Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fresh-hopped ales & a hop farm to watch

Jersey-grown hops in two Garden State pub-brewed beers, and a small Burlington County hop farm to watch ...

For as long as he's been in charge of the kettle at the Tun Tavern, brewer Tim Kelly has used hops grown by his friends, Ray Gourley and Kathy Haney of Haddon Heights, to do a fall dry-hopping of the Tun's All-American IPA, a popular beer at the Atlantic City brewpub.

This year is the fourth for the IP-Ray version of the brew that's part of the Tun's regular tap lineup.

Tim (pictured at left with a load of hops on the bine) added to the serving tank just over 3 pounds of the Camden County hops – Cascade, Nugget, Chinook and Zeus cones picked Sept. 3.

(The beer was brewed with pellets of Chinook and Centennial for bittering and flavor. It finishes out at just over 6 percent ABV.)

One hundred miles north, in Woodbridge, Chris Sheehan, brewer at J.J. Bitting brewpub, has his annual hop harvest ale bubbling away in a fermenter.

Mostly Cascades, but with some Mount Hood, Cluster and Fuggle, Chris says he used the 6 pounds of hops grown (pictured below) at his mom's property in Delhi, N.Y., in the Catskills, and the 3 pounds from friends' hop gardens, adding them throughout the boil, supplementing them with some commercially grown whole leaf hops.

Chris has made the beer six years running, last year at Port 44 brewpub in Newark, and prior to that at Chelsea Brewing in Manhattan. (He has typically called it Catskill Hop Harvest Ale, but thinks the name will get shortened this year.)

The harvest ale is the second brew Chris has made for Bitting since taking over the brewhouse there this month, fresh off his year-plus stint at the now-closed Port 44.

Meanwhile, down in Burlington County, Sarah Puleo and Mike Visgil are looking to double the size of the hop yard they started at the 166-acre farm Sarah grew up on in Buddtown in Southampton Township.

The farm is an area where the open space and country roads seem to take you out of New Jersey. But it's also a ground zero for New Jersey farmstand staples like blueberries, asparagus and raspberries. You'll also find Chinese growers on neighboring farms, raising cabbage and snowpeas for restaurants in Philadelphia and New York.

Against that backdrop, hops are a non-traditional commodity. But then again, with the bines' inclination for a towering reach, and the high ceiling of blue skies, a hop yard seems like an easy fit at Isaac Budd Farm. (Sarah and Mike share the place with her parents and brother, and some chickens, peacocks, dogs and a lake.)

After trial plots over the past three years, the two went bigger, planting an eighth of an acre last spring, setting out rhizomes of Cascades, Centennial, Nugget and Fuggles, among other varieties.

"Cascades and Centennials showed well, yielding a few pounds of wet weight. Nugget and Fuggles flowered, but there was not a whole heck of a lot in terms of harvest," Mike said last week via email.

The two have networked with the Northeast Hop Alliance and Rutgers agriculture extension folks (Rutgers raised trial plots of several hop varieties back in the late 1990s, and also provided technical advice to Weyerbacher Brewing in 2008, the first year of a now-annual crop grown by the brewery that ends up in a Weyerbacher harvest ale.) Sarah and Mike also tracked this summer's progress on their Isaac Budd Farm Facebook page.

"Our main goal here is to establish community," Mike says. "For our first few years, we anticipate it being more of a homebrewer/homebrew shop presence. If we get a couple nanobreweries, a couple microbreweries in the area, that's great."

Some of this year's crop, dehydrated and vacuum-packed after picking, was passed along to the Barley Legal Homebrewers, the South Jersey-Philadelphia homebrew club Mike and Sarah are members of.

(Last spring, the two scored a second-place finish in the annual pro-am contest Iron Hill brewpub sponsors for homebrewers who brew with wort drawn from the second runnings of The Situation, a super-high gravity beer that IH brews during the winter. Mike also did an internship in 2010 with Cricket Hill in Fairfield, a gig that helped him with enrolling in the American Brewers Guild.)

"Sarah and I also will be toying with the therapeutics of hops by making some homemade sleep pillows, as well as some hop teas," Mike says.

Make no mistake, a hop yard, even a small plot, can be a lot of work. But the two dived into the task with a dedication that speaks a lot to their belief in and commitment to producing a local farm commodity.

"It's our evening job, our second shift," Sarah said during an interview back in May, on a picture-perfect Saturday that found her and Mike cutting and laying planters paper around the hop mounds to control weeds. "As soon as we get home from work, we're out there – if it's not raining – pruning, digging, planting, putting up (irrigation) hose."

The two started the hop yard on a shoestring budget. The hose purchased for drip irrigation is probably their biggest expense. For other project needs they improvised. Their trellising was fashioned from bamboo cut from the 1- to 2-acre cluster of the stuff that grows wild and skyward on the farm.

"We figured that if we can do it with what we have right now, put all the work in," Sarah says, pausing, "the second year if it goes well, then maybe we'll put more money into it."

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