The first thing you notice driving down the quarter-mile driveway on Benton Road toward Russell Prime’s home is a string of about 40 vines held up by cedar posts and a steel wire trellis. If you don’t know beer (or even if you do), and if you don’t know plants, you may not realize these are hops vines. The small green buds of the vines are a key component for flavoring beer.
Once you get to Prime’s heavily wooded home, also the home of Prime Hops of Maine, you’ll see that the vines are everywhere: lining his back yard, running off the side of the garage, threading up the porch – it’s a canopy of greenery. Prime, a home brewer turned part-time hops farmer, has planted some 300 vines outside his rental home. (Technically, they’re not vines but “bines,” which climb by wrapping around a support as opposed to with tendrils or suction.) He has no assistance and no machinery other than a watering system, a 12-foot step ladder and a Chevy pickup. He does everything himself and he does it by hand. There is one thing he has in spades, though: enthusiasm.
“Look at that one! Wow, I didn’t even notice that,” Prime said one day as he roamed his backyard farm and stared up at a vine that eclipsed the height of the scaffolding to climb some 25 feet in the air. “That one is huge! Wow that’s intense!”
By day, Prime, 31, works in sales for Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow. By night (or early morning or weekend or any time at all), he tends to his flourishing vines.
He is part of the nation’s – and Maine’s – growing (if still tiny) organic hop-farming industry.
There are fewer than 10 hops growers in Maine, on some 17 acres total, according to Geoff Keating of the Hop Yard in Fort Fairfield and Gorham (the largest of the state’s hops growers). He estimates half of that number grow organic hops. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension is testing a number of varieties to see which thrive and can make tasty brews in Maine.
Changes in U.S. Department of Agriculture standards that require organic beer be brewed with organic hops are part of what’s driving the expansion. Interest in organics and local food and drink generally, as well as the growth of the craft brew industry, are also playing a part.
Prime, who graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in parks, recreation and tourism, intended to plant some 16 hops vines three years ago, but he found himself adding to that number. And adding and adding. What started as a hobby quickly snowballed into several hundred plants. Now, Prime said, the hops have taken over his summers along with his yard.
Come harvest, Prime sells his entire crop for $30 per pound to just a single customer – Jon Cadoux, owner of Peak Organic in Portland. When the brewery started about seven years ago, Cadoux used conventionally grown Maine hops in his beer, because he couldn’t find organic hops. “Honest to goodness, you couldn’t get organic hops anywhere in the U.S.,” he said. “They just were not around.”
After a few years, Cadoux put the word out that he was looking for local farmers to grow organic hops. He liked the idea of knowing where his hops were coming from and who was growing them, and he reasoned that if the demand existed, Maine farmers would try to meet it. And so they have.
Today, Peak Organic buys from several farms in Maine – Prime Hops of Maine included.
Hops, which are dried after they are picked, give bitterness or citrus or floral characteristics to beer.
“Before you put hops in, the beer is basically sweet barley sugar water,” Cadoux explained. “The hops create a balance.”
They can be added at two different points in the beer-making process. To make beer, malted barley is soaked in hot water to release its sugars. The sugar solution is then boiled with dried hops. The solution is cooled and yeast is added to begin fermentation, which releases carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol. Once fermentation is complete, more hops may be added, or the beer is bottled with some sugar to provide carbonation.
“When you drink a good IPA and get that wonderful flavor of citrus, pines, etc., those flavors come from hops oils,” Cadoux said. “So we want to see the strongest oil content possible, in order to maximize flavor.”
Until the beginning of last year, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations allowed certified organic beer to be brewed with non-organic hops. But in late 2009, the American Organic Hop Grower Association, a nonprofit based in Washington that promotes the use of organic hops, petitioned to change that. The board rejected the petition in September 2010. But rising public pressure forced it to reverse its decision shortly after, according to a 2011 article in the Agronomy Journal called “Challenges and Opportunities for Organic Hop Production in the United States.
