by Corin Hirsch
All of that quaffing you do at the Vermont Brewers Festival every summer? Well, it has some good karma.
Some of the money raised during last July's shindig just provided a boost to the nascent Vermont hops industry when the Vermont Brewers Association gifted UVM's Vermont Hops Project with enough dosh to buy a key piece of new equipment.
At the Winter Hops Conference — which took place at the Essex Resort & Spa last weekend — Vermont Pub & Brewery's Steve Polewacyk handed over a cool $20,000 to Heather Darby, the UVM agronomy professor and researcher who heads the project.
"It really helps us further our research by being able to make [our hops] measurements at UVM," says Darby, who plans to use the money to purchase an ultraviolet spectrophotometer for measuring the quality of UVM-grown hops.
For nearly three years, Darby and her colleagues have raised and studied hundreds of hops plants on their test plot in Alburgh. To assess the acids in the hops they've grown, they have generally sent each sample out of state at $35 a pop — which adds up to thousands of dollars each year, and occasionally a lost sample. Since those plants are entering their third year of growth, says Darby, the 2013 growing season will be high time to see how the 20 or so varietals fare at full maturity.
So far, UVM's hops have been used for small-batch beers at Vermont Pub & Brewery and Bobcat Café & Brewery in Bristol, among others. Yet even though local hops are in demand by Vermont brewers, they're not yet at a critical mass needed to be commercially viable.
It wasn't always that way. "Hops used to be a huge crop in Vermont. For a period of time, around the turn of the [20th] century, we were the No. 1 producer in the country," says Kurt Staudter, VBA executive director. "For us to try and revitalize this is a win-win for everyone."
UVM will not only use the new equipment for its own tests but can test hops for the small but growing group of local growers, as well.
The grant was initially Polewacyk's idea and is a first for the VBA. Pointing out that UVM receives the bulk of its financial support from Vermont's Agency of Agriculture, Polewacyk says the grant shows "that we brewers are putting some skin in the game."
And though Darby admits that last year's harvest was "not very good," due to stressful conditions and downy mildew, she sounds hopeful for this summer. "We have a few years under our belts of dealing with pests, we have a grad student working on cover cropping, and we're starting a project on downy mildew," she says.