Hops are climbing in Starksboro
STARKSBORO — Treasure awaits the brewers and beer enthusiasts who will be heading out to Champlain Valley Hops Saturday afternoon for the “Drive Thru Exbeerience,” but it won’t be immediately visible to them as they turn off Route 116 and into the driveway.
To find that treasure they’ll have to drive past the sprawling farmhouse and the big barn, down the dirt-gravel road and around the bend a ways. But for sure they’ll know when they’ve found it. Not only will they see a welcome table set up by the Vermont Brewers Association, but they’ll also see 27 acres of second- and third-generation hops plants climbing gleefully skyward.
And beyond that, 10 more acres, planted just this year.
At 37 acres, Champlain Valley Hops is by far the largest hops operation in Vermont, which has more breweries per capita than any other state in the nation. In fact, Champlain Valley Hops is the biggest thing going east of Michigan.
That’s some treasure.
And it’s not bad for less than three years’ work.
Champlain Valley Hops cofounders Peter Briggs, an entrepreneur who lived for many years in hops-rich Central Europe, and Julian Post, who worked as a Hops Specialist for three years in the UVM Extension Hops Program, purchased this 240-acre farm in 2018 and immediately planted 18 acres in hops.
Two years later their hop yard has more than doubled.
“Our goal is a sustainable-size operation that can provide pelletized hops to brewers year-round,” said Briggs during a recent interview on the farm. “It’s a long-term project, but we feel like this is our first year at a truly commercial size.”
Most hops farms in Vermont range from 0.5 to 5 acres — too little to justify a separate processing industry to turn their crop into the pellets that brewers prefer to use.
In order to provide a product with the volume and consistency to appeal to Vermont’s commercial beer makers, Champlain Valley Hops does not only the growing but also the processing, which has required a significant investment up front.
Which is one of the major barriers for the hops industry in Vermont, Post explained.
“The infrastructure cost is a long-term commitment. You need permanent trellising, processing equipment like a stationary combine, a custom hop dryer, a baler, a pelletizing system and a cold storage facility.”
And to support that investment you need to grow — and sell — a heck of a lot of hops.
With their plants in various states of maturity, Briggs and Post hope to harvest at least 15,000 pounds this year, which would more than triple their 2019 output.
Though they’d be perfectly happy with those numbers, Briggs put them into perspective.
“(Our entire harvest) would amount to about one month’s supply for a place like Otter Creek Brewing,” he said.
Two years from now, however, with 37 acres of thriving, fully mature plants, “we will have the footprint we need,” he added.
After the harvest, which runs from mid-August to late-September, the hops get processed in a large former dairy barn that has been retrofitted for that purpose.
This is where most of the machinery comes in — much of it secondhand, much of it manufactured in Germany.
The cones get stripped from the plants and sent upstairs, where they spend 12 to 16 hours drying in furnace-supplied hot air. Farther down the line they get processed into pellets and then put into a storage facility with a thermostat set to 28 degrees.
Post retrieved a couple of sample bags from cold storage and opened them.
The green pellets smelled like earth and citrus and, more than anything else, beer.
Champlain Valley Hops is hosting the Vermont Brewers Association’s “Drive Thru Exbeerience” on Saturday in lieu of what would have been the Vermont Brewers Festival this year.
Max Licker, who’s in charge of sales and marketing for Champlain Valley Hops, and who has been helping prepare the hop yard for the event, explained how it will work.
After checking in at the welcome table, guests will get to drive their vehicles down one of the hop rows — a quarter-mile corridor of vertical green beery goodness (watch a video of this drive here). On the other side, 12 Vermont brewers will be waiting for them, stationed at the end of every third row of the hop yard, including Middlebury’s own Drop-In Brewery, and Foam Brewers of Burlington, whose “Local Dork” label contains Champlain Valley Hops.
The folks at Champlain Valley Hops are not the dorks in question, however, Licker explained.
Participants will purchase beer online in advance of the event, drive up to the stations of each brewery they’ve purchased beer from, and get their trunk filled with Vermont beer.
Some beer will also be available for purchase at the event, Licker said.
To find out more about the event and to place an order, visit vermontbrewers.com/drive-thru-exbeerience/.
KEEPING IT LOCAL
The folks at Champlain Valley are looking forward not only to showing off their flourishing hop yard, but they’re also hoping to make connections with brewers.
“Our pitch to brewers has two parts,” Post said. “One, it’s a personal relationship with the farmers. We’d like to have brewers participate, and we can work with them to pinpoint harvest dates and hops selections to meet their needs. They can come to the farm, smell the product and order accordingly.
“Second, it’s about the unique characteristics of this place (the terroir), which is something we’re still learning about.”
Working with specialists in the UVM Extension Hops Program, Champlain Valley Hops can conduct testing and collect data on characteristics that matter most to the brewing industry — including sensory attributes like taste and smell, which have become increasingly important in recent years.
“We want to be early adopters of this science,” Briggs said.
For more information about Champlain Valley Hops, visit champlainvalleyhops.com.
Reach Christopher Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.