One day last winter, as I was rushing to Skaneateles, I looked to the right and saw an interesting sight. On a Sennett hill, a mile or so before the Onondaga-Cayuga county line, was what looked like a forest of abandoned telephone poles, all of them slanted to about 45 degrees. That certainly got my attention, and a few weeks ago, I followed up and found a great topic for this week’s column. It was a hop field, or as it's sometimes known, a hop yard. Heavy twine runs from the top of each pole to the next, and between the poles other twine drops to the ground. The pines will grow up these.
Hops are a fast-growing vine — technically known as a “pine” because they do not have tendrils to hold them to a wall like a vine, but rather twist themselves around a rope — whose flower is important in beer making. While the primary area for commercially growing hops is in the Northwest part of our country, the emergence of micro-breweries has led to the rise of hundreds of local hop fields. The hop is a herbaceous perennial plant. It dies back each year and remains dormant during the winter, and begins to grow as the ground warms up. In a good season it can easily attain a height of 20 or more feet.
It did not take too long to find out who was operating this farm, so recently I spent some time with Auburnian Tom King. Indeed, he and two lifetime friends, Ben and Joe Bergan, decided to invest in this new business, Hop Haven, and make it a success. Why? Well, they all liked to make beer and wanted a good source of different kinds of hops and, more importantly, they see a growing market in central New York for a good quality product. There are a lot of good microbreweries in the area, with more opening each year, and home brewing has become a major hobby.
Actually, it is not the vine that is used in brewing. It is the dried flower, the cone. Each flower contains the oils that flavor the beer, and because there are hundreds of varieties of hops, there is a multitude of different flavors. Each kind has its own distinct oil. It is those oils that impart the bitter, tangy flavors to beers and ales. And, as well as flavoring, the hops tend to add stability to the brew. In merry old England, beer was brewed with a very light alcoholic content and was used as a substitute for the brackish water. In those days, before hops, burdock root, marigolds, dandelions and even heather were used for the flavoring.
So my first question for Tom was, of course, about the poles. It seems that they are about 18 feet tall and are sunken into the ground a couple of feet. Hop Haven has used black locust poles because they rot very slowly, and will probably last as long as the lifespan of the average hop plant. The rows of plants are about 200 feet long and the poles are spaced about 25 feet apart, and positioned at a 45-degree angle to keep the ropes taut.
Why, I asked, did you select this piece of property for your project? Tom replied that it was on a hilltop, without many trees around the periphery that might shade the plants. The gentle slope was off to the west, and it afforded the best afternoon and evening sun. The gentle slope allowed rain to soak in before running off and yet did not allow pools of water to gather that would rot the roots of the plants. Hop plants do not like wet feet. But most of all, the soil was Honeoye loam, considered to be one of our finest central New York soils. And yes, supplemental water I needed. The two wells on the property sometimes cannot keep up with the need, so they truck it in from Owasco. And watering the plants this year is much easier than last, when they walked to each plant with a watering can and poured it on. They have now installed a “drip system.” Small pipes carry the water throughout the hop field and, at each plant, a small tube slowly drips out the water. It is not a labor-saver, but gives the right amount of water to each plant, as it conserves this precious resource.
So now, at the end of the season, harvest time will soon be upon us. The ropes are cut and pines are brought indoors to dry. After they have sufficiently dried comes the tedious task of removing the flowers from the pine, because that is the only part used in the brewing process.
Florists will use the pines to make wreaths and garlands, and to decorate tables. Lore has it that if you fill your pillow with dried hops flowers, the aroma will help you sleep better.