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Susquehanna Life

Many Hoppy Returns

Dec 09, 2015 09:43PM ● By Erica Shames

When Lorna Gessner took a tour of Yuengling Brewery, she learned about the importance of hops in the production of beer, and the prospect of an impending hops shortage due to the increasing number of microbreweries in Pennsylvania. She came home and asked husband Steve, “What are hops?”  

So began the experiment. Steve and sons-in-law Levy Neimond and Tim Hornberger researched hops in earnest on the Internet. Ultimately, they planted a half-acre of 75 rhizomes (small, root-like cuttings from which hops grow) in a test plot of nine different varieties representing a cross-section of early-, mid- and late-season growers, disease- and fungus-resistance and productivity levels. A climbing plant, hops grow as “bines” on strings or wires, supported in this case by locust trees felled from another Gessner property.

That was in 2013. In the two years since, the Gessner family has learned a lot about hops, and their potential. They have witnessed destruction of the hops bines by hail, disease and insects. But they have not been deterred.

“We’ve been reactive, as opposed to proactive, because we’re still learning,” said Steve, who works as a civil engineer for the USDA through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “It’s an intensive operation. There’s a lot of money wrapped up in establishing just your infrastructure.”

Bringing it home

To be sure, Bucktail Farm benefits from the surge in the “eat local” movement, prompting microbrewers to source hops from nearby farms. “We’re working on becoming PA Preferred,” said Steve, referencing a State Department of Agriculture-supported marketing program that promotes food and agricultural products grown, produced or processed in Pennsylvania. “There’s a limited number of hops grown in the state of PA,” said Steve. “If producers want to brew a PA Preferred beer, they need to have a main ingredient grown in PA.” Dallastown, PA-based Wyndridge Farm head brewer Pete Koelsch, for example, purchased Bucktail’s Cascade hops last summer to brew a beer made from all-PA sourced ingredients.

One advantage to growing hops is the plant’s longevity. Levy, who works in quality control at Wood-Mode and has a degree in forestry and wood products, confirms that the rhizomes from which the plants grow last 40 to 50 years. Unlike the 8-year growth cycle of Christmas trees, hops bines are prolific, growing as much as 25 feet in a single season. Each plant needs about a gallon of water per day, however, so the installation of an irrigation system is critical.

“Once we knew we needed that capacity, Levy and Tim researched systems on the Internet,” said Steve. “We’re drip-irrigating to minimize our water usage. We fill up the tanks from the nearby stream, hook up the hoses and gravity-drip to water everything.”

With an eye toward good stewardship, the use of pesticides and herbicides is minimized, and composting is critical. “In 2013 we had aspirations of being organic,” recalled Steve. “It’s extremely difficult with fungus and Japanese Beetles. We’re looking for help from bats and birds, and we’re trying not to harm beneficial insects,” he said of integrated pest management. “We use manure and litter from my sister-in-law’s riding stable, and harvest the grass here, to make our compost and supply micro-nutrients to the soil.” 

Seasonal specialty brews

This year, the 300-pound hops yield included Cascade—a top producer—Chinook, Centennial, Nugget and Willamette. All crop was sold. Steve envisions his market ultimately will include all PA breweries; right now, he’s concentrating on Central PA. While Bucktail Farm can’t meet the demand for most large brewers, Steve believes there is a market for his hops in the production of seasonal specialty brews.

“We have a leg up on the big producers,” said Steve. “We’re staying small, so we’re focusing on quality rather than quantity. Every brewer that’s gotten our hops oohs and ahs over how they look. The big advantage is their freshness; we can pick hops and deliver them anywhere in Central PA in 24 hours. Hops are a flower; the minute you pick them, they start deteriorating.”

Head brewer Bill Kroft of Marzoni’s, based in Duncansville, purchased 10 pounds of Cascade to brew a seasonal Harvest Wheat Ale at its Selinsgrove location. “We like to support the local farmer,” Kroft explained. “Fresh hops give you more aroma because there’s more oils [still present]. You get a lot of tropical, citrusy fruity flavors, characteristic of Cascade. We will be using [Bucktail] again.”

Robin Hood Brewing Co. head brewer Chris Schell purchased 25 pounds of Cascade and Nugget, up from 15 pounds last year, to brew Fresh Hop 1.

“We also use the fresh hops in a hop infusion canister,” Schell explained. “This allows us to pump even more hops flavor into the beer—usually an IPA. Their hops are local, which fosters community connections. And I was pleased with the high quality of the product that results from the manual harvest.

“We’re always expanding,” Schell continued, “especially as the demand for local product increases. I would expect to order as much [hops] as they can give me in upcoming years.”

It’s a family affair

The goal, ultimately, is to grow the small business year to year until one day the grandchildren can take it over. Although Steve stresses the family operation is an equal partnership, he is in fact the lead partner. This allows him, as a veteran, to take part in the Homegrown for Heroes program, which supports and encourages veterans to get into agriculture.  Lorna serves as vice president of marketing and Tim and Levi are eager to set an example for their children.              

“I grew up farming,” said Tim, who works in landscape and nursery design for the Snyder County Conservation District. “I always had something to do. I want my two boys to grow up with something they can work at.”

“It’s been a neat opportunity to try something different,” added Levi. “Tim and I are each want to raise our children to understand what it is to work and earn a dollar. The farm gives them something to do, as opposed to playing video games all day.”

“What I personally enjoy most about this is the family unity,” added Steve. “The three of us will be down here, then our wives join us and pretty soon the kids are running around picking hops. They’re outside, productive and learning how things grow. I really find that satisfying.”

The focus on family is not lost on Robin Hood Brewery’s Chris Schell. “You can tell they love what they do,” he noted. “They’re all pulling together as family. It’s really nice to see.”  

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