She is the queen of the hops. No, that's not a misspelling, and
we're not talking about dancing. We're talking beer, ale, pilsner,
lager, porter, IPA: our national alcoholic elixir, thirst quencher,
sports watching accompaniment and liquid of choice for collegiate
follies. Yes, that kind of hops - the stuff that goes in beer.
Our queen is Heather Darby, a Ph.D. agronomist and soil
scientist for the University of Vermont Extension. Based in the St.
Albans office - one of 12 extension offices - she's a highly
accomplished dynamo of a woman, raised on a Vermont dairy farm in
Alburgh, who wears enough hats that it makes your head spin.
Forage, soils, grain production, biofuels, nutrient management,
organic farming, oilseeds - she does it all. Many folks would be
daunted, but the variety of tasks and research that go with the job
fits her psyche.
"It's mostly who I am," she says.
These days, though, it's hops-growing that leaves her
"constantly bombarded with questions," and draws most of the
"Sometimes," she says with a laugh, "I think it gets too much
attention. But then, she says, what else would you expect "with
anything that involves beer."
The hop is a vigorous, climbing herbaceous perennial that grows
up to 20 feet high. A native plant also found in Europe and parts
of Asia, it's a distant relative of cannabis or pot and for
centuries has been an essential bittering and flavoring ingredient
in beer, offsetting the sweetness of the malts. Hops were also a
preservative in the days before refrigeration, replacing other
herbal or spice additions that were called "gruit."
But with today's craft beer craze, where beers are served in
goblets for $8 to $9 a glass, hops have migrated from the realm of
mere ingredient to an artisanal signature. According to a 2012
report by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, Vermont now has more
breweries per capita than any state in the country, and brewers
like Lawson's Finest Liquids, Hill Farmstead and others are
achieving cult - some might even say, over-the-tap - status.
Among Vermont brewers, hops are used to distinguish their India
Pale Ales and other brews and give them the distinctive flavor,
aroma and zip that set them apart from not only the Buds of the
world, but the larger craft brewers. Which is where Darby comes
For the past four years she has been team leader of the Vermont
Hops Project, a complex and ground-breaking effort to find hops
varieties that will grow, and thrive, in the state, and figure out
best cultivation and harvesting practices.
"It's like nothing I've ever done before," says Darby. "I'm sort
of a traditional crops person."
Heather Darby finds herself at the cutting edge of a brewing
revival in trying to grow hops, a key ingredient in beer, in
Darby signed on to her extension job while getting her Ph.D. in
plant and soil science at Oregon State University, well before she
defended her dissertation. "I saw the job and knew it was for me,"
UVM held it open for a year while she finished, and she came
back immediately to start work and is about to mark a decade on the
job. When she returned, she also took over the family farm in
Alburgh and with her husband now runs a diversified operation
raising cattle, berries and vegetables. And as if that's not
enough, she's a new mom trying to balance work life with a
The Hops Project is challenging because it is starting almost
from scratch: There's no "manual" for growing Vermont hops. For all
their vigor as they climb to produce the female flowers - like
little pine cones - that are added in the brewing process, hops are
susceptible to myriad diseases and bugs, finicky about soil
conditions and climate, and fragile despite their size. But they
were grown in Vermont in the 1800s, as documented by Adam Krakowski
for the Vermont Historical Society in his book, "A Bitter Past: Hop
Farming in the 19th Century."
Krakowski found Vermont grew as much as 640,000 pounds in 1860,
before pests, disease and competition out west led farmers to find
more fertile economic fields. There are still "feral" hops growing
wild in Vermont.
The Hops Project got started after a crash of the nation's hops
crop in 2009 that sparked brewers' interest in growing locally, she
says, and an offer from a colleague asking if she wanted to
participate in a hops research grant.
"It sounded like a cool project, and I said, 'yeah, why not',"
she says. Then UVM Extension got the $30,000 four-year grant. "When
we got the grant, I was actually worried, now what are we going to
do?" she jokes.
Dig in and plant and harvest and conduct research, is the
answer. Four years in, Darby is cautiously optimistic that
home-grown Vermont hops are a realistic goal, though she admits
there's a long way to go.
"The learning curve is so steep," she says. But she has gotten
tremendous backing from gardeners and farmers of all stripes
and especially Vermont brewers, who are eager to source their
ingredients locally - or at least from the region, where a
Northeast Hops Alliance is also exploring the crop.
A one-acre "hops yard" was built in Alburgh to test different
varieties, and growers are trying varieties as well, drawing on UVM
Extension for expertise and advice. "I think we're getting there,"
There are at least a couple dozen well-known hop types such as
Cascade, Wilamette and Hallertau. One variety they've tried, called
Cluster, was probably a Vermont variety but is susceptible to downy
mildew, which can wipe out a crop, she says.
A few Vermont brewers have already tried Vermont hops in their
beers. At the Bobcat Cafe in Bristol, brewer Mark Magiera used
Vermont hops in his post-Irene Flood Suds and a variety on tap now
called Prayer Rock Pale ("…dry-hopped to offer floral aroma and
citrus flavour notes.")
Going homegrown on hops has many appealing angles, he says. The
cafe sources many of its ingredients locally, and the beers seek to
match that ethic. Local hops can add a "Vermont terroir" that can
be tasted, and lower the carbon footprint by not importing hops
grown from around the world.
"I think it's a little bit of it all," he says. "Just for
us, we have as a company a 'feel good' that we're able to source
Bobcat Cafe has a small seven-barrel brewery, with each barrel
holding 31 gallons. On average only a pound of hops is needed per
barrel, so the cafe can experiment and easily make small batches.
Magiera, who has been brewing since 1995, personally "hammered" the
dried Vermont hops by hand into a powder. Commercial hops are
usually purchased in "bricks" or rabbit-food-like pellets.
However, as far as finding consistent quality and establishing
commercial farms that will grow hops, he says Vermont has a ways to
He credits Darby and her co-workers for taking on the hops
project, and all its sundry meetings, conferences, field
gatherings and field tests and hop yard construction seminars.
"She's very well-connected, and she also has a stellar staff,"
he says. They're very smart and intelligent and energetic, and they
echo her energy as well."
To learn about hops in Vermont and in brewing, here are some
In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont's
innovators, people, ideas and places. Andrew
Nemethy is a longtime writer and editor from
Photos courtesy of UVM Extension Northwest Crops &