Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hopping on hops, Part 2

Here’s an update on Weyerbacher’s hop-growing efforts in Easton, Pa.

Owner Dan Weirback says the 500 Nugget and 1,000 Cascade rhizomes they set out on an acre of land are indeed part of the brewery’s long-range thinking to address the current hop shortage. By the by, the pictured hop cone was cribbed from Wikipedia's entry.

Weyerbacher is one of those breweries that works in hops (and malts) like painters work in oils, achieving textures, tones and overall complexity. Some examples: Simcoe Double IPA, Eleven Triple IPA, Hops Infusion IPA. When you pump up beers like they do, hops gain some added importance.

Planted two weeks ago, Weyerbacher’s hops so far are taking root, and the brewery is using a drip irrigation method recommended by Rutgers University. The Nuggets (a bittering hop) are leading the way over the Cascades (all-purpose hop), and Dan estimates a combined yield this fall of about 100 to 500 pounds for use in a new, special pale ale or IPA.

The brewery will have to settle for a harvest by hand, something agriculture folks see as less than ideal. But enough volunteers and friends have committed to help, and Dan’s confident the job can get tackled over perhaps a weekend.

These first-season hops will get used “wet,” meaning the traditional drying process will be skipped. Some brewpubs and breweries, Dan says, have been experimenting with hops right off the vine, and have noted a fresher flavor in the brews.

In two or three years however, Dans says, the brewery will probably look to get its hands on some drying equipment. (The Rutgers research farm that grew hops in its demonstrations used an old tobacco dryer.) By then, Weyerbacher’s crop yield could be 2,000 pounds. That may sound like a big number, but Dan thinks it's quite manageable for the brewery.

So how far can Weyerbacher take this idea? Well, they have 15 acres available for planting, and Dan estimates five acres could supply the brewery.

But they may just be content at having the flexibility to help offset hop-supply needs, especially in unfavorable market times.

Exactly how long the current shortage and ensuing price spike will last is anyone’s guess. “It could be a two-year blip, but it could also be five years,” Dan says.

China, Russia and India are all now producing more beer than ever before, he says. Stir that in with the recent bad harvest, acreage taken out of production and trend for hoppier beers and you get an idea of the ripples affecting the supply picture.

The good news for brewers is that Pacific Northwest growers increased acreage this spring by 25 percent.

Still, though we like Weyerbacher's ounce of prevention, and hope they can reap many pounds of cure.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hopping on the hop bandwagon

Hops are growing in Ocean County. Even at this very moment.

In fact that’s them to the left, getting a good start after their early-April planting. Probably in another week, since hops grow rapidly, it may be time to get a trellis going and start coaching the bines to climb it.

This set is the more robust of four plantings we did of Centennial, a bittering hop that takes quite well to most growing areas, including the flowerbed on the side of our house. It’s good for American pale ales and American renditions of IPA (like Stone IPA), and is similar to Cascade, Chinook and Columbus.

With hop growing on our minds and the worldwide hop shortage – and the subsequent price spike – we surmised that New Jersey would be fertile ground for commercially growing hops.

After all, New Jersey falls within a hop-friendly latitude and still lays some claim to the title “Garden State.” Never mind that subdivision coming soon to fallow land near you. (For the record, we are told that hops were once widely grown in New York state, around the early 1900s, but apparently not in New Jersey.)

So we put the hop-prospects question to the agriculture folks at Rutgers University. What we got was an answer that was part recent history and part economics, something that was not entirely yes or no.

First, hops, as a farm commodity, do look attractive right now, as any crop does when it’s fetching top dollar in the marketplace.

And if you recall, hop prices have shot up lately (so has the price of your beer), thanks to some recent bad harvests and lost acreage. Meanwhile, the popular-of-late extreme beer category has further boosted demand for hops. That super-duper, triple-double IPA ultra hop bomb you told your buddy is the best beer you ever poured probably used more hops to make than all the homebrewed beers in New Jersey combined.

But hyperbole aside, higher demand plus tighter supply equals sharply higher prices, something that puts smiles on farmers’ faces. So, yeah, hops are kind of lucrative at the moment. And New Jersey still has farmers, and RU did some hop growing demonstrations in the mid- to late-1990s at a research farm in Hunterdon County, planting Willamette, Nugget, Cascade, Perle and Chinook varieties.

