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In this state: Local hops: A search for “Vermont terroir”

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 attention.

"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 in.

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 Vermont.
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," she says.

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 three-month-old.

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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," she says.

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 local ingredients."

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 go.

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 links:

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 Calais.

Photos courtesy of UVM Extension Northwest Crops & Soils Team