On Wednesday morning, the jungle of hop plants at the end of Hopps Farm Road in West Tisbury stood 20 feet high, well above Alan Northcott’s head.
Atop a ladder he sliced the string connecting the vine away from the bamboo trellis that the hop plant had climbed along. Down below he handed the vine to the friends, neighbors and brewers who had gathered to help him harvest the hops, soon to be incorporated into an Offshore Ale one-of-a-kind brew: Hopps Farm Road Pale Ale.
“If you put one in your mouth you can taste what the beer will taste like,” said Mr. Northcott, plopping a hop flower in his mouth. The fluffy hop tastes grassy, bitter and piney, with the sourness of a grapefruit rind.
“My mother always told me if I didn’t study hard, I’d end up a migrant laborer, and here I am,” joked friend Jim Pringle while he plucked the hop flowers from the vine and chucked them into a basket. Mr. Pringle, along with a few of the other pickers present, contributed a small amount of hops to the batch, but the bulk comes from the 60 sky-high vines on Hopps Farm Road.
The fact that these hops grow abundantly on the aptly named Hopps Farm Road is serendipitous. A few of the men present claim hops used to grow wild in the area; others believe Hopps is just a family name.
“Well, this all started off as an accident,” said Mr. Northcott. “We didn’t know where hops came from; we didn’t know anything about them. Then Kenny got some rhizomes.”
Kenny Rusczyk, Mr. Northcott’s hop partner-in-crime, had not arrived yet to the hop-harvesting hoedown.
“Offshore’s not open yet, is he down there?” joked Neil Atkins, head brewer at Offshore.
“He has a key, I think,” laughed friend Dave Maddox.
It’s no secret that Mr. Rusczyk loves beer.
But all jokes aside, a beer at Offshore is where this hop-growing, beer-brewing business all began. During a conversation with the brewmaster at the time, about eight years ago, Mr. Rusczyk got curious about hops, and decided to grow some of his own rhizomes.
A rhizome is the stem of a plant that produces shoots and roots from its nodes. The six-inch stem is planted horizontally in the ground and, little did the men know, grows quite aggressively, like bamboo — secretly and rapidly spreading its thick roots underground, with new sprouts popping up all over the place.
Mr. Rusczyk started out with a few rhizomes he planted around his house, and gave a few to Mr. Northcott.
Several summers later (it typically takes three years for the plants to flower), the hops had taken off.
“They were growing about two inches a day,” he recalled. “I could put a mark on a string and come back in three hours, and you could see the growth.”
And so, over another glass of beer at Offshore, Mr. Rusczyk mentioned his abundance of hops to the brewmaster.
“Lo and behold, it turns out there was a hop shortage that year,” said Mr. Rusczyk. And so his dry hops, then only about a paper bag’s worth, were used in Offshore’s pale ales.
By the next year Mr. Northcott’s hops had caught on, and, in fact, were taking over the garden.
“They broke my garden fence,” said Mr. Northcott, a little bitterly. “When [rhizomes] are in the ground you can’t cut them. It’s like cutting a piece of rope with a shovel.”
Together Mr. Northcott, Mr. Rusczyk and a few others picked enough wet hops to merit them their own beer, and the first Hopps Farm Road Pale Ale was brewed three years ago at Offshore.
Mr. Atkins said using wet hops gives the beer a grassy flavor and is not a typical brewing technique. Normally brewers dry the hops, which not only concentrates the flavor but allows them to be used over time. Once picked, wet hops have to be used immediately to avoid molding, making the Offshore pale ale a once-a-year seasonal beer, as wet hops typically are harvested in August and September.
By the end of Wednesday the men had plucked 60 one-gallon buckets of hop flowers, which would be refrigerated overnight. On Thursday afternoon Mr. Atkins would start the brewing process. To make the Hopps Farm Pale Ale, Mr. Atkins adds the hops into the mash-in with the grain. The he runs the mixture into the kettle and boils it for 60 minutes, adding more wet hops every 10 minutes or so.
“The longer the hops boil, the more bitterness you get,” he said.
Last, he runs the boiling water through a big steel basket full of even more hops before the mixture is drastically cooled.
“Then it goes into the fermenter and I add the yeast,” Mr. Atkins said. “Then I go home.”
In about two weeks the beer will be finished fermenting and ready for serving. But come quick, because last year’s batch only lasted for two weeks.
One batch of beer makes 10 barrels, or 310 gallons of beer. That may seem like a lot of beer for 14 days, but it’s the only beer at Offshore that uses Island-grown hops.
“A lot of times I won’t drink the beer because I want the public to have it,” said Mr. Rusczyk. “Last year people called from off-Island and asked for a keg. But they said, ‘No, it’s just for the locals.”
At the end of the hop-picking session this week about 15 people showed up, conversation revolving mostly around the topic of the day: beer.
With a soft hop in his mouth, Mr. Rusczyