The Ties That Bine

By Marykate Smith Despres | Illustration by Kristen Nyberg | Photography by Marykate Smith Despres and Dominic Perri

A cone is plucked, at arm’s length above our heads from a full bine, crouched down under bare trellises from hangers-on in the weeds, or swept off the wood floor of an empty oast. The scene is repeated at each farm I visit. A small green cone, a papery flower the size of a peach pit, gently palmed and pulled open with probing fingertips to expose the dusty yellow powder cradled between bract and stem.
“See that, there? Lupulin.”
“Where the acids and oils and aromatics are stored.”
“Where all the good flavor is.”
“That’s what the brewers are looking for.”
“Smell it.”
And then, the split cone is tossed back in the grass, or dropped to the floor with a quick wipe of hands, or further crumbled in a gentle fist that is opened again, this time closer to the face, to be breathed in admiringly. 

The cones rustle in the hand as they are harvested. Robin Creamer drops them by the palm full into a quickly filling wicker basket. It is well past peak harvest, but the hops are a hobby crop for Creamer, who has been busy with the daily work of Sweet Morning Farm in Leyden. 
About a third of his farm’s 90 acres is in production. Most of it is fruit and vegetables. Flowers, ducks, chickens, and a recently acquired pair of pigs round out the landscape. Half of what is grown or raised is nestled around the house where the farmers, Robin and his mother, Laura Timmerman, live. Each week, 25 CSA members pick up their shares in the mudroom and most of the beds here, the small rectangular plots of greens and brassicas and carrots, flowers and beans and tomatoes, seem almost to be an extension of the house, rooms outside of it, and so the farm feels like home. The shares are decided like a family dinner. “Everything we have enough of to give to everyone, we do.”

The hops, however, are just for him. As much as Creamer can keep a thing just for himself. He will not let me leave without a paper bag full of the cones he picks while we talk and even digs up and cuts out a length of root for me to plant, insisting all the while that it was no problem at all, the plants should be thinned every couple years anyway. He was not born into farming, but he is clearly a man whose rhythms agree with those of the farm. Creamer estimates he started growing hops six or seven years ago for homebrewing, so these are due for dividing.

Hops are rhizomes, all propagated by root division, all female plants (at least the cone-producing ones). My hops plant, Creamer explains, will be a genetic clone of his. The flavor will be generally the same, but, like all else grown under the sun and cultivated by human hands, “They’re also influenced by the soil and how you care for them.”

They like dry feet,” Luke Lepine says. Like lanky giants who have gathered their skirts at the threat of rain, the plants hold their hops a few feet up from the ground and continue to produce up to 25 feet above their roots.

Four years ago, Luke and his dad, Dave, the contractors behind Lazy D Landscape and Construction, built a trellis and planted 600 Cascade hops rhizomes, adding the Devil’s Hopyard to Goats Peak Farm & Vineyard. Dave keeps a small vineyard of about 500 grape plants grown for Mineral Hill Winery in Florence, though Luke isn’t much interested in that. 

When he and his dad started growing hops, Luke was in college and not even old enough to drink. He loved every part of it, though: weeding, pruning, being in the hopyard after a day of work or class. He switched his major and got a degree in sustainable food and farming. With the drought this year and no irrigation, Luke filled a 50-gallon drum and hand-watered the plants every few days. “I just love hops.” 

The family has been farming these acres of Easthampton land for over 100 years: dairy, tobacco, horses, compost. Luke points out his uncle’s house, his grandparents’, from where we sit on his parents’ back deck, looking out over Mount Tom’s Goat Peak, for which the current iteration of the farm was named. “We stay close.”

The hops stay relatively close, too. The Lepines sell wet hops, as opposed to pelletized hops, so it all goes into wet-hopped brews. That means it needs to get from bine to vat in 24–48 hours. In that brief window, Luke and Dave pick, dry, and deliver their harvest to breweries in the valley and as far north as Maine. 

They’re very leggy plants,” Liz L’Etoile, of Northfield’s Four Star Farms, tells me. When the perennial first appears in spring, it shoots up like asparagus. In May, the farmers tie string trellises to long rows of aircraft cable framed 18 feet up. 

Four Star started as a turf farm in 1986 when the L’Etoiles––Bonnie, whose farming roots reach back to the Mayflower, and Gene, an engineer who was farming on the side––moved from Rhode Island to Northfield to farm full time. They continue to run the farm as a family. Gene manages all the outside work. Bonnie manages the books and is the “general go-to gal,” grading hops during harvest. Older son, Jacob, works full-time on the farm managing the turf farming, while his brother, Nathan, helps part-time as equipment fabricator and overseer of hop drying, pelletizing, and packing.

