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Hop to It!

Rhode Island is seeing a boom in microbreweries like never before, and not far behind is another growing trend as the state produces more local and artisan ingredients. This year there will be three hop farms spread across the state. Ascending Hops New England in Johnston and the Tilted Barn Brewery in Exeter are still going strong, and Greenvale Vineyards in Portsmouth is stepping up their game after a bit of research and a successful test run last year.

Historically the hop industry has resided in the northwest of the country, mainly Washington state, but recent years have seen an increase in hop operations on the East Coast. The northeast is more humid than the northwest, but the climate is perfect for growing hops according to Matt Richardson from Tilted Barn.

“You get the good dormancy in the winter time, the long growing season in the summer, you harvest them right around labor day … it’s a good spot for them,” he said.

Pale Ales, IPAs and any brew that can benefit from the mildest of bitterness to a black hole of tannins go hand in hand with the hops being grown in the state.

“The aroma hops have more resistant properties to mildew than straight-up bittering hops,” Billy Wilson from Greenvale Vineyards said.

He explained how modern agricultural techniques make it possible for farmers to effectively manage mildew and keep it from ruining their plants. The essential oils in hops provide most of the aroma properties and prevent mildew from forming. Copper sulfate also is used to control mildew; however, despite being considered organic, is harmful to be around when it is being applied. Growers in the state are trying to find more natural solutions to the problem, but haven’t really had to deal with too much damage to their crops to date. Luckily hops are genetically unstable and year to year become more resilient and better suited to their new home and growing conditions.

“Cascade does the best by far out of everything we grow,” Matt said. “Chinook does really well and it has a unique flavor we’re picking up here that you don’t get with the Pacific Northwest ones.”

Not only do hops strengthen themselves year after year, but they start to express different regional characteristics. Local Chinook is leaning closer to a grapefruity/melon profile as opposed to its traditional piney/citrusy one.

As more players step into the game, brewers are looking around to brush up on their craft and get a little insight from the companies paving the way in this budding industry.

“I found there is a lot of support nearby from the Land Grant Institution or from the state Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS),” Billy said. “So I figured why not? Instead of growing six plants, try growing 400 plants!”

The NRCS agent helping and advising Greenvale’s operation is none other than Matt from Tilted Barn. When Matt and his wife, Kara, harvest their crops, they bring them up to Johnston to be processed in the automated picking machine at Ascending Hops New England.

“What takes us three weeks around the clock by hand, he can do in three hours on his picker,” Matt said.

This is a common theme you find in the state, whether it’s brewers frequenting each other’s facilities to compare crops or working together, sharing equipment and knowledge. Rhode Island state breweries are showing how successful their business model of partnership and community is and anyone who’d like to be a part of it should probably take a page from their book.

“I guess the next question would be: Everyone is focusing on hops, but grains are an important matter,” Billy said.  “So, you know, when will local grains come into the picture?”

See related article and video about what’s on tap at Tilted Barn.