One windy March day at Keystone Hops Farm, bunches of tiny purple shoots are springing from the ground. By harvest season, in August, these plants will tower at heights of 18 to 22 feet and produce the cone-like green flowers known as hops. Rows of poles and high wire stand ready to support the vines that will climb them, and owner Marc Verez and farmer Noah Petronic are ready for the Slippery Rock farm’s second growing season as the region’s largest hops farm.
Petronic and Verez met at Soergel Orchards two years ago and started planning a hops farm. By April 2015, they signed on 3.5 acres, bought equipment and put in their first plants. While the majority of U.S. hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, pre-Prohibition hop production existed in New York and Pennsylvania. The plant needs a dormancy period of 90 to 100 days, so cooler climates are ideal. “It’s not that it’s been forgotten, we’re just starting to bring it back. We’re resurrecting a crop,” says Petronic.
Hops are the component in beer that stabilizes and flavors it. Specifically, it’s the resin and essential oils underneath the leaves of the cone — called the bracks — that are the true harvest. As a member of the cannabaceae family (along with cannabis), hops are also used for medicines and teas for stomach ailments and insomnia. Verez and Petronic surveyed local brewers on the types of hops they’d be interested in buying and decided on four popular varieties: Chinook, Nugget and Cascade as well as one aroma hop, called Teamaker. They also have a few experimental varieties in the works.
Verez and Petronic value community involvement and, with more equipment on the way, they want to co-op with other small farmers to give them access to it. They keep up with other hop-growers, universities and local brewers — some of whom, by late August, might be able to make their most hyper-local beers yet.