Valley Bounty: Hops

2019 was a great season for growing hops on Four Star Farms in Northfield. “Our yields were really good and the quality was exceptional,” Liz L’Etoile, the farm’s Director of Sales and Marketing, explained during a recent conversation.

Four Star Farms is one of the only farms in the region that grows hops, a key ingredient in brewing beer, on a commercial scale. The farm was founded in 1987 by Bonnie and Gene L’Etoile. For years, the couple grew turf grass on the 250-acre farm. But by the late aughts, their sons Jacob and Nathan had married, and the farm now needed to support three families, not just one. So the L’Etoiles looked for ways to diversify the business. They began growing grains and Gene, Liz’s father in law, suggested that they plant a small test plot to see if they could successfully grow hops.

Going into their hops experiment, the L’Etoiles weren’t sure if the crop would be viable to grow in this region. “The growing conditions here in New England are very different than where they’re typically grown, which is the Pacific Northwest in desert-like conditions,” Liz L’Etoile explained. “Because of those weather challenges, we have things like disease and pest pressure.”

Although the climate was a concern, the family quickly learned that there was demand for locally grown hops in the Valley. “I don’t think the farm even had a website yet, but there were brewers that heard we were trying to do this thing and were interested in using the hops that we could grow right from the very beginning,” L’Etoile said. “That was amazing, because we could have a partnership with a brewer who could tell us what they’re looking for in terms of aromas and different varieties, and how to handle them post-harvest.”

Bolstered by the support of local brewers, Four Star Farms steadily increased their hops production over the past decade. In 2019, they grew nine varieties of the crop across 17 acres of land.

Hops are perennial plants that die back completely during the winter. In early May, L’Etoile explained, the hop plants will pop out of the soil across Four Star Farms. The team sets up trellises—built with wooden poles that suspend aircraft cables 18 feet above the ground. When growth begins in the spring, the team ties strings to the suspended cables, then stakes them in the ground next to each hop plant. As the plants increase in size, they train the hops to grow vertically up the strings.

“Between May and the summer solstice in June, those plants will grow from the ground to the full 18 feet to the top of the trellis,” L’Etoile said. “It’s kind of crazy because sometimes it feels like you can literally watch them grow as you’re out there weeding them or taking care of them. And it’s not uncommon for a hop plant to grow up to three feet in a week, depending on the growing conditions.”

After the plants hit the top of the trellis, they develop sidearms, or stems that grow horizontally. Flowers develop on the sidearms, and eventually turn into hop cones during July.

The hops harvest runs from the third week of August to the third week of September on Four Star Farms. In their first years of growing hops, the family harvested by hand. It would take one person one hour to harvest a single vine, typically yielding between one and two pounds of hops. But the farm recently purchased a specialized hop harvester, which they had shipped all the way from Germany.

“If you were to look at it, it’s industrial steam-punk looking. It has these big vent systems and a long arm that stretches out from the front of the machine,” L’Etoile said.

The team loads the entire plant into the machine, including the leaves, vines, and hop cones. “There’s a series of picking fingers and chopping bars in the top of the harvest machine. They pull apart the hop cones from the leaves and create two different streams as it all trickles down through the machine,” L’Etoile explained. It’s able to separate the hops from the rest of the plant matter by measuring the difference in weight densities.

The machine was a major investment, but L’Etoile said that it “is worth its weight in gold for us.” It can process up to 185 vines per hour.

Despite the challenges of growing hops in the Northeast, the L’Etoiles have found success with the crop. “I’m becoming a big believer that hop plants like to be stressed out,” L’Etoile said with a laugh. Although dry, sunny years are good for hops yields, she thinks that the inconsistent New England weather can result in a distinct flavor. “It seems like there’s more aroma and more flavor on those years when we maybe have more rain than we would like, or the temperatures aren’t quite as warm, or the days aren’t as sunny,” she said.

Four Star Farms preserves much of their hops harvest by pelletizing the crop so they can be used for brewing throughout the year. A number of local breweries buy hops from the farm, including The People’s Pint and Artisan Beverage Cooperative in Greenfield, and Stoneman Brewery in Colrain. To find a full list of breweries that use hops from the farm, visit fourstarfarms.com.

For the L’Etoiles, it’s been rewarding to see their hops experiment grow to fuel brewing across western Massachusetts. “It’s really special for us to be able to have a long harvest day at the farm and then go to a local tap room or restaurant and have a drink that’s made with our hops that we’ve grown,” L’Etoile said.

Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)

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