Food and Farm Hopping Hops

In this Friday, Sept. 2, 2016 photo Ripe hop flowers hang from hop plants at the Hamblen Farm in Gorham, Maine, in 2016. Hops are used in brewing beer to give the beverage its bitter flavor. 

Beer lovers don’t have to worry — beers of all sorts are still plentiful at the different establishments in the area this fall despite this past summer being a trying season for some hops growers.

Hops, or the flower from the Humulus Lupulus plant, are the plant brewers grow for beer production. Hops flavor, stabilize, and give the beer a bitter taste. The plant also gives the beer a longer shelf life. Hops create a variety of different flavors in the beer from fruity to piney depending on how the flowers are processed. Often the locality and soil in which they are grown give the hops a flavor unique to the area.

In order for hops to flourish, the plant needs ample moisture in the spring and warm weather in the summer before harvesting at the end of the summer season. For Blue Mountain Brewery hops farmer Stan Driver, the intense heat Nelson County and other areas of Virginia experienced this past summer caused a below-average harvest.

“There are so many variables it would take so many hours to explain it,” Driver said. “But the early season heat in May and June was a real challenge.”

Driver, a horticulturalist, agronomist, and farmer, began growing hops on his property in 2007. Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton had just been established and began growing its own hops as well.

“Mine were doing great. Theirs wasn’t doing so great. So in 2009, I replanted their yard. We started growing at the brewery and in 2012 we started a hop field at the barrel house,” Driver said.

This year, the heat led to a below-average yield for Driver. Driver said at the barrel house, in Arrington — now their primary location for hops — they harvested 400 pounds of wet hops. On average, Driver normally harvests 600 pounds from the half acre field at the barrel house. They use wet hops more often than dry hops to produce wet hop ales.

“It’s a niche market we can function in,” Driver said.

Driver said he is always optimistic for next season, but it’s a challenge growing hops in Nelson County. Driver went on to say some people who grow hops in their backyard or in smaller quantities to meet their needs might have had a good year, but he believes it’s different than commercial hops production.

“We bring them south to try to grow and they aren’t happy,” Driver said. “Early heat stunts growth or hardens them off.”

Driver said if they harden off before their ideal height is reached, it limits the plants viability.

“It’s a real challenge and interrupts our growing season,” Driver said about the heat.

For Danny Wolf of Wild Wolf Brewery in Nellysford, this past season was typical for his quarter-acre hops farm.

“Our hops have been fine,” Wolf said.

Wolf said they produced around 100 pounds harvested wet and then dried for their craft beers, which is about the average he sees from season to season.

“The vines have been growing for seven years so they are pretty well established at this point,” Wolf said.

Erin Conway covers Nelson County for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5524.

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Erin Conway covers Nelson County for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5524.

Erin Conway covers Nelson County. Reach her at (434) 385-5524 or econway@newsadvance.com.

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