RU sent some of their hops to a Pacific Northwest lab for testing to determine the alpha acid/bittering strengths, critical information any brewer needs.

What RU learned was that the bittering potential of the Jersey hops generally fell within the preferred range of hops from Washington State’s Yakima Valley, where over three-fourths of U.S. hops are grown. (Some of the high alpha hops, like Chinook and Nugget were slightly below their Yakima cousins, but not much. Chinook, by the way, used to be the bitttering hop in Flying Fish’s brews but has since been replaced.) Also, the Jersey hops didn't fall victim to pests that couldn't be handled.

RU’s efforts came just after New Jersey finally entered the craft brewing era. The Ship Inn brewpub, the British ales specialists in Milford in Hunterdon County and a front-runner in the Jersey pub brewing movement, served beer it made with the Garden State hops at dinner for folks involved in the project and a local legislator, Assemblywoman Connie Myers.

(FYI: Myers sponsored legislation that would have provided incentives for producing hops, so long as they were used by microbreweries in New Jersey. The bill never cleared committee, another reason to frown about craft beer's status in this state. Myers, by the way, gave up her Assembly seat in 2005.)

To underscore that growing hops around here isn’t a far-flung idea, RU folks mentioned that Weyerbacher Brewing in Easton, Pa., just across the Delaware River from Phillipsburg, planted an acre of hops a couple of weeks ago. Dan Weirback, the man behind such Weyerbacher brews as Double Simcoe IPA, Blithering Idiot (barley wine) and Black Hole (porter-stout) wasn’t immediately available to elaborate on the scope of their efforts. (We still hope to find out from him.)

So given RU's past work and current market conditions, things look favorable for Jersey fresh hops, right?

Sort of. But here’s where things become the bitter truth, so to speak.

While easy to grow, RU folks say, hops are expensive to harvest. Unlike some kinds of produce, they’re a crop you can’t efficiently harvest by hand. As RU’s John Grande, a fellow with PhD in horticulture tells us, it would be like trying to harvest corn one kernel at a time.

The vines are easy to cut down, but getting all the lupulin-packed cones is another matter, and for that farmers would need to mechanize. But the equipment needed for that job is pricey enough to cut deeply into profit potential, if not sour the deal outright.


But, remember RU’s answer wasn’t an outright "no," either.

There’s always the farmer’s old standby, the co-op, like-minded agriculturalists pooling resources so the overhead gets spread around and the price of that expensive harvesting and drying equipment (hops are generally dried somewhat before they’re used in brewing) isn’t coming out of one pocket. So there's some hope, if you're championing the idea of New Jersey becoming a player in the hop field.

But realistically, what’s the wind-up for Jersey hops? It’s like any new business venture: develop a sound game plan front to back and hope you’re in the right market at the right time.

Who knows, though, maybe Weyerbacher is smart to hop on hops. Maybe now is the right time.

Down by the river

New Jersey's ShadFest is this Saturday and Sunday in, where else, Lambertville, that quaint southern Hunterdon County town situated along the banks of the Delaware River and Delaware-Raritan Canal that has held this annual spring event since 1981.

The festival salutes the return of shad to the river, and features plenty of food, crafts and entertainment, i.e. live music.

There's also locally brewed beer, which is one of the things that distinguishes this event. Set up in the old Original Trenton Cracker factory building, River Horse Brewing has been part of the Lambertville landscape for a dozen years now. So it's as much a flavor of the festival as the myriad ways you can prepare shad.

If you made it to River Horse's Oktoberfest event last fall, then you'll know what to expect at the brewery's back loading area come this weekend. RH co-owner Glenn Bernabeo says the brewery will have its flight of beers on tap, including its new Belgian wit and its summer blond ale. There's no cover charge; it's pay as you drink. There will also be music and food from nearby vendors.

With a lot of events like this – Long Beach Island's annual Chowderfest comes to mind – it can be nearly impossible to find a beer in which you can taste the malt and hops. That's because distributors for the big national brewers usually infiltrate with some sponsorship, and next thing you know, the only thing on tap is fizzy yellow beers that are the portrait of boredom and undermine the unique flavors that are the host town or region's specialty.

