Monday, June 30, 2008

The Hop Project (Update)

Over the weekend we checked in with the folks at Weyerbacher Brewing in Easton, Pa., just over the Delaware River from Phillipsburg.

If you recall, Dan Weirback and his wife, Suzanne, undertook the daunting project of growing hops to perhaps offset some of the cost at the brewery Dan founded in 1995. You may also recall hops on the commercial market now cost about four times as much as they did a year ago.

So back in April, after some cajoling by Sue (the project was her idea, Dan admits to harboring a few reservations), some Web research and some outreach to folks versed in hops, the Weirbacks put 1,500 rhizomes in the ground on an acre surrounded by wheat fields in the rolling hills of Lehigh County, Pa. They hired a fencing company to seat rows of poles 9 feet high, upon which they strung trellises for the hop bines to climb. Along the rows, at the base of the hops, they ran hoses for a drip irrigation system.

The Jersey angle – after all, this is a Jersey beer blog – is that they’ve relied on research Rutgers agronomists conducted on hops in the 1990s at a demonstrator hopyard at the Snyder Research Farm in Hunterdon County. The Weirbacks continue to stay in touch with their Rutgers contact, John Grande.

Cost for their project: $8,000 and a lot of physical labor – weeding, mulching and training the bines to climb, more weeding, more training, checking for pests etc. It’s quite a bit of work for two people who otherwise have plenty to do in the course of running a brewery and, in Sue’s case, her own career.

There are no shortcuts to the work. And there’s a fair amount of having to make do with limited resources, such as the poles supporting the trellis lines. At 9 feet, they could easily be twice that height, since hop bines are prodigious climbers. But 9 feet was the tallest the fence company could handle; plus there’s the need to reach the bines, most likely from the bed of a pickup truck.

The payoff thus far? Part of the hopyard is going strong, while the other portion has some catch-up to do. But the Weirbacks’ mix of Cascade and Nugget plants are starting to bud. Barring calamity of bad weather, Japanese beetles or some other hop-hungry insect, the Weirbacks expect to harvest plenty of cones later this summer.

It's worth mentioning that Dan and Sue are under no illusions with the project. After all they’re living it, and even confess to some moments of doubt about the merits of the endeavor. But as they say, they haven’t had those misgivings at the same time, so they’ve been able to soldier on.

And while they haven’t really talked up the project, the Weirbacks have drawn some curiosity from other Pennsylvania brewers interested in seeing what the couple comes up with at harvest.

From all sides, this is a rather bold experiment, commendable, too, when you consider it’s risky, and the Weirbacks are willing to try to cut a trail in the wilderness, so to speak.

Good luck, see you at harvest time.

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