Maine to New York City (plus one in Arizona) including the People’s Pint in Greenfield, Brick and Feather in Turners Falls and Honest Weight in Orange.
Brewing something magical
One of the relatively newer brewers is Justin Korby, the owner and sole operator of Stoneman Brewery. Korby started brewing commercially in 2012. Before that he had worked as a stonemason, until he underbid on a project and needed a new source of income.
At the same time, Four Star Farms was expanding its hops business. Korby saw an opportunity to pursue his interest in beer brewing, and switched careers that year.
Korby’s vision for the brewery was to use 100 percent local ingredients. In trying to balance that ideal against the realities of running a business, he’s gone through a few different business models.
For about three years he brewed all of his beer at his home in Colrain, using almost all local ingredients and selling only to members in his own farm share-style program. He’s also tried using less local ingredients and contracting larger breweries to make his beer at a better price.
“I’m still on that mission,” Korby said.
Local ingredients cost more. Hops from the Pacific Northwest cost about $4 to $7 per pound, while Four Star Farms’ hops cost about $17 per pound, Gene L’Etoile said. So brewers who want to use local ingredients have to charge more for their beer.
“It’s the brewers who are able to get a premium for their beer who can afford to pay the premium for the ingredients,” Gene L’Etoile said.
Stoneman uses a relatively high portion of local ingredients, so a four-pack costs about $16. Korby has tried to turn this into a selling point. When he started brewing, his beers came with stickers on them telling exactly what percentage of that batch was local ingredients, Korby said.
“I was trying to influence people and influence brewers,” he said. “Because it’s helping the local farmers to create this thing that’s magical. No one else has this.”
Now Korby is finalizing a deal to move into a building at Berkshire East, where he’ll open a new taproom and expand from the onebarrel “nanobrewery” at his home in Colrain to a fivebarrel microbrewery. The new location, easily accessible from Route 2, should draw more beer-tasting tourists than his home in Colrain could, he said; and hopefully it will make the all-local ingredients model feasible.
Craft beer sales on the rise
The local brewing boom that Stoneman came out of has slowed, but apparently there is still room to grow, Gene L’Etoile said. Total beer sales have decreased slightly in recent years, but sales of craft beer are increasing, he said. New breweries continue to open, and they don’t seem to be competing for market share, Liz L’Etoile said.
“There will be a max capacity at some point, but I don’t think we’ve reached it yet,” Liz L’Etoile said.
Four Star Farms hopes to continue growing its hops business to keep up with the market, but has no ambitions of selling to largescale breweries, Gene L’Etoile said. The farm has 250 acres of usable land, which it also uses to grow grains and turf. Gene L’Etoile said he wants to expand from 17 acres of hops to about 25 or 30, which could make hops the farm’s primary crop.
If Four Star were to expand its hop yard much further than that, it would push the farm into the commodityagriculture bracket of the large Pacific Northwest hops farms, and Four Star Farms d o e s n’t have enough land to make that economically viable, Gene L’Etoile said.
Even if such an expansion were possible, it would compromise what makes the farm unique in the larger hops market. “It’s the economies of scale that totally separate us (from commodity-agriculture hops) and, I think, make us unique when trying to compare,” Liz L’Etoile said. “The quality is just as good, the varieties are comparable, but it’s the nuance of being a small farmer. A brewer can call us and talk to me or Gene and get the hops the next day.”
Four Star has hosted an annual “Brewers Day” every August for the past seven years, when the farm’s customers can visit the farm, see how the hops are grown and harvested, and taste different varieties. Those kinds of interactions allow brewers to understand the real difference of using local ingredients, Liz L’Etoile said. “Anyone can make beer from ingredients from all over the world,” Korby said. “But it really is special using ingredients from here. The local terroir, it really does have a different flavor.”
Reach Max Marcus at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.