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Some Thoughts on Hops Brought on by Flying Dog’s SAVOR Symposium

Flying Dog's HopsThis post is rather overdue, but bear with me on it as I riff on everyone’s favorite beer ingredient: hops. During SAVOR Beer Week, I had the opportunity to attend Flying Dog‘s first Symposium. This was attended by a bunch of folks in the craft beer industry: beer directors, brewery personnel of all flavors, bloggers and beer journalists, restaurant owners, etc. This Symposium is something that Flying Dog wants to keep hosting annually to bring people together to discuss important topics in craft beer. The inaugural year’s topics didn’t disappoint. Two panels, one on East Coast Hop Cultivation and one on Belgian-Inspired American Beers, kept the audience riveted while it sipped on some Flying Dog brews.

I want to focus on the East Coast Hop Cultivation Panel here. The panel was comprised of Chris O’Brien, Sustainability Expert at American University, Chad Hatlestad, Hop Market Expert with Brewers Supply Group, Tom Barse, Owner of Stillpoint Farm, and Mike Roffman, Founder of Atlantic Hops, and it was moderated by Matt Brophy, Flying Dog brewmaster. I neglected to take notes during this panel (blogger fail), so I don’t have any direct quotes or attributions to offer you. Despite that, I was fascinated by this panel.

The opening salvo in the hop education knowledge drop was that people don’t really think about where their hops come from. You go to the homebrew shop or order from your favorite online homebrew retailer and the hops show up in a nice vacuum sealed package. With craft beers you purchase from bars or your favorite beer retailer, this is much the same. Certainly craft beer fans recognize the different varieties of hops and the different dimensions that they affect in beers (bitterness, aroma, flavor), but do they often think about where the hops are sourced from? I’m not sure, but I know that I don’t, or at least didn’t, until I attended this panel.

See, like everything else in the craft beer world, the hop supply chain is an interdependent community of folks working together. Not to get all touchy-feely, but breweries have a lot of relationships. They build relationships with the consumer, with their distributor, with their local bars, etc., but the message of the panel was that breweries should also be working to build a relationship with their hop source: the farmer. It’s kind of like how CSAs and farm sharing provide some financial security up front for the farmer through the growing season. When a brewery tells a farmer “these are the hop varieties and quantities that we’d like to purchase from you,” the farmer can, instead of guessing what will sell, do his or her best to ensure that what the brewery needs gets to their door to be put into all kinds of tasty brews. This provides mutual financial security for the farmer and the brewery.

I grew up in New Jersey, and, jokes about the great Garden State aside, knew a lot of farmers by way of my dad being a produce wholesaler. I cannot remember a farmer ever telling me that it was a “good year for farmers,” given that the weather can be too wet, too dry, too cold, or too hot, and the consumer too picky or more inclined to go to a grocery store than a road stand. Knowing the struggles that farmers constantly have, listening to Tom Barse speak from the dais was fascinating; he moved into a new crop which has both paid dividends and helped his hobby. Tom is the owner of Stillpoint Farm in Mt. Airy, Maryland, which is home to Maryland’s first hopyard. He was a homebrewer for about 20 years when he decided to give growing his own hops on a larger scale a try. While he started small, he eventually worked up to having a number of acres of hop bines, which he built his own hop picker and sorter to more efficiently harvest. In any event, back to it never being a good year for farmers, Mr. Barse said that he knows farmers who can make $5,000-$10,000 per acre growing hops, which is really a startling number. Mr. Barse sold his 2010 crop to local breweries including Flying Dog, Heavy Seas, and Barley and Hops. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more farmers taking up hop growing. As the number of craft breweries increases, the demand for hops isn’t going to decrease any time soon, and craft breweries are often focused on quality, locally sourced ingredients and building relationships with the local community.

The hop panel really made me think about how farmers fit into the various relationships breweries maintain to produce quality products. I’m guilty of not really thinking about where the hops that I use and drink come from. But I definitely will think more about this now, especially when I see beers that promote locally sourced ingredients. It’s just one more piece of breweries becoming integral in their communities, which I think is important and will ultimately get people drinking more craft beer. I’m going to do some digging with the local breweries and see if they have anything in the works to locally source their hops or other ingredients. I’ll follow up with another post to report on what I find.

Thanks to Flying Dog for hosting me and the rest of the attendees at the Symposium. Very much looking forward to next year’s panels, where I promise I will take better notes.

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