Lincolnville hop yard on the frontier in New England
Lincolnville — Friday, Aug. 24, Taylor Mudge sold 20 cascade hops vines to Sebago Brewing. He had just returned from meeting the Sebago truck — and handing off the freshly-harvested, whole vines — in nearby Belfast and explained that Sebago Brewmaster Tom Abercrombie will use the hops in the Gorham brewery's "Local Harvest Ale." While Mudge said 20 vines is a modest amount, the sale was a landmark of sorts for Ducktrap River Hops, LLC, a certified organic hop yard that began offering hops for sale just this year.
Mudge and Jim Sady have been experimentally growing hops — and researching the process — for about five years. Mudge said his interest in growing hops coincided with the 2008 sale of his Boston apartment and subsequent decision to return to Maine full-time. Mudge lives in Camden and owns a sizable parcel of farmland in Lincolnville where his son Sam, 34, operates MOFGA-certified Grange Corner Farm.
"It had been a while since I did any farming," Taylor Mudge explained, "I wanted to do something with the land."
After visiting Oregon, Mudge said he began to consider the idea of growing hops in Lincolnville. He said his interest was piqued by the "alternative crop that doesn't take up a lot of space." In 2009 he planted an "experimental row" of hops in Lincolnville.
Hops are still an atypical crop in the Northeast, Mudge said. He recalled attending a spring conference where a speaker noted that there are more than 30,000 acres of hops grown in the Pacific Northwest compared to roughly 100 acres in the Northeast. At present Mudge and Sady are growing 11 hops varieties on an acre once used as hay field, at Ducktrap River Hops. Mudge said most of their vines are acquired as root stock from the Pacific Northwest.
Though hops are a "high-value crop," the up-front costs of starting a hop yard are significant, Mudge said. Specialized cables and cord are required for optimizing the vine's performance, and rot-resistant black locust posts are used as support. A drip irrigation system was installed in July. Their location requires some ingenuity, but also leaves room for potential expansion, Mudge explained as he looked out across a three-acre expanse of sun-drenched, gently sloping field abutting the hop yard.
"We're on the sleep, creep, leap theory," Sady explained of the multi-stage growing process that he said would take about three years to reach fruition.
Mudge said young hops plants can be bought from a greenhouse but are generally acquired as root stock. The root stock comes in four to five inch lengths, typically bearing one or two nodes that will grow when the root is planted. Because the root stock is typically shipped form Oregon's Willamette Valley in January — the ground stays softer there — Mudge said keeping the root stock alive until the ground thaws in Maine — around March — can be tricky. He said he's hopeful Ducktrap River Hops will be able to offer root stock for sale in order to help accommodate the Northeast market on a time frame conducive to the seasons.
Mudge said he plans to multiply the number of vines in each row by four times in the next two years, from 20 per row to 80. He explained that after a few years the roots must be pruned back with a spade — yielding cuttings that can be sold as root stock.
"You don't want to plant hops somewhere you don't want hops," he said.
Mudge said they selected the initial hops varieties by consulting various publications and researching what brewers are looking for. Aroma hops, Mudge explained, are crucial to producing India Pale Ale (or IPA) a beer variety he said is "popular." Noble hops are also on the initial list — Mudge said the Central European variety is important to making pilsner — but the jury is still out.
"[Noble hops] are not thrifty, they're not growing well here," Mudge said. "Hops in general don't like wet feet."
A veteran farmer, Mudge takes a pragmatic approach to soil. He said the soil in the hops yard is heavier than sandy soils in the Willamette Valley and the basalt-packed, friable soil on the Colorado Plateau. Still, he said he's optimistic.
"They say if you have a field that's a really good hay field it's probably fine for hops," he noted.
While hops don't need heat — Mudge noted that hops are not a popular crop in the South — he said they're susceptible to mildew and need good air circulation to thrive. The perennial vines are 2 to 3-feet high by mid-April and grow vertically on 16-foot cords until near the summer solstice. Around June 23 the vertical growth stops and side shoots begin to emerge.
"The plants know when the days are getting shorter," Mudge said, noting that hops can grow up to a foot in a single day.
"Training" the vines commences in the spring, Mudge said the specialized cord — made from coconut husks — is designed to be "very grabby" for the young vines. He explained hops must be trained clockwise.
"You really do have to train them and help them along," he said. "Spring is a busy time in the hop yard."
When the plants reach 6-feet, the lower leaves must be cut back to prevent them from becoming moldy, he said.
"The rest of the summer is counting the number of bugs," Sady interjected with a laugh. "And paying attention to the amount of moisture."
Both agreed that being present in the hop yard three to four days a week is important since there is always maintenance to be done. In mid-August the work is rewarded when the job changes from scouting for bugs to scouting for blooms.
Mudge said the conical, bright green flowers are ready to harvest when they're papery to the touch and make a crepe-paper like rustle when squeezed. The flowers contain a yellowish powder called lupulin that gives beer it's bitterness. Mudge and Sady noticed Japanese beetles would feast on the hops and stop when they hit the lupulin. Deer, while present in the hops yard, showed no interest in the hops.
Mudge's 1960 Jeep FC150 will play a significant roll in maintaining the vines; Mudge worked with Frank Morrill of Ragged Mountain Welding and Fabrication in Rockport to design and build a custom stand in the bed of the antique vehicle. The rows of hops are spaced so the Jeep can fit in between them, a much safer and easier way to reach the vine tops than a ladder or stilts— as Sady noted are traditionally used in the United Kingdom.
Mudge said many brewers are using pelletized hops for making beer, but the closest facility that does custom pelletizing is outside Manhattan. Another challenge is machinery — Mudge explained that mechanized harvest systems are geared toward commercial scale hop yards, and while it's labor intensive, they may be picking hops manually again next year. Because mature hops are 80 percent moisture —and must be dried to about 8 percent — they must be picked and drying within 24 hours to prevent decomposition.
Once Ducktrap River Hops is "up and going" handpicking will be a "dream" Mudge said, noting that it can take one person nearly an hour to pick a single, mature vine.
When brewers buy green, or "wet" hops — as Sebago does for the Local Harvest Ale — they're sold as whole vines, creating a great advantage for small growers, Mudge said.
Courier Publications reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.