Blue Mountain Brewery just completed its 12th harvest of hops, the fast-growing flower that lends its flavor and fragrance to many of the brewery’s signature beers and ales. Taylor Smack, Blue Mountain’s co-founder and brewmaster, carefully calibrates the addition of hops to designated brews to complement the taste of the fermented grains and to add a subtle scent of citrus and flowers.
From the start, Smack knew he wanted to associate his brewery––the first in what has now become a growing number of craft beer-making operations––with the agricultural products that go into craft beer.
“We would come out here and have a glass of wine at a winery, and just being next to the grapes made it better,” Smack said. “When we knew that we were going to open a brewery and restaurant in Nelson County, I wanted people to have a glimpse of the natural plants we use.”
The acreage needed for barley, corn, rye or wheat was too extensive, so Smack and his wife, Mandi, settled on a stand of hops. Smack, a veteran brewmaster, said he’d done some research on hops and discovered the plant also had antiseptic qualities that have helped preserve as well as flavor beer for centuries. The Afton hops were planted in advance of the brewery’s construction, in time to flavor the beer they’d serve at the opening.
Hops have a pattern of growth that surprised the Smacks and their rural neighbors. The vines (they’re called “bines” because they adhere to supports with tiny hairs rather than tendrils) grow at an amazing rate. “I think you could sit out there for a few hours and you’d actually be able to see them move,” he said. “They can grow 8 to 12 inches a day.” The long strands are supported high above the ground, which makes for a better yield. Hops are perennials, and the community gets involved with the crop twice a year, when it’s time to string them up and during the harvest.
Both are labor-intensive operations, with the stringing up more active, Smack said. “For the harvest, people can sit down while they separate the hops.” Patrons and friends of the brewery participate in both seasonal tasks, and Blue Mountain offers its volunteer workers beer and sandwiches for their trouble.
During the last two weeks of August, the brewery completed the 2018 harvest, which showed the effects of a difficult season. “I can certainly work with the hops,” he said. “I just don’t like the way they look.” Still the harvest was festive and fun, Smack said, and the help of the community is a significant economic benefit.
There’s another reason why including the community’s a good idea, said Stan Driver, a long-time farmer, nurseryman and horticulturist. He helps hops growers with their cultivation of the bitter fruit in Virginia’s less-than-ideal climate. “Seeing the hops grow, stringing them up, harvesting them and then enjoying the finished product gives them an investment in the brewery,” he said.
Smack said he’s been surprised and pleased by the overwhelming local support since the very beginning, and the brewery is in the midst of another major expansion. He’s returned the favor by listening to his patrons: for instance, improving and expanding the outdoor area and adding kid-friendly spaces and structures.
Local farmers gave Driver the nickname, “godfather of hops,” and it’s stuck. Really, though, he said, he hadn’t seen much of hops in Virginia until he saw the Smack’s first planting. “I started my own planting and learned a lot,” he said. The new local specialty crop got a lot of attention back then, he said, and craft breweries were just taking off.
Despite the rapid growth of hops here, they’re not an ideal crop for Virginia, Driver said: “In fact the number of acres (planted in hops) is decreasing slightly.” They thrive in the Pacific Northwest where days are longer and there’s not the same mildew and fungus problems. “These are challenges we just can’t correct,” Driver said. North Carolina growers, experiencing a similar growth in craft breweries, have the same problems. Both states have agricultural scientists working on a variety that would do better here. Until then, brewers and craft beer-lovers can appreciate the distinctive taste of beer made in small batches and hops grown in small lots and harvested by hand.