Examining the young vines of the hop plants at Duck Trap River Hop Farm
Examining the young vines of the hop plants at Duck Trap River Hop Farm
On a hot, dry summer afternoon, Taylor Mudge takes a walk over his scenic pastoral hill overlooking the Camden Hills. The Mudge family's fields in Lincolnville have been hayed for several decades, but there hasn't been much other agricultural activity up here until very recently. As an antique grain combine sits waiting in a newly built barn at the top of the hill, his son Sam is working on a neighboring parcel, tending to his rye, oats, barley and corn. While "amber waves of grain" is not an image most people conjure when they think of the midcoast, the elder Mudge has also begun cultivating a fairly uncommon crop that hasn't seen large-scale commercial cultivation in Maine for many years - hops.

For beer connoisseurs, the combination of grain and hops couldn't be a more perfect formula. Up until the 13th century, brewers relied on a concoction of herbs like sweet gale, mugwort, horehound and heather, known as "gruit," as a flavoring agent for beer. Then the large, bulbous, yellowish-green blossoms of the hops plant became more commonly used, not just to balance the sweetness of the barley malt in beer, but also for its aromatic qualities. According to historical accounts, the Pilgrims brought a substantial amount of ale on their passage to the New World, as drinking water was not always clean and beer was then considered part of a balanced diet. Gallus Thomann of the United Brewer's Association recounted the real reason why Pilgrims chose to land where they did in his 1909 book American Beer:

"It is said that this supply of beer was exhausted somewhat earlier than the organizers of the migration scheme had anticipated, and that, therefore, a landing was effected at the rather uninviting spot since then immortalized in song and story as Plymouth Rock."

And ever since the Pilgrims made that historical landing in 1620, New Englanders have made sure to brew up an ample supply of their favorite fermented beverage. In 1629 hops were first introduced from Europe to Massachusetts for cultivation and by the mid 1800s, New England was producing 1.5 million pounds a year. It wasn't long before the westward expansion led to increased competition from farmers in drier, more temperate areas of the Pacific Northwest where hops thrived. With a more suitable climate and mechanized harvesters, the increased yields pushed down prices in the late 1800s, driving many Northeastern farmers out of the business altogether. In the early 1900s, exacerbated by the region's moist climate, an outbreak of downy mildew (or "blue mold") all but wiped out the hop crops in the Northeast. These days, about 30,000 acres of hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest and about 100 on the entire Eastern Seaboard.

"If you're going to get into the hop business in Maine, you've got to do it cautiously, otherwise the past will come back to haunt you," says David Handley, a vegetable and fruit specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Due to a renewed interest in purchasing locally grown ingredients from the state's many craft-beer breweries, Handley began a trial with the perennial two years ago on Highmoor Farm in Monmouth, the Extension's research station. It takes at least two to three years for hops to reach maturity, so Handley is taking a wait-and-see approach. In addition to the specter of mildew, pests like spider mites, brush footed butterflies, aphids and Japanese beetles are fans of the plant.

"You've got to be out here at least four days a week looking for bugs and tending to the hop yard," says Mudge, who, with his partner Jim Sady of Rockport, manages the crops at Duck Trap River Hop Farm organically. "Out west you see these big beautiful vines, but they use a tremendous amount of chemicals to control pests. There aren't many organic hops operations."
Mudge admits it can be a tough market to get into. Most home brewers use either an extract or processed hops pellets to make beer, and commercial brewers use a huge amount of the product, much more than his little acre yard could provide. However, Mudge estimates he could get a yield of up to 1,000 pounds of dried hops when the plants reach maturity and it only takes four or five ounces to make five gallons of beer. There's already been some interest from at least one local beer maker. Tom Abercrombie, a Belfast native and master brewer at Sebago Brewing Company in Gorham, has been using local organic hops from Waldo County for a few years now. Sebago's "Local Harvest Ale" became the first commercially produced beer in Maine made primarily with locally sourced hops from Irish Hill Farm in Monroe and barley planted as a potato rotation crop in Aroostook County.

"Last year we made an arrangement with Irish Hill Farm to cut down hops in one morning," says Abercrombie. "We cut them down, coiled them up, and brought them back down to Sebago. We then enlisted an army of beer geek volunteers to pick them over."

Because drying hops can be such an energy-intensive, precise process and the brewery lacks the equipment to accomplish that task, Abercrombie uses the hops fresh. That means he has to work quickly, because the blossoms go bad within hours if not preserved properly. The brewmaster puts the green hops in a tea that is used to ultimately flavor the fermented brew.

"Making it into a tea gives it a very distinctive, aromatic effect. It's kind of grassy, herbally and citrusy. It adds unique character," says Abercrombie. "We're definitely buying all of the local hops we can."

According to Abercrombie, in spite of the success of the fall seasonal Local Harvest Ale, producing a truly "local" beer on a year-round basis is an impossibility at this time.

"The Maine Potato Growers produce 100 metric tons of malt barley a year and Sebago alone uses 10,000 pounds of that just for one beer," he says. "Over the course of a year we contract for a half million pounds of malt to make six to seven barrels of beer. A larger local brewery makes 100,000 barrels. The amount of locally grown barley we would need doesn't exist, though I'm not saying it couldn't."

"It's really a chicken-and-egg question," says David Handley. "The growers send their product to malting factories in Canada, so we need a local processor, but no one will step forward unless there's enough of a demand from growers."

Handley believes one way of solving the processing issue is for local brewers to invest in a cooperative processing venture - a long shot, he admits.

Sam Mudge said he'd like to try growing malt barley at some point, but he's still in the learning stage of growing grains. Meanwhile, his father is looking forward to harvesting his first crop of hops later this summer.

Having planted a dozen different varieties, he's hoping to have a substantial harvest of cascade hops, a hearty variety known to do better in New England's wet, unpredictable climate. As for a future in hops cultivation for the midcoast given the crop's checkered past, Mudge mentions a presentation he observed at a hop growing conference he attended earlier this spring. If you find a volunteer hop plant growing somewhere, the presenter said, take a root cutting and propagate it, because if it's growing and it's been neglected, then it's going to be a pretty tough plant.

"We found a plant in a swamp next to the ocean and it was thriving," says Mudge. "We took a cutting and planted it here, so when those plants get to be sizable, we'll send some of the flowers out to the lab to be analyzed for their acidity and aroma. If you believe Darwin, the odds are that spontaneous changes can happen to make an organism evolve. Here's a hop that is not in an ideal location, but somehow it has modified itself to adapt to the conditions."

Perhaps there is some hope for hops in Maine.