Churchkey Farms | Vigorous vine gaining notoriety with craft beer movement (Featured in The Blade)
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Vigorous vine gaining notoriety with craft beer movement (Featured in The Blade)

24 Sep Vigorous vine gaining notoriety with craft beer movement (Featured in The Blade)


CTY-HOPS14p-2Keefe Snyder, 31, stands next to a 12-foot-pole on the side of his house where he grows three varieties of hops: Cascade, Willamette, and Chinook. 

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Fruit of the vine doesn’t have to refer solely to “bottle of wine.”

The vine of the hops, which lend important properties to beer, is so vigorous, it’s sometimes grown just to give purpose to a trellis or to beautify a rusting vehicle out back.

“You can hide an old swing set or ugly shed with hops or trumpet vine,” said Vicki Gallagher, horticulturist at the 577 Foundation in Perrysburg, where hops cover two big arbors.

Like mint, which never met a piece of dirt it didn’t like, hops require vigilance so they won’t take over the galaxy: not only can they grow 8 inches a day and stretch 25-feet-long, their root mass (rhizomes) is hell-bent on sending out underground shoots.

“We once buried a piece of sheet metal about 3-feet deep,” to stop the hops, Ms. Gallagher said. “It worked for a couple of years until the hops went under and some snuck out on top.”

Keefe Snyder grows them against a sunny wall of his South Toledo home for decorative purposes as well as to better understand a plant that’s key to his hobby. His containment strategy: “I trim the rhizomes to keep them small.” He won’t grow them inside his fenced yard, the kingdom of two canines, because ingesting hops can be poisonous to some breeds.

Twining up a 12-foot “T” pole are three varieties popular for aroma: Cascade, Willamette, and Chinook.

“I brew at home but I’ve only used my own hops once or twice,” said Mr. Snyder, an intellectual property attorney and member of the Glass City Mashers beer-brewing club. He buys frozen hops when making a five-gallon batch, which he does monthly.
Opening the cone reveals yellow Lupulin.

Technically, hops are flowers that grow on a bine, a plant that has stiff-haired shoots and grows in a spiral around a support. A perennial, it dies back in the fall and returns in spring. [If you have trouble remembering what perennials are, think ‘a perennial pain in the neck.’]

The cone-shaped hop flowers are one to two-inches long and called cones; they’re gathered in August when they feel dry and papery.

An estimated 99 percent of hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Until the craft-brewing craze, alpha-acid hops were mainly grown to add bitterness to malted barley, said Dave Losh, the national hops statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But small brewers wanted a different kind of hop — an aromatic one that would infuse their beverage with a floral, citrus, stone-fruit, piney, or berry whiff. To obtain that, brewers meet with farmers at harvest to do a rub: taking a handful of one variety of cones, they rub their hands together and sniff; then they rub other varieties, searching for an aroma they hope consumers will like, Mr. Losh said. He lives in Portland, Ore., where more than half the beer sold is craft.

The popularity of small independent breweries has turned Michigan into the fourth largest hops growing state, with an estimated 320 acres of hops strung on 18-foot lengths of twine in 2015, according to the USDA. In comparison, Washington farmers strung 43,987 acres this year and Ohioans strung about 50 acres.

Craft beers are linked to the relatively youthful “buy-local” movement, and Matt McFarland is all about local. Not only does he grow 10 varieties of hops 27 miles northwest of Toledo, in spring he’ll sow 40 to 50 acres with 2-row malting barley (a grain) and another 10 to 15 acres with brewing wheat.CTY-HOPS14p-1

“The only other ingredients [for beer] are water and yeast,” said Mr. McFarland, a brewer and owner of Churchkey Farms in Deerfield, Mich. After testing hops in the field, he planted four acres in 2013, and 12 acres this year, realizing about 1,000 pounds of dry cones per acre. He sells to brewers in Toledo, Cleveland, Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Grand Rapids, Mich., and plans to expand acreage every year.

Justen Pelton grows Centennial hops for the grapefruity aroma it adds to his IPAs, along with the Mt. Hood hop in three parts of his shady South Toledo yard. “They smell nice in the summer,” growing on an arch “and they covered our chicken coop until I cut them back, he said.

Hops perform another service for beer: They inhibit the growth of bacteria in the barrel.

Mr. Pelton learned about growing hops after visiting Toledo City Councilman Steven Steel’s home in the Old West End about 10 years ago. “He grew Cascades and we went over there and filled bags full.”

Since then, he’s concocted hard ciders using four apple varieties at a time, and also mead, a honey-fruit wine that’s quick to make — an hour — but more costly than beer because it calls for honey and fresh fruits.

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