N.J. hops growers jump into trendy 'farm-to-mug' market

Joe Ritter tends to the 16-foot-tall hops he grows in Shamong, N.J.

Reaching for the sky at this tiny farm in Shamong, Burlington County, were 140 hops plants, or bines, each 16 feet tall and twisting around a strand of twine suspended from a trellis system of ropes and poles.  A warm breeze made the leafy bines sway and dance one recent afternoon, as their delicate flowers released a whiff that hinted of beer.

Joe Ritter’s hops farm is one of about a dozen statewide that are emerging nearly a century after blight and Prohibition took the East Coast out of the market. Ritter, a high school environmental science  teacher, grows the finicky crop as a hobby to supply home brewers and local craft breweries with a fresh bittering and flavoring ingredient that beer drinkers crave.

 

A two-year Rutgers University study concluded that hops farming has the potential to grow and to become a more significant, lucrative crop in New Jersey.  The study, which was released last week, dovetails with other research being conducted at Pennsylvania State University and Cornell University to analyze the challenges of growing hops in the region.

Oregon, Washington, and Idaho have the hops market wrapped up, but the Pacific Coast and Midwestern dominance may start to erode as consumer demand for sustainable, locally sourced food spills over to craft beers.  There also is a surge in microbreweries in the Garden State and elsewhere across the country.

Hops are poised to become the new hip crop.  Tomatoes and corn may be forced to yield a bit of their dirt.

“I do see the hops industry taking off,” said James Simon, the director of Rutgers’ New Use Agriculture and Natural Plant Products and the lead researcher of the Rutgers hops study.

But before hops farmers invest thousands of dollars in harvesting equipment and other machinery, they need to learn best methods to produce a high-quality crop and improve yield, he said. Tax and business incentives, similar to those offered to wineries, may also help the hops industry boom.

The Rutgers study, funded by a  $14,900 grant from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, explored hops varieties to determine which perform well in New Jersey soil and whether disease-resistant strains can be developed. The study also provided the best methods for harvesting and drying the crop.

One of about a dozen hops farms in New Jersey, this one is in Shamong, Burlington County.

Most hops farmers in New Jersey currently hand-pick the pungent cones that spring from the flowers and then become a bittering, or flavoring, ingredient.  This time-consuming, labor-intensive task is the reason small hops farms are not profitable.  Some agriculture experts say growers cooperatives are one way to solve this problem.

Ritter, who teaches at Shawnee High School in Medford, said he usually stands on a ladder to pick the cones one by one during the harvest in August and September.  “It’s very slow,” he said with a sigh.  The Japanese beetles are another challenge, he said, describing how he plucks them off the leaves individually to avoid using pesticides.

Ritter started growing hops four years ago on a nearly half-acre section of his family’s livestock and vegetable farm.  “I was a home brewer, and I thought I would grow enough for home brewers to come and pick their own.  I started with 40 plants, and it was very cool thing to do,” he said.

Then, word got out.  Two years ago, the Philadelphia-based Manayunk Brewing Co. staged a hops-picking party at his farm and harvested about 30 pounds one afternoon, he said.

Sean Galie, who brews craft beer at Lower Forge in Medford, recalls how he missed out on the cherished locally grown hops that year. “Manayunk got the harvest,” he said.

Manayunk created a special IPA, Wet Dreamin’, using the hops from Ritter’s farm and other hops farms in Pennsylvania.

“We hand-picked bucket after bucket of fresh Cascade and Nugget hops from local farms in Pa. and N.J. to brew our delicious wet-hopped IPA,” the Manayunk Brewing Co. said on its website.  “We added the wet hops directly to the kettle within 24 hours of being picked, which adds incredibly fresh, crisp, earthy notes not found when simply using dried hops.”

It was a hit.

“People like it because it’s something different, fresh, more earthy. … It’s more personal, more local,” said Evan Fritz, the head brewer at Manayunk.  He plans to brew another batch of wet hops next month.

This summer, several local brewers have told Ritter they are interested in his Cascade and Chinook varieties. “Everyone is into the buy local and fresh movement,” Ritter said. “They see ‘buy local’ as a selling point.”

New Jersey was an important producer of hops in the 1800s.  But in the early 20th century, much of the crop was decimated by a blight caused by powdery mildew.  A few decades later, Prohibition brought hops production to a halt.

According to the Hops Growers of America, the nation’s first commercial hops operation began in 1648 in Massachusetts.  The practice then expanded to the rest of the Northeast until Pacific Coast growers took over the market in the early 1900s.

After a global hops shortage in 2008, farmers from various locales began to look anew at growing hops.  Then came the explosion in microbreweries, and hops farms suddenly became the subject of more chatter.

Simon said the Rutgers study was designed to determine whether hops could be a viable crop in New Jersey.   Preliminary studies had shown the business would be risky.  Rutgers established a research station in Pittstown, Hunterdon County, and grew 40 plants over two years.

“Although the Mid-Atlantic area accounts for 34 percent of national brewery sales, virtually no profit is realized from this $249 million dollar hop industry.  As interest builds in sourcing local hops, it offers a unique opportunity for farmers in the Mid-Atlantic region … creating a totally new source of income for farmers,” the study said.

Simon said the Rutgers researchers would continue to help hops farmers in the state and provide chemical analyses that determine whether their crops meet industry standards for aroma and flavor.

“We’re the first to establish a rapid testing system to work with growers on quality and aroma so they can have a competitive edge,” Simon said.

Simon said the Triumph Brewery used some of the hops harvested from the test plants to make special brews — Sweet Danny Blonde and Sweet Danny Lemon Basil — last year.  “Apparently, consumers loved it and enjoyed it and we are hoping they will do that again,” he said.