The new rules stated that starting on Jan. 1, 2013, certified organic beer had to be brewed with organic hops. (The delay allowed time for the hops to grow; the hop plant typically reaches maturity and yields a full crop after three years).
Around the same time, in 2008 and 2009, brewers experienced a hop shortage, according to Heather Darby, an associate professor of agronomy at the University of Vermont who specializes in organic farming and hops.
“Local brewers looked for ways to get hops locally,” said Darby, who helped write the Agronomy Journal article. “That was the first push to reinvigorate hops in our region. At the same time, the increasingly strong local foods movement was moving into the beverage sector.”
Organic hops production has also been on the rise across the country, with small farms taking root in Michigan, Vermont and New York in addition to Maine. They’re sure to find a market, as the craft beer industry itself is set to grow by 200 percent over the next four years, according to a 2013 economic impact study by the Maine Brewers’ Guild. In the study, about 70 percent of the respondents indicated that they actively seek to source local ingredients for their beers.
For now, organic hops remain a tiny portion of the industry. Drew Gaskell, executive director of American Organic Hop Growers Association, said that association members grow 350 acres total of organic hops (compared to the more than 38,000 acres of conventional hops that have been harvested in 2014 thus far, according to the USDA). But based on membership increases and an increasing numbers of inquiries from farmers across the country – including from Maine – he thinks the acreage devoted to growing organic hops is increasing.
A LITTLE HELP FROM HIS FRIENDS
In his makeshift, backyard farm, Prime stands, dwarfed by the tall vines, and explains that hops are different from most other perennial plants because the vines need stanchions to cling to. He cut the cedar poles down for this himself from his yard. (“The landlord is cool with everything,” Prime said. “He loves the idea and he brews beers himself.”)
Prime rubbed his fingers against a sandpaper-like vine and described his planting process. “You have to wrap the plant around the twine. You wrap them around clockwise. It connects to the twine and grows.”
Snaking through the grass is an irrigation system Prime made by connecting a series of hoses. To stave off pests and diseases, he sprayed copper on the plants early in the season; now, in August, he is picking off pests by hand. He spends about four hours every day monitoring the vines, mowing the surrounding area and checking for bugs. “My arch nemesis is the Japanese beetle,” he said. “It’s a continuous battle.”
Now in his third year of growing hops, with luck Prime will get a full crop – last year he harvested 40 pounds. “In theory, if the plants are doing well and productive, you get a pound each,” he said. “I’m really hoping for 100 pounds. I would be ecstatic if it was 150.”
One hundred pounds of hops would yield roughly 2,500 gallons of beer, according to his own calculations.
“But,” he admitted, “that would be a lot of hops to harvest and dry.”
When Cadoux of Peak Organic first visited Prime’s farm two years ago, “I remember … thinking, ‘Oh my goodness,'” Cadoux said. “He’s really on his own.” This year, Cadoux offered help with picking and drying the hops.
“It’s a win-win,” Cadoux said. “A lot of people in the beer business, whether they manage a bar or are a bartender, don’t get to see hops or this process. This gives people the opportunity to pick the hops that will end up in the beer.”
FROM BUDS TO SUDS
Meanwhile, as the harvesting season nears, Prime is keeping a steady eye on his improvised farm, watching the small, green cone-shaped hops develop on the five varieties he planted. Some will be ready to harvest in a week or so, others in September.
After the harvest, the hops dry for two days – the hundreds of buds on a dozen racks in his garage that he made using two-by-fours and material meant for window screens. Before he rigged the garage to hold the drying hops, he basically lived with them.
“Last year they were drying upstairs in the house,” Prime said.
Once they’re sufficiently dry, Prime puts the hops into bags, vacuum seals them and stores them in the freezer until Cadoux has a chance to pick them up and to begin the process of turning them into exceptionally local beer.
Like any other farmer, it’s a long season for Prime. From April to September, he never gets a day off. “It’s a lot of work,” Prime admitted, “but it’s a labor of love.”