We're not picking on Chowderfest, mind you, but we do think that folks on LBI could stand to turn things up a notch and marry some better beer flavors to the locally made chowders.

But this isn't about clams and ocean waves; it's about shad and the river. So yes, it's very cool, and even special, that there's a craft brewer in town serving locally brewed beer at ShadFest.

So by all means, support the local brewer. Your palate will be glad you did.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Cricket in Chime Square

What’s the hottest beer video featuring a Jersey brewer?

It continues to be Cricket Hill’s Rick Reed teeing off on the big brewers’ bland beers and brainwash marketing tactics.

Rick’s screed from the mash tun rostrum at his Fairfield brewery (in the shadow of Anheuser-Busch just 20 miles down the road in Newark) has drawn 9,000 YouTube hits and counting since it was posted just over three months ago.

If you remember, the video was shot by a Cricket Hill friend on one of the brewery’s Friday evening tours. It drew bloggers like ants to sugar (including us) and spawned a parade of links and embeds from the YouTube hosting. And that was after plenty of CH fans had seen it and spread word themselves.

These days, beer fans bellying up to Cricket Hill’s station on the festival circuit mention seeing it (and a Coors distributor that Rick ran into squawked about it, so there's also a Bud version, with 1,048 hits). There’s even a link to the initial video at the Cricket Hill’s Wikipedia entry, but that tidbit shouldn't be too surprising, given the user-contribution nature of the online encyclopedia.

In a world of short attention spans and a plethora of Web viewing choices, and this being a niche topic, we'd argue that the 8,700 number is practically viral, and a testament to Rick’s humorous delivery and, dare we say, a groundswell of shared sentiment. (The clip’s onward pace was a pleasant surprise to Rick, who says he doesn’t surf YouTube’s site.)

Meanwhile, those of you who flocked to Cricket Hill’s Belgian-style summer beer (trappist yeast and some wheat malt) will be happy to know it will soon be available in bottles as a seasonal. The beer was a new offering last year and popular enough to earn the in-glass treatment this year.

Rick says there’s still some wrangling with federal regulators over the labeling for Jersey Summer Breakfast Ale.

For the uninitiated, federal folks have a say in labeling, among other things, for alcoholic beverages produced and introduced into the marketplace.

In this case, it seems that Uncle Sam is tripping over and raising a bushy eyebrow at the word “breakfast” in the beer’s name – never mind that they wouldn’t bat an eye at “lunch” or “dinner” used similarly – and even wanted to know what was in the beer (maybe they thought it had Scrapple or Taylor ham in it) and demanded an accounting of the ingredients.

Whatever happened to free speech? Even in marketing. (The savvy among you will recall a stink a decade ago when some state regulators – New York among them – thumbed down Michigan brewer Bad Frog's label of the frog giving the finger.) Rick is undaunted and laughed that he can always fall back and call it "brunch."

Meanwhile, CH still expects to have the summer ale available next month and at the shore (CH beers, notably for now their lager, are going on tap at the Clam Hut in Highlands in Monmouth County). Look for the summer ale – and eventually other CH seasonals – in plain white 12-pack cartons adorned with identifying stickers (a budget-conscious move since packaging doesn't come cheap).

CH's ESB-ish ale, Colonel Blides Bitter, is also getting the same bottle treatment, initially anyway, but will eventually be in printed cartons like Cricket Hill’s flagships, East Coast Lager, Hopnotic IPA and American Ale, as it becomes CH's fourth year-round bottled beer. (FYI: The Colonel is on cask at the 700 Club in Philly, according to Kevin Rowe’s site.)

Say you saw it on Roller Derby:
Also: Cricket Hill was chosen as the official beer of the Philly Roller Girls teams. The Broad Street Butchers, Heavy Metal Hookers and Philthy Britches tasted lots of beers but felt CH’s East Coast Lager and Hopnotic IPA were what got fans rolling. Feisty women on wheels, skating for bragging rights, and great beer. Beat that WWE.

Cricket Hill site:
Official Cricket Hill blog: