Hops yard grows in Starksboro
STARKSBORO — It’s a golden early fall day. Across from the beaver pond along a stretch of Route 17 where it snakes toward the spine of the Green Mountains stand two acres of trellises, each row as high as a house. Twirling up 18-foot lengths of twine, 2,000 hop plants reach toward the sun, laden with cones (the name for those blossoms that make beer taste so good to some).
Nearby, the University of Vermont Hops Project’s new HopHarvester chugs away, demonstrating how easily the machine strips the cones off the bines. As the machine keeps chugging, a clear, lemony scent spikes through the air.
But for Homestead Hops growers Kelly and Kathleen Norris it’s not just any beautiful day. This is the Norrises’ first harvest off their new hopyard, laboriously and meticulously installed two years ago.
The couple have invested more than $100,000 in expanding their Starksboro acreage into this new venture.
With this fall’s harvest, they will begin to see how much more it will take to make it a commercial success.
“Before we planted, a lot of the responses from brewers were basically, ‘Talk to me when you have something to sell. Show us the product, and then we’ll think about buying it,’” said Kelly Norris.
“The challenge right now is to prove we can sell this crop — and then expand,” added Kathleen.
Alongside the many still-unanswered questions about the commercial side of this operation is the pride in continuing to work land that’s been in the family for over a century.
Kelly and Kathleen point to the place where the family homestead once stood — and burned down twice. Kelly’s mother and grandmother were both born in that house. The land was first owned by Kelly’s great-grandfather and two great-uncles, Andrew, Ezra and Ira Hallock.
“I was trying to figure out what to call it, like ‘Mountainside Hops’ or ‘Mountainview,’” said Kathleen. “I was tossing around some different names as I was taking down some of the old asphalt shingles off the barn one day. And I looked up and I said, ‘Well Homestead Hops, of course,’ because this was the homestead. So that’s how the name came about.”
KATHLEEEN AND KELLY NORRIS
According to Heather Darby, the lead agronomist on the UVM Extension’s Hops Project, hops is a small but growing commercial crop in Vermont. Darby said there are roughly six to 10 commercial hops growers in Vermont, and UVM’s hops conferences routinely draw more than 200 attendees, which shows a lot of interest statewide.
Back in the day, Vermont was second only to New York as a hops producer, but lost out as hops growing moved to fields out west.
The hops resurgence, said Darby, is tied to Vermont’s thriving microbrew scene. Vermont leads the nation in number of microbrews per capita. In around 2008, hops prices skyrocketed from around $3 or $4 per bushel to up to $30 and $35. Vermont growers began to get interested. Today the state has roughly 20-30 acres in commercial hops. And growers are continuing to experiment with what varieties grow best in this climate, while they follow trends of what this year’s brewers are looking for in flavor and aroma profiles.
The leading place in the United States to grow hops continues to be Washington state’s Yakima Valley, a hot, dry place that’s a far cry from the Green Mountains. But hops plants like moisture (a growing bine needs 16-20 gallons of water a week, Darby said), an advantage for Vermont. On the other hand, hops are susceptible to a pathogen called downy mildew, which thrives in cool moist climates. So Vermont hops farmers have strikes both for and against them as they begin to work with this new/old crop.
STARTING A HOPYARD
The Norrises became interested in growing hops just two years ago. They already ran a sugarbush, Norris Sugarworks, on their 230 acres and wanted a crop that would complement the maple harvesting calendar. For years, the couple had owned and operated the Jerusalem Country Store in South Starksboro, a business they sold in 2012 to be able to devote themselves to maple sugaring.
“Kelly was working out in the woods and basically he needed my help out there. And I wanted to be a part of it, but I was pretty well tied to the store,” said Kathleen. “When we sold the store then I became a fulltime sugarmaker with him. Sugaring gets in your blood once you do it. So I we were trying to figure out what could we do that would go along with the sugaring.”
“It can’t possibly be at the same time because during the winter and spring there’s nothing but sugaring,” Kelly added.
Ironically, they got the idea for growing hops while on vacation in Arizona. A short TV news segment came on about the rising demand for local hops.
“We just kind of looked at each other and said ‘Hmmm … maybe that would work.’”
The Norrises learned as much as they could from Darby and others at the UVM Hops Project, attended conferences and researched online.
“When we first contacted Heather, I said, ‘We’re not afraid of the work. We’re sugarmakers, and we’re used to the hard work,’” said Kathleen.
They got hard work aplenty.
The Norrises did almost all their own work setting up the hopyard — only occasionally bringing in part-time help to supplement their own labors. In the fall of 2014 they began preparing their site, setting the 22-foot poles in the ground.
“It caused a ruckus,” said Kathleen. “People were like pulling over and yelling out their windows, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ … Traffic the last two years on this road has been totally different because people come up and they see it and they slow down.”
That fall’s work ended in a flurry, literally, of snow and freezing rain, as the last of the poles were straightened into the ground.
After the next sugaring season, work on the hopyard continued. The Norrises strung up the acres of cable it would take to trellis the crop. Bines need to grow straight up toward the sun to produce as many cones as possible.
The Norrises carefully chose cultivars that would grow well and sell well in Vermont. They looked for varieties resistant to Vermont pests and diseases and in demand with the state’s brewers.
“They each have their own little characteristics. Some of them have more citrusy characteristics. Some have smoky, woody characteristics. Some have pine characteristics,” said Kathleen.
When it was time to get their new plants in the ground, they had to fight against one of the rainiest Junes on record. What should have taken just a few days turned into a month-long battle to keep the plants healthy while waiting for the soil to be less waterlogged.
But by late July, the bines were going strong.
ART AND SCIENCE
As with any crop, there is an art and a science to different aspects of hop growing, especially harvesting.
“If you walk up to them and smell them and they smell kind of grassy, they’re not ready yet. If you walk up to them and they smell kind of oniony and garlicky, they might be a little too far gone,” Kathleen described.
Alongside the feel and smell of the cones, growers test for “dry matter,” which means they harvest a handful, dry them, and then weigh what’s dried. One hundred grams fresh picked should yield 23 grams dry ideally, if the crop is ready, said Kelly.
Along with their demonstrated capacity for hard work, the pair each take on different tasks, according to ability. Kelly had worked previously as a carpenter and in heating and air conditioning. He calls himself a “jack of all trades,” but like Vermont’s blacksmiths of old, he’s at heart an engineer and inventor. Putting these skills to use, he’s designed and built different, intricate pieces of the Norris’s hops equipment.
For example, a critical stage in the hops harvest is to dry and then bag or bale the cones after harvesting. Kelly studied a number of “oasts” (the fancy name for a hops dryer) including ones from large and small-scale hops operations and then designed and built one himself.
He’s also at work — and has a nearby machine shop working on parts for — designing and building his own baler.
Marketing falls mostly to Kathleen, who this fall is stepping up her calls and drop-in visits to breweries around the state.
Among Homestead’s first set customers are Hogback Mountain Brewing in Bristol and Drop-In Brewery in Middlebury.
“We love being out here. We love this land. And we love that we’ve been able to do something with land that’s been in Kelly’s family and hadn’t been farmed for 20 years or so,” said Kathleen. And it’s kind of cool to be some of the first ones going down this path and bringing back a crop that Vermont once had its name on.”