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A Hops Resurgence Is Brewing on Sharon Mountain

Hops

James Shepherd’s path to becoming the state’s main commercial grower of hops was paved with challenges. It has taken six years of trial and error, sweat and perseverance, to successfully reintroduce a crop that once had roots here but fell out of use due to Connecticut’s fickle climate. The majority of hops are now grown in the Pacific Northwest.

“We didn’t know what we were doing in the beginning,” said Shepherd during an early June visit to his sprawling, 170-acre Smokedown Farm atop Sharon Mountain in Sharon, Conn. 

The farm boasts a 9-acre hop yard started in 2015 with the hopes of providing hops — an essential ingredient that gives beer its flavor — to local craft breweries. Brewers select different varieties to appeal to different tastes.

Smokedown’s hops, which are dried and pelletized, are sold to about 25 breweries across New England, including Kent Falls Brewing Company, Connecticut’s first farm brewery, located on 50-acres in Kent, Conn. 

“We go to James’ farm every year and select the hops we want for beer that we make throughout the next year,” said Barry Labendz of Kent Falls, who noted that he launched his brewing company in the same year Shepherd started his farm operation. 

“Being a farm brewery, we found each other very quickly and easily,” Labendz said. 

“While we grow some of our own hops, we try very hard to work with the local supply chain — but I wouldn’t use the hops if they weren’t great,” he said of Smokdown Farm’s product. “We use 100% locally grown grain at this point, which, when we started, I never thought would be possible.”

Smokedown, too, has been defying the odds.

‘Our third legit season’

An early June heatwave had Shepherd, who is a physician and infectious disease specialist at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., worried about his tender hops crop. 

Wiping sweat from his brow, he explained that hops are one of the most complicated crops to grow. 

“Grapes are easy by comparison,” Shepherd noted as he inspected the bright green tendrils spiraling upward along a tall string.

Behind him is an other-worldly view of rows upon rows of what look like wood telephone poles growing out of the ground, connected to steel aircraft cables that hold up an aerial trellis from which 20,000 strings are suspended.

The hops grow skyward on cord made of coconut fiber imported from Sri Lanka. “I installed all 667 of the 22-foot poles in this field and put them in with that green tractor over there,” Shepherd noted, motioning to his faithful John Deere, parked nearby. The poles are buried 4 feet deep.

The process of preparing the hop yard initially involved setting 9,000 perennial hops plants into the ground, and the installation of 5.5 miles of drip line to keep the water-loving crop viable. 

“There is no book on hops in Connecticut,” explained Shepherd, who is a board member of the Connecticut Farmland Trust. 

“It is, in effect, a new crop,” he said, even though it was grown locally a century ago. This is our third legit season. The first three involved a lot of trial and error.”

 He credits farm manager Ally Hughes, a fourth generation farmer from the Midwest who joined Smokedown in March 2018, for the operation’s success. “Ally has taken it to the next level. She has learned on a steep curve. This is really the fruits of her labor.” 

And labor galore is what it takes to grow hops each season, beginning with spending three weeks in early spring tying lengths of cord throughout the hop yard. “We installed 20,000 strings this year,” said Shepherd, who noted that the hops operation has become a family affair, with help from his wife, Katherine, three sons, and his sons’ friends from college. Once planted, the hops must be trained to follow the cord skyward.

Brewfest on July 24

While the 2021 growing season is the Sharon hop yard’s sixth season, the venture has yet to operate in the green despite the fact that hops are a “high-value crop,” yielding $10,000 per acre, according to Shepherd. 

“It’s been slow starting an agriculture business and a marketing business. At first, customers are suspicious and worry that they won’t be able to rely on us to produce enough to meet their needs,” he explained. The past two years, though, were breakthrough years for the young farm, and a growing number of craft brewers hopped on board.

“Last year was the closest we came to making a profit. This year, if the crop is as good as it is looking now, we will take another step toward profitability,” said Shepherd, who estimated it could take two to three additional years to break even. “Really, my goal for this year, if not next year, is to sustain the salaries on the farm.”

Two upcoming events are planned at Smokedown to help market and promote the hops operation, said Shepherd. 

On July 24 a brewfest will include tours of the hop yard and samples of the hops. A percentage of the proceeds will benefit the Connecticut Farmland Trust. Details will be posted on www.beerfest.com. Then on Aug.  10, an industry party with exclusive entry to brewers and others in the industry is on tap.

The operation received a shot in the arm recently in the form of its first matching grant from the Connecticut Department of Agriculture to invest in infrastructure. Shepherd plans to apply for an additional grant in 2022 to purchase equipment that would increase harvesting capacity.

Since 2019 Smokedown has been pelleting onsite. 

Seven varieties of hops

Hops, which are the female flower of the hop plant, are what give beer its flavor, bitterness and aroma. Smokedown grows seven varieties to appeal to a wide range of tastes, from standard varieties like the fruit-and-flower-forward Chinook and the fruity Cascade, to more pungent, spicy varieties like Challenger, which Shepherd described as having a “knock-your-socks-off aroma.” 

All of the aromas, he said, “are quite distinct. We really believe that we can grow fascinating local Connecticut hops using these basic varieties.”

While those varieties are also sold by national growers, Shepherd said his hops have “very special characteristics” due to his farm’s location which offers adequate sunshine, plentiful rain and rich soil. “The topsoil here is 8 feet deep,” he noted. 

When asked which flavor profile he personally prefers, the transplanted Englishman offers an honest assessment: “I like a nice, British pub pint of ale. That’s good enough for me.” No beer snob here.

Kent Falls’ Labendz has used both Chinook and Cascade in his brews, such as his Bird Post Pale Ale, as well as Challenger, “which was the first hop we worked with James on.” He explained that by collaborating with a local grower like Smokedown, “you can understand the process and the supply chain better. That’s where the personal taste profile comes in. Challenger, for instance, can become stinky and pungent if left to stay on the vine past peak harvest date, but sometimes you want that. So I can order one-third early, one-third late, and do trials to see what the flavor impact is.”

That ability to customize orders, said Labendz, is a luxury rarely available to small craft brewers. “With the larger hops suppliers in the Northwest, you have to be one of the top customers,” with orders of around $50,000 per year, to get the best pick of the crop. “We would never be able to do that … it’s like we get the last kick in kickball.”

Additional hops varieties grown at Smokedown include Tahoma, Santiam, Teamaker and Centennial. In addition to Kent Falls Brewing Co., these varieties are sold to Connecticut craft breweries including Bad Dog Brewing Company in Torrington, Norbrook Brewery in Colebrook, Great Falls Brewing Company in North Canaan, Nod Hill Brewery in Ridgefield, Woodbury Brewery, Clocktown Brewing Company in Thomaston and Brewery Legitimus in New Hartford.

“Brewers are beginning to take an interest in locally produced beer ingredients like our hops,” said Hughes. “The consumer is driving the hype for locally grown ingredients and Smokedown will continue to provide uniquely New England characteristics to the hops.”

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