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Vermont grower ‘hops’ to it on former dairy farm

With Champlain Valley Hops, Peter Briggs wants to jumpstart a regional hops industry.

December 13, 2018

5 Min Read
View of acreage at Champlain Valley Hops
JUST STARTING: It will take several years before the hops at Champlain Valley Hops are mature. Eighteen acres of hops were planted this past year. Photos by Susan Harlow

By Susan Harlow

Peter Briggs had scale and efficiency in mind when he began planning a hopyard in Vermont. He wants to grow enough hops to justify a processing facility, but his goal is bigger than that. With Champlain Valley Hops, he wants to jumpstart a regional hops industry. But he knows that won’t happen overnight.

"We're hoping to interest other growers in planting hops to ensure brewers of a good, consistent supply," he says. "This is a multiyear, multistep process. One needs to take a very long view of the process, and we need to get brewers involved early. I hope they see us as a genuine supplier."

Briggs, whose day job is in finance, found just the place to get his hops operation going. A dairy farm in Starksboro, Vt., was "winding down" with outbuildings that could eventually house processing equipment and a large, flat field that could be planted efficiently with hops. That field now holds more than 40 acres of trellising and irrigation, including 18 acres planted with seven varieties of hops: Centennial, Willamette, Crystal, Cascade, Magnum, Chinook and Nugget.

In 2018, the first year, 26 acres were trellised and 18 acres were planted.

Hopyard establishment
Julian Post, manager of Champlain Valley Hops, oversaw the development of the hopyard on the former cornfield. First, he amended the soil and added more tiling to the existing system.

"Everything you can do to set yourself up to get water out of the field when it's wet is one of the most important things you can do," he says.

Another crucial step was hiring Empire Hops Farm in Michigan for advice and purchasing materials and plants. Empire sent consultants to Vermont to help plan, build and equip the new hopyard.

They began with a grid of 1,100-foot rows; then, after drilling 3-foot holes, set center poles of pressure-treated red pine. The ends were wrapped in Rotbloc and tamped in by hand. They installed aboveground drip irrigation, connected to a buried center line that pumps water from a nearby brook, and planted rhizomes purchased from Empire.

"Rhizomes were a huge bet, but they paid off," Briggs says. Hop rhizomes are small roots that are cut from the main root system of a mature female hop. In this case, Briggs says, the rhizomes cost just $1.75 apiece compared to $4 to $5 per plant. They were planted 7.5 feet apart with 14 feet between rows to ensure good air flow and stave off disease.

Cabling was strung at an 18-foot height between the center poles, including barb wire to hold the hops plants. (At harvest they'll cut the plants at ground level, then slide the vine to the nearest barb, which will snap off the plant.)

Anchor poles of tamarack were set, and the cabling was tightened. The field was side-dressed with granular fertilizer. There's also fertilizer in the irrigation.

Julian Post of Champlain Valley Hops

PLANTING THE FUTURE: Julian Post oversaw the development of the hopyard on a former cornfield.

Establishing the hopyard cost $10,500 per acre, including plants. Briggs says he saved money by using rhizomes and purchasing poles and cables in volume.

Weedy summer
Weeds were a huge problem this summer. "They would have killed us if it were a wet year," Briggs says. The season was especially weedy in northern Vermont, where lamb’s quarters still thrived. The staff weeded by hand and with a Weed Badger. They also cultivated the drive rows every few weeks before planting a cover crop of orchardgrass mix in late summer.

Hops are susceptible to viruses. Stripping off the leaves on the bottom 4 feet of plants in July for better air circulation is one preventive technique. Crowning, or cutting back the plant, early in the year is another way to manage downy mildew, hops’ most devastating disease. But crowning is also used to train plants to mature simultaneously for harvest and can also improve yields, says Heather Darby, UVM Extension agronomist.

Final step to brewing
Briggs’ plan this fall was to cobble together a basic facility to produce a saleable product. A full-fledged processing plant will take a little more time. He estimates it will cost around $250,000 to build a plant that mills, dries and pelletizes the hops.

He says a revitalized hops industry can find fertile ground in Vermont, which was growing nearly 650,000 pounds of hops annually just before the Civil War. It was the country's second-largest producer at the time, behind New York state. That all changed with Prohibition, and by the time Prohibition ended, hops production had moved to the Northwest.

But Vermont loves its craft brews. Today, it boasts 11.5 breweries per 100,000 legal-aged adults, ranking No. 1 in the U.S. Its breweries produce nearly 300,000 barrels of beer per year.

Peter Briggs of Champlain Valley Hops
BIG GOALS: Not only is Peter Briggs banking on making a profit in hops production, he wants to jumpstart Vermont's hops industry.

But while the state brews enough beer to support more than 300 acres of production, Briggs says only 45 acres of hops are in production in the state. So, it’s a definite niche.

"We aim to be a relatively small, high-quality, specialized, aromatic hops supplier for craft brewers," he says.

More information on growing hops can be found on the UVM Extension website, including the 10th Annual Hop Conference on Feb. 21 in Burlington, Vt. 

Harlow writes from Vermont.







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