Hop Picking in West Tisbury for Hopps Farm Road Ale

by Guinevere Cramer on September 17, 2013

in Interesting Islanders, Made On The Vineyard, On Point - MV Lifestyle

Cascade Hops Picked Fresh From The Vine For Offshore Ale Martha's Vineyard BeerMost breweries, including Offshore Ale here on Martha’s Vineyard, get the hops for their beer from other places.  This is all fine, and good, but once a year, Offshore makes a beer with local, organic hops, the Hopps Farm Road Ale.

The hops for this special beer come from vines grown on Hopps Farm Road in West Tisbury, at Alan Northcott’s house, with the addition of some hops grown by Ken Rusczyk in Oak Bluffs.

In August, every week, they start bringing in hops from their plants to Neil Atkins, the head brewer at Offshore Ale, to see if the hops are ready to be harvested.  Just by smelling them, Neil can tell when the hops are ready.  Finally in the second week of September, the hops are ready to be harvested.  Neil’s nose knows.

Alan and Kenny announce it’s time, and a hop picking party is organized at Alan’s house.  This year, I was invited.  I had no idea what to expect, after all, my only experience with hops was drinking it in my beer.  I was ready for hops 101.

Why grow hops?  If you know Kenny and Alan, you know they are beer aficionados.  They decided it would be fun to grow hops, maybe brew their own beer.

Seven or eight years ago, Kenny got hop plants from Offshore Ale brewer Matthew Steinberg (now at Blatant Brewery). Matt got Cascade and Chinook hop plants for Kenny and Alan. Kenny and Alan agreed and so began their labor of love.

Hoppy Ever After

Fast forward four years. Kenny was talking with Joe Clienman, the brewer at Offshore at the time, about the hops they were growing.  Kenny and Alan had started growing them just for fun and their own use, but Joe said he’d love to have them for a beer at Offshore Ale.

How great to have a locally crafted beer made with local hops?  Kenny and Alan were more than happy to partner with the brewery, and be a part of a limited edition beer at Offshore.

Growing hops requires a little effort and patience.  They need three years of growing before they produce any hops.  The first harvest of the Chinook and Cascade hops happened four years ago, and the first brewed batch was made of Hopps Farm Road Ale (named after the street Alan lives on).

It is a hoppy, earthy, American Pale Ale.  It’s only available at hop harvest time, and there’s a limited quantity, 310 gallons to be exact.  The first year it sold out in three weeks, then two weeks, and last year, in 10 days.  People come from off-island for this special beer.  I wonder how long this batch will last?

When I got to Alan’s, I was surprised to see so many people there.  Throughout the harvest, which takes about four hours, there were 15 to 20 of us there.  Some people were cutting down the vines. Yes, hops grow on vines, a lot like grapes.  Many of the hops were grown on huge bamboo poles, and some were growing on the fence of Alan’s vegetable garden.

The rest of us were on a makeshift table hand-picking hops of the vines.  With sticky hands from the hops, we carefully plucked off the hops. The hops were beautiful and smelled delicious, like a hoppy beer.

There were tons of them, and picking through the tangled vines could’ve been tedious work.  However, since there were so many of us, we had a great time talking and the picking went quickly and smoothly.

In between hop picking and great conversation, we admired all the different bugs we were finding.  After all, these are organic hops.  We found dozens of spiders, who seemed to like Neil’s wife, Courtney.  There were all sorts of lady bugs, even Japanese lady bugs.  There were caterpillars that looked like twigs and more.

It was great to have Tim Boland, Executive Director of Polly Hill Arboretum, picking hops and telling us what the different bugs were.

After all the hops were picked, it was time to celebrate and reward people for all their hard work.  Out came the growlers of Offshore Ale beer.  We toasted to Alan and Kenny and to the the success of the harvest,  the largest to date — over 80 gallons worth.

If you ask Alan and Kenny why they do this, all the effort and work, they’ll tell you it’s for the love of good beer, and good beer it will be.

I have to say that this was a really fun experience.  I loved working with everyone to harvest the hops for a beer that we will all get to taste and enjoy.  There is a personal connection for all of us involved.

It’s not just a beer, it’s our beer, a beer made with ingredients grown on the Vineyard, picked by people who call this special place home.  It’s not only delicious, it truly is special.

What Fresh Hops Mean for a Beer

Now the rest is up to Neil and the Assistant Brewer, Jay Bergantim, and they have to act quickly.  The hops need to be used shortly after being picked, before they turn brown.  This beer is particularly exciting to brew because they use a process called wet-hopping.

Typically the hops they use are dried.  The brewery is set up for dry hops, so Neil and Jay get to be creative with this brew. Why get excited about this wet hop ale?

Well, once you have one you’ll understand. You’ll find a remarkably perfumey aroma and floral flavor. Also, it just tastes fresh which it is, and you’ll find that they are less bitter and more fragrant than dried hops.

Now in its fourth year, the Hopps Farm Road Ale promises to be just as delicious, moderately hoppy with an earthy quality.  It will be on tap in the beginning of October.

If you’re interested, you better stop by Offshore Ale soon as it’s available.  Who knows if it will even last a week this year.  This beer has a serious following, and is definitely a local favorite.

Martha’s Vineyard’s only locally brewed beer with local organic hops, and is not to be missed.  Of course, I’ll let you know when it’s ready as well on Point B Realty’s Facebook page.

You can also find Offshore Ale Co. on Facebook.  And speaking of social media, don’t forget to  “Like” us on Facebook, on follow us on TwitterLinked InPinterest and YouTube.

If you’d like to know more about the brewing process at Offshore Ale, check out Just In Time For Summer Brew Tours @ Offshore Ale, Martha’s Vineyard Only Locally Brewed Beer

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