For brewery founder Barry Labendz, the essence of the local brewing process is encapsulated in a single sip of Tiny House, their farm’s harvest ale made with local barley and their own farm-grown hops.
“That one beer is a massive experience that connects all different parts of the year for me,” says Labendz, founder of Kent Falls Brewing Co. in Kent. “I think about not only the hop harvest and day we made it during our farm’s Hop Harvest Festival, but about the relationships with the farmers and maltsters who provide the malt.”
Kent Falls Brewing Co. represents one of 65 breweries operating in Connecticut, where another 48 were building or planning as of January 2018, according to the Connecticut Brewers Guild. The explosion of local brewery openings has fueled a remarkable surge in the local commercial production of hops, a flower used to add flavor, fragrance and bitterness to beer.
The Connecticut Hop Growers Association expects acreage to double in 2018 to 40 acres of hops, a challenging, high-investment perennial crop that requires trellising and takes about three years to establish.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the next five years, you see the amount of acreage triple or quadruple,” says Alex DeFrancesco, president of the association and owner of J. DeFrancesco & Son, Inc., a wholesale greenhouse, hop yard and hop-pelletizing facility in Northford. “I honestly think that passion of consumers supporting local, whether it be the breweries or hop farms, and people being able to advertise and work with the public, is going to keep this movement going and keep these businesses flourishing in the years to come.”
Research, Legislation Support Connecticut Hops
While craft breweries created the demand for local hops, Connecticut legislation and research have supported the expansion of hops production, now a promising, profitable business venture in the state.
In July 2017, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed brewery legislation that, among other things, defines the amount of Connecticut Grown hops, barley or other fermentables for beer to be considered “Connecticut craft beer.”
Meanwhile, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) meets the need for local research to support the substantial investment in modern-day commercial hop yards. Chief Scientist Dr. James LaMondia says he and his staff study trellis systems and insect and disease management strategies. They also test hops varieties, now looking at more than 40 cultivars under different conditions at research farms in Windsor and Hamden. New research focuses on feral hops varieties that could lead to the next “hot hop.”
“We are identifying those wild hops and looking at them to see if they have characteristics that might be useful for a unique Connecticut hop variety,” LaMondia says. “If they’ve been here and survived on their own for more than 100 years, then they’re likely well-adapted and may be resistant to some pests and diseases.”
Local Hops Craft Unique Flavors
Doug Weber of Pioneer Hops and Smokedown Farm, the two largest hop yards in Connecticut, says the soil and climactic conditions in Connecticut grow hops with more intense and fruitier flavors than hops grown by the large-scale producers in the Pacific Northwest.
In fact, Weber copyrighted renames of the popular hop variety Cascade to CONNcade© and Chinook to CONNnook© to reflect the unique flavor that those cultivars possess when grown in Connecticut soils and sunshine.
“Most brewers appreciate the fact that their recipes are going to be enhanced as a result of the hop with the unique sun, soil and water in Connecticut,” Weber says. “They’ll adapt recipes, rename the beer and celebrate it as a Connecticut-sourced beer.
“The level of creativity and insight into what can be achieved in the brewing process can’t be underestimated,” Weber continues. “I don’t think anybody in the country is drinking better beer than here.”
Thrall Family Malt
Located in Windsor, Thrall Family Malt is bringing the grain to the glass.
With the distinction as the first malting company in Connecticut, the Thrall family has been tending the land for 12 generations, and they now have a state-of-the-art malt house that produces malt from barley and other grain grown on the land.
Malt is made up of cereal grains, such as barley, that have been dried in a process known as malting, where they are germinated to a certain point and then halted from germinating further. Malt is used to make beer, whiskey, vinegar and more.
The first batch of the Connecticut Grown malt debuted in January 2018. Learn more about Thrall Family Malt and its products at thrallfamilymalt.com.