The Hop Grower’s Handbook: The Essential Guide for Sustainable, Small-Scale Production for Home and Market
review by William Wilson
To any gardener or farmer interested in growing hops; to the beer aficionado curious to learn the bubbly beverage’s thick history; to the social scientist studying the local trends involved in the craft-beer movement—allow me to introduce you to Laura and Dietrich. Laura, a beer blogger who works in the New York State Farmland Conservation office, together with her husband Dietrich, a beer salesman and avid brewer, have insightfully written The Hop Grower’s Handbook.
The text is a synthesis of the hop and beer history, farming and harvesting practices, basic soil science, along with a what-to-expect understanding of the craft beer and hop markets as they continue to unfold. It’s very much a multi-disciplinary read, as the authors guide us through the anatomy of the hop plant (humulus lupu-lus) at the experimental hop yards at Cornell and UVM, or visit 400-acre “challenge yards” in Washington where rhizomes are tested for disease control. Fur-thermore, Laura and Dietrich implement what they’ve learned into their own one-acre hop yard in western Albany County, NY, allowing them to recognize and convey their successes and follies, advantages, and cautions. The synthesis of academic knowledge and first-person practice provides the backbone to this book—Laura and Dietrich’s thorough integration of industry practices, university research, along with their first-hand, trial-and error knowledge, informs just how comprehensive the text really is.
Throughout the Hop Growers Handbook, it becomes clear that growing hops, though meticulous at times, is a rather malleable activity. Hops can be grown on trellis systems eighteen feet high for hundreds of hectares, or simply included in a gardener’s permacultural setting. They can be harvested by machine, dried with an industrial kiln, pelletized, packaged, and shipped east, or simply picked from a vine off the façade of a building, dried in a Panini press, and steeped in a wort for homebrew. It’s simply a matter of what the grower seeks to accomplish.
An obvious undercurrent throughout the book is the authors’ emphasis on growing in the northeast region. Although Laura and Dietrich admit that “virtually all the country’s commercial hop production happens in the northwest”, farmers and hobbyists located in the northeast receive tons of encouragement with an opti-mism that until now occurred seldom in the hop growing discourses. That being said, research on growing hops in New England is still adolescent. Even in light of the observations by the Cornell Extension Program and University of Vermont (two very integral resources), there still remains a rather slim body of literature. And while the state universities of Washington and Oregon produce immense amounts of writing, their concerns are tailored in accordance to their climate and condi-tions. The northwest region, for instance, hasn’t much of an issue with downy mildew or Japanese Beetle infestations—rather, they’re much more concerned with Powdery mildew, or pests like the California prionus beetle. So hop farming in the northeast is somewhat of a frontier, where managing problems related to soil and moisture is still developing, particularly when a grower seeks to be organic. Books like the The Hop Grower’s Handbook are crucial in synthesizing the re-gional information from which farmers and hobbyists can learn.
A couple things should be taken away from this reading, however. One, hops were once grown widely in the northeast. In the 1840’s, New York had roughly 40,000 acres of cultivated hop growth. The reason hops were brought to places like Yakima Valley (WA) is, yes, in part because of the downy mildew and the farmers’ ina-bility to manage it, but also because of the Prohibition era, where laws—such as the Jones Act—transformed homebrewing into a felony. Secondly, growing in the northeast still requires protection and management against downy—your biggest threat. Should you wish to grow hops, however, choose the aroma hops. They contain more oils, helping defend the plant from developing fungi and parasites. In fact, Laura and Dietrich allude to an interesting observation of how, in humid climates, aroma hops will learn to develop more essential oil, thus increasing their immune system and overall survivability. To any brewer, this is great news, since oils just so happen to be a great guarantor of flavors and aromas.