As the local craft beer scene grows, and hobbyists and drinkers alike demand more delicious brews specific to the Central PA region, demand for the basics is growing as well.
Carlisle-based husband-and-wife duo Adam and Diana Dellinger saw this and – with the help of their degrees in agriculture – decided to jump in and put their unique vantage point on beer to good use at Sunny Brae Hops.
“We worked in agriculture our whole careers, and we both worked for the USDA,” Adam said. “We’re craft beer fans, and I’m a home brewer, and the more I started researching about hops, the more it seemed like an interesting challenge. There’s not a lot that people know right now about growing hops around here. There’s a lot of challenges. So we’re kind of learning a lot as we go. And, of course, I love the final product. It just seemed like a good fit for the sort of agriculture we wanted to do – niche agriculture.”
Diana continued, “We didn’t own a lot of land. So we had to really think about what kind of crops we could grow right here. The more we thought about hops, and where the industry was and where craft beer is right now, we just thought it seemed like a really good fit. And Adam’s great at trying to do research and educate himself, so it works out really well that he can tackle something new to Pennsylvania.”
The Dellingers started by growing about a quarter acre of hop varieties as a test to see how well they would fare. Now, after seeing success within that area, they’ve expanded Sunny Brae to about an acre and a half, growing around four different varieties of hops, and may even do more, depending on how well the business does with local breweries.
While craft beer has become increasingly popular over the past several years, hop harvesting has been around since before your great-grandmother was trekking to school uphill both ways. In fact, before it was cool to grow your own, it was a popular vacation activity in rural areas to harvest hops on exclusive farms.
The Sunny Brae logo is a testament to this, as it depicts a figure on stilts with a knife circa the 1940s. Back then, hop yards offered stilts to tourists in order to reach the tall crop. Imagine making that look posh. Hops have to be grown a specific way, and in an even more specific environment. The Yakima Valley in Washington is one of those places for craft beer, as are Oregon and Idaho. But, as many may know, New York and Pennsylvania are also in what Adam calls the ideal latitude.
The dangers presented to hops are what Adam referred to as disease pressure. It’s created by the humidity the East Coast is known for. One of the big reasons hop farming is more popular out west is because the disease pressure was too high in New York, where hops were once largely grown. Because hops need to be dry and drenched in only sunlight, few places are ideal for growing them. However, in this broad farmland tucked away in rural Carlisle, the Dellingers hit the jackpot.
The biggest diseases hops face on the East Coast are downy and powdery mildews, with the former being the larger threat. Along with disease pressure comes the danger of insects, such as leaf-eating beetles.
“Our biggest challenge with this area is humidity. Humidity introduces many diseases, and with the community we have here, we have to fight that a little more,” Adam said. “Our site, though, is very well suited for hops. We have lots of sunlight and open air. You can tell how breezy it is, and that’s pretty normal. It helps to keep the plants dry, and it helps with the humidity issue. They love sunlight.”
So, what’s hop, and what’s not? Adam explains that hops grow similarly to trees, with the bine (think: trunk) growing vertically with guidance from two V trellises (two pieces of twine dropping down from the wire draped between 18-foot poles to hold it upright), and growing out from there, with buds or cones forming on the end. Voila – hops.
And like trees, hops are huge at the end of the season. Adam says they can get to be 25-30 feet tall, with a daily growth between 6 and 9 inches. This explains the poles jutting up from the ground in perfect lines across the farm. Hops are perennials, and begin to peak above the surface in April. At Sunny Brae, mid-April is called the first growth, and Tröegs recently stopped in to the farm to collect that growth and prepare it in their restaurant. But the brewery doesn’t just cook them.
“Tröegs did a scratch beer last year with Deer Creek Malthouse, which had our hops in it, and someone tried it and said, ‘This tastes like Pennsylvania,’” Adam said, and then laughed. “Which, I don’t know what that really means, but someone enjoyed it, and that was fantastic. So, hopefully there will be plenty of wet-hopped beers throughout Southcentral PA around September or early October, when they come out.”
In order for hops to reach their full beer-producing potential, the plants will need to be grown and harvested for three years.
“So that’s why we could only work with a limited number last year, a limited number this year, because we’re still not at full production. And then next year, when we’re at full production, we’re hoping to continue to expand the number of breweries we work with, or provide more to the breweries that we have been working with,” Diana said.
While Sunny Brae is able to sell their crops to make certain beer with Tröegs in Hershey, Moo-Duck in Elizabethtown and Carlisle’s own Molly Pitcher Brewing into its third year, the Dellingers are looking into other ways to capitalize on the crop – you know, like by eating it. Or creating wreaths. The usual.
Now that we have some #hop shoots to play with, it’s time to pair them with an all-time favorite…local pasture raised bacon! #baconhops #sunnybraehops #PAhops #hopsrule A photo posted by Sunny Brae Hops (@sunnybraehops) on
Growing hops sound like fun to you and your buddies? It’s not a weekend-long experiment.
“Don’t,” Adam said with a laugh when asked for advice on picking this up on a whim. “Really, just do as much research as you possibly can. It looks cool and it is cool, and the plants are really neat. And if you want to grow five in your backyard for something interesting to do, or just for your homebrew – just throw them in, that’s fine. But when you’re trying to make a commercial go of it, it takes a lot of work, and a lot of research and a lot of experimentation. It’s not some huge cash cow. You have to be as smart as you can with this. And it’s a long pay-back period.”
This, in addition to the fact that each plant equals about one man hour. The most valuable piece of advice Adam could give a home brewer is to not let your hops sit once harvested.
“You can spend all year growing amazing hops, and if you harvest them and let them sit out and spoil for a couple hours, it was all for nothing. They have to be dried immediately, and at the right temperature, or used right away. As soon as you pick them, they start to degrade.”
Oh, the places hops will go
Make yourself a calming hot tea from the hop leaves.
Dinner can be made from the stalk and cone, similar to asparagus. The Dellingers agree that the leaves taste like kale chips when baked, so look out, hipster kids.
Drying the leaves and making a pillow from them can be used for sleep, as hops have sedative qualities similar to lavender.
Once the hops are harvested, the leftover bines can be used to make holiday wreaths, with an incredible scent to boot.