Local brewers jump to get freshly harvested hops from Four Star Farms in Northfield
Al Snape takes the form of the "Hop Monster" during a tour of Four Star Farms hop production on Friday in Northfield. He is from Far From The Tree Cider out of Salem. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
Smelling hops in the hop fields at Four Star Farms in Northfield are Bill 'Lefty' Goldfarb of Lefty's Brewing Company, Liz E'Toile of Four Star Farms, Donald Pacher of The Northampton Brewery and Chris Sellers of The People's Pint. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
Bill "Lefty" Goldfarb of Lefty's Brewing Co. in Greenfield takes in the odor of hops crushed in his palms in the hop fields at Four Star Farms in Northfield on Friday. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
Hops grown at Four Star Farms in Northfield. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
When Bill “Lefty” Goldfarb got the call Wednesday morning from Four Star Farms in Northfield saying, “The fog’s rising, we’ll probably start picking in about half an hour,” he and his crew at Lefty’s Brewing Co. in Greenfield wasted no time.
“Shoot, they’d been off the vine maybe a half hour when we got here,” Goldfarb says of the fresh local hops the local brewer plans to use in his craft beers. “We came and got four of those ... bags there and went right back to the brewery.”
Using 20 pounds of wet Centennial hops and another 20 pounds of Nugget hops, they made 4½ barrels of a special brew to serve at the Lefty’s Fest at the Franklin County Fairgrounds on Sept. 27.
“This is an opportunity you get once a year, you know, to drive only a town over and get fresh hops,” said Goldfarb, whose Lefty’s T-shirt bears the hop-icon company logo. He plans to get 25 pounds of dried Cascade hops next week. Hops, like malt, is a fundamental ingredient in beer, and key to the beer’s flavor profile.
He was one of about 50 craft brewers who turned out for what could only be called a “hoppening” Friday morning at Four Star, a 300-acre former dairy farm that Eugene and Bonnie L’Etoile bought in 1986 to grow turf. But just as the housing market for turf began to dry up in the mid-2000s, and they began looking to diversify, the price for hops on the spot market jumped from about $3 to about $42 because of a crop failure in Europe and a fire at a West Coast warehouse with 1,000 tons of hops.
“Hey Dad, we ought to grow hops,” Nathan told his father in 2007.
“What is a hop?” the elder L’Etoile recalls asking, as he hosted Friday’s visitors to the farm’s seven-acre hopyard, where harvest began last week and will run likely through the first week in September. “I know what it tastes like, but what does it looks like? I don’t know how to grow it,” he recalled saying.
Beginning with six varieties on a three-quarter-acre test plot that started in 2008, after approaching researchers at the University of Vermont and then touring German hopyards, the L’Etoile family hopes to harvest a crop of 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of dried hops this season, of which about 1,200 is already spoken for.
Friday’s tour, including representatives from Lefty’s, Berkshire Brewing Co., Northampton Brewing Co., High Horse and Cambridge Brewing Co., viewed the nine varieties growing 20 feet tall in a 26-row hopyard set up two years ago.
The learning curve, in a part of the world where growing hops is something of a novelty, has involved figuring out how to set up the 24-foot-tall cedar posts, planted 4 feet below the ground, and also discovering how to keep the moisture level of the different varieties just right — optimally about 78 percent — especially in damp New England and especially in a wet year like this one.
That extra dampness means that downy mildew in the spring, and powdery mildew now, along with Alternaria fungus, has cut into production. The morning fog is heavy on this farm, right beside the Connecticut River where they use a rebuilt 1982 German picker that cost $35,000 to $40,000.
The extra moisture also adds to the time it takes to dry the hops using three hand-made driers that can do the job in six to eight hours. Nathan L’Etoile, who showed visitors Friday the drying and packaging operation, said one drying session last week went from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.
“They’re totally different from any other crop in the Northeast that I know of,” L’Etoile said. “In the spring, it’s bare dirt. Six weeks later, it’s at the strings up there. In that time you have to run all the strings, train the plants, strip the bottom of the binds. It’s just completely different than anything else I’ve ever dealt with.”
There are some people starting up hopyards in the Northeast, a region that had been home to hop production until it moved to drier climes out West, said Eugene L’Etoile, “and they think they can stay small. They can’t,” because of inefficiencies, unless they’re just doing it for a hobby. We need to get bigger.”
He added, “The biggest thing is, can we sell them? We can’t do it cheap. We’re not big enough; we don’t have the infrastructure they have on the West Coast, or Europe. If people are willing to buy it, we can expand.”
Next year, when the current crop matures enough that Four Star hopes to double production, the plan is to expand to 10 acres and add more dryers. L’Etoile points to 28 acres south of the current hopyard where the crop can expand.
The mechanical picker, which his other son, Jacob, is showing to another group of brewers, is ideally suited for a crop of 20 to 25 acres, L’Etoile says.
According to Caleb Goodrich, head brewer at Berkshire Brewing Co., who uses the Northfield hops for the company’s Holidale, and plans to make a “brewers series” IPA with grain and hops from Northfield, “The aromatic quality of these hops are just phenomenal. ... And there’s definitely a culture of locavore in this valley. But we try to do it with one-off kind of beer that we’re trying not to replicate 500 times a year” because of cost as well as the different inherent flavors between here and West Coast hops.
An accident last year, when Lefty’s brewer Duane “Doc” Nelson used twice as much Four Star hops as planned, resulted in an India Pale Ale they dubbed “Doc’s Double Whammy.”
“It was a huge hit. Everyone loved it, so we came back and got more hops from them this summer,” says Goldfarb, who is sold on the local hops.
“Sure, business is business, but you have to put that aside for the folks that matters to,” he says. “When you’re working with your neighbors, it’s one big happy circle. For folks around the Pioneer Valley, it’s so important, and that just keeps the commerce going. What Gene’s doing here is just awesome.”
On the Web:www.fourstarfarms.com
You can reach Richie Davis at: email@example.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269