Facing a massive crop shortage in 2007, New Jersey homebrewers Marylu Hansen and Beau Byrtus found a way to stay in business and make some money at the same time.
Back then, there was a national crop shortage few people remember. Hops—a light green flower and common ingredient in beer—disappeared from shelves after a bout of bad weather and rising production costs.
Large breweries that bought hops from industrialized farms on the West Coast and Europe didn’t suffer as badly as amateur brewers relying on one or two local stores.
“If you were a homebrewer and you wanted hops,” Hansen said, “you either found a substitute or you figured out how to grow them.”
Hansen’s friend and fellow homebrewer, Beau Byrtus, started growing hops in his backyard in response to the shortage. Late last year, Hansen suggested they make use of unused land on her parents’ farm in North Hanover, N.J. Her cousin joined them to create Oast House Hop Farm on a quarter-acre plot. Since January, the three friends have cut down nearby trees for the trellis system, bartered with farmers for equipment, enlisted the help of their families and made deals with local homebrew stores to sell their hops at the season’s end. “
“The possibilities are endless,” Byrtus said, “and nobody is doing it.”
Craft brewing is making a name for itself in New Jersey, but only a handful of farms in the state are dedicated to growing hops. Yet with a trove of natural resources, demand for local hops and a healthy dose of enthusiasm, that’s beginning to change.
Hops were once an important cash crop in the Northeast. New York State alone grew 90 percent of the country’s hops in 1880. But not long after the turn of the century, hop farmers faced a trio of obstacles: an aphid invasion, downy and powdery mildew, and Prohibition. Farmers abandoned their hop plants in favor of more valuable and reliable crops like corn.
As a result, hop farming migrated to the Pacific Northwest, where it was industrialized. “Washington, Oregon, and Idaho now grow 30,000 acres of hops,” said Steve Miller, hops specialist at Cornell University. Heavy machinery makes harvesting easier for big farms on the West Coast. Without machinery, hop plants have to be harvested by hand, a strenuous and time-consuming task. Hop farmers agree: Hops are easy to grow, but extremely labor-intensive to harvest. As a result, Miller said, “I can’t imagine there are even a hundred acres on the East Coast.”
In New Jersey, upstart farms are beginning to crop up, like Isaac Budd Farm in Southampton.
“We want to keep community at the forefront,” said Mike Visgil, co-owner of Isaac Budd Farm with his fiancée, Sarah Puleo. They started with a one-eighth acre plot, which proved more than enough work for the couple. This year, friends and volunteers helped harvest the plants.
Recently, several New Jersey craft breweries reached out to Visgil, interested in buying his hops, an idea he embraced in keeping with the farm’s local model. “A larger brewery could buy up the whole harvest in one shot,” he said. With craft brewing is on the rise in New Jersey, there has been a simultaneous push for locally-sourced ingredients. “Certainly the microbrewers want to say, yes, we’re using New Jersey hops,” according to Steve Miller. But it’s not a local movement for the sake of being local.
Hops produce a better flavor when they’re fresh. The moment hops are picked, they lose their water source and begin to slowly dry out. That’s not usually a problem for brewers who use dry hops, but certain types of beer, like wet hop ales, require that the hops are harvested no more than 24 hours before brewing. Having local hop farms not only gives craft brewers the quality of locally-sourced ingredients, but also the freedom to experiment with different brews.
But starting a hop farm is not cheap. “This hop endeavor is a second full-time job. And the funding for it comes out of our own pockets,” Visgil said. Between the equipment, the rhizomes (stems that grow into hop plants), infrastructure, and maintenance, establishing even a one-acre hopyard can cost more than $10,000. With hop farming as a side business, these farmers are willing to take a loss. “Had farming been our go-to livelihood,” Byrtus said, “we never could have done this.”
Visgil is hopeful for the future of New Jersey hops.
“All you need is a few breweries interested in sourcing all of their ingredients from within the state,” he said. “I tend to believe there would be great interest in that.”