“Turf put two boys through college,” says Liz (Nathan’s wife, official director of sales and marketing, unofficial queen of weeding and stringing). But in 2008, they began experimenting with hops and other grains. They now sell five varieties of hops and are testing three more. The farm more than doubled their hopyard last year, adding 10 acres to their seven-acre base. 
As each plant begins to reach and bend, a farmer trains it up the string. Each acre holds 1,000 hops plants, each plant produces two bines, and each bine needs a string to climb. Last year, Liz said, all of the strings that they used to tie the plants, if laid end to end, would reach Boston and halfway back. This year, with a total of 34,000 strings, she thinks they could make it a round trip.

Hop bines grow can grow three feet in a week and should reach the support cable by the summer solstice. The longest day of the year seems too perfect a date for such an enormously long plant to reach its peak height. As if the reaching upward in hopyards across the northern hemisphere, farther and farther each day, is so strong as to lift the Earth’s face fully to the sun. And only then are the plants satisfied enough with the warmth and the light of it to stop reaching.
After the solstice, the spindly plants then start to grow side arms, to “bush out,” as Liz L’Etoile says, and develop burrs. “And those burrs,” she explains, “turn into hop cones.”

The nettles are intentional,” Robin Creamer tells me, pointing to the plants around the base of the bines. “I try to grow them everywhere.” He read that nettles bring out the flavor of whatever they grow next to and so planted them around his hops. Though he only grows four plants, each is a different variety. The English hops––Fuggle and Golding––are sweeter, while the American varieties––Cascade and Centennial––are more citrusy.

We walk from the English hops on the edge of one bed to the Americans, mulched with cardboard, heavy with cones, weighing down a sagging wire, on the edge of another. “I like growing everything I can and it’s something I wasn’t growing,” he says of the hops. It makes him a little more self-sufficient. “And things are always better fresher.”

It takes one person one hour to pick one pound of hops [by hand],” says L’Etoile. That’s why Four Star invested in a machine known as a hops picker. The crew, a team of Jamaican farmers who have been working with Four Star for many seasons, comes out in late August to hack the base of the plants and pull them down, lay them on trailers, and feed them into the machine. 
The hops picker is 35 years old. It was bought from a farm in Germany, sawed in half, sent in a shipping container, and reassembled on the farm using a manual in which the only text translated into English was, “Simply insert vines and out come your hops!”
The picker chops up the plants, strings and all, and pulls the cones off with metal fingers. Fans blow the stems and leaves in one direction as the hop cones, heavy with the weight of lupulin, drop down in another.

In addition to the tools and and equipment for their contracting business, the Lepine’s garage houses an oast and a hops picker. The oast they built stands upright like an oversized wardrobe. Box fans in the base circulate air through the 20 wire-bottom box shelves, drying 60 pounds of hops in about 12 hours.

The harvester belongs to friend and fellow hops farmer Rich Pedersen of Hitchcock Brewing Co. in Whately, but it lives here. They harvested Rich’s hops this year, as well as the crop from Abandoned Building and Fort Hill breweries. Working together, the farmers make an event of processing the hops: They gather in the garage, crack a few beers, have a good time. 

One plant produces about a pound and a half of hops. One to three pounds of hops makes one barrel of beer. One barrel of beer is equal to 31 gallons or 248 pints. During their first hops season in 2008, Four Star Farms grew three-quarters of an acre of hops, which they sold to area breweries, many of whom had not previously had access to local hops. The L’Etoiles knew they could grow the hops and were excited to grow the market. When their hopyards reach full maturity, the farm’s 17 acres will produce enough hops to make about 6 million pints of beer. 

If it’s not too much of a crop,” Creamer says, he dries the cones in brown paper bags and then, every couple of days, will “stir them up.” 

He gets creative with his homebrew, adding fruit and herbs—rosemary, lavender, blackberries, stinging nettles, or spruce tips—after the main fermentation has happened. One of his favorites is birch, the sap of which he’ll use in place of water for the whole brew. 

There is plenty of interest in growing and brewing hops in the area, but the Northeast lacks a muscle memory of the crop. The Lepines want to change that.

Luke hopes to start a hops program at UMass. It’s hard to make hops profitable. Lepine estimates a $7,000 to $8,000 investment per acre, and that doesn’t include land costs, processing equipment, or labor. If the university bought a pelletizer, created an educational base for folks interested in growing and brewing, the community and the hops could keep growing.

Bags of fresh hops have long since left Four Star and Goats Peak and even Sweet Morning Farm (the entire harvest there sent home in brown paper bags with a friend visiting from out of town), the packages exhaling a bitter breath when opened at the brewery or kitchen table. 
We stand in an empty hopyard on an overcast day, long past harvest, the evenly spaced lines of trellis cable drawn taut overhead so that, looking up, the wet paper gray of the sky becomes ruled like a ledger. 

Somewhere in the valley, a toast is made, accompanied by the clink of glasses. The echo of it bounces off the frozen fields in Leyden and Easthampton and Northfield as pints are raised, held up and out, and eyed in satisfaction.

Four Star Farms
Goats Peak Farm and Vineyard
Sweet Morning Farm