February 13

What Ales You: Maine hops growers have high hopes for more expansion

The Hop Yard adds Gorham acreage and plans to buy equipment that will let it produce even more hops for Maine brewers.

By Tom Atwell

Maine’s brewers enjoy using Maine hops, but so far have been able to do so only for fresh-hops beers brewed at harvest time.

click image to enlarge

The Hop Yard has expanded its farming operations to Gorham, where trellises are staked out for this year’s crop of hops.

Courtesy photo

When brewers like Sebago Brewing Co. create such beers as Local Harvest Ale, they bring in volunteers to pull the hops flowers from the bines. These hops parties are fun, but not especially efficient. (Hops plants are bines, which climb by wrapping themselves around a support. Vines, on the other hand, climb by using tendrils or suckers.)

The four principal players in the Hop Yard, already growing hops in Gorham and Fort Fairfield, hope to expand hops farming in Maine by buying a hops harvester, at least for their own use, and a hops pelletizer that could be used – for a fee – by any hops grower in Maine.

Ryan Houghton, Geoff Keating and Peter Busque formed the Hop Yard several years ago, planting 1.5 acres of hops on a potato farm in Fort Fairfield.

“Because we all live and work in Greater Portland,” Keating said, “and we didn’t want to commute to Fort Fairfield, we looked for some land closer to Portland.”

They connected with Charlie Hamblen, who owns a seventh-generation family farm on Gray Road in Gorham, and brought him into the Hop Yard family.

“I was looking to do something more with the family farmland than growing hay,” said Hamblen, who is a certified public accountant who works with an insurance company in Portland. “We plan to use 15 acres for production of a local product for a local market.”

Keating and Hamblen, with whom I met at the restaurant Grace in Portland, believe they are now the largest hops-growing business in Maine, and they have plans to grow even larger.

The owners have been attending hops-growing seminars at Cornell, which is working to establish a large hops industry in the Northeast, and the University of Vermont.

Hops harvesters are not used on the farm to get the plants off the trellises and into the brewery. That part of the job is fairly easy. The hard job is taking the hops clusters off the bines.

The Hop Yard brought its crop from Fort Fairfield for a hops-harvest party at Rising Tide in Portland last fall, although that hops was used in a beer brewed at In’finiti.

Hops harvesters come in different sizes and price ranges, and one for a small farm would cost about $10,000. Keating and Hamblen said the Hop Yard will have a hops harvester by this year’s fall harvest, but they are still deciding on what kind.

A hops pelletizer is more complicated, and more expensive. To create pellets, Keating said, hops cones have to be dried first. The dried cones are then shaken, so the flavorful resins are removed from the cones. Then those flavorful parts are formed into the pellets used by brewers.

Hops pelletizers start at about $50,000, so it is major investment. The Hop Yard started a Kickstarter campaign to finance the pelletizer but failed to reach its goal. The group is now looking into alternative financing.

A pelletizer of that size would be large enough to process all the hops now grown in Maine, and could be expanded if demand requires.

For more information, go to thehopyard.com.

WHILE AT GRACE, Keating, Hamblen and I all drank Banded Horn Brewery’s Norweald Stout. This is the second beer I have had from Banded Horn, a new brewery founded last year in Biddeford’s Pepperell Mill, and I have really enjoyed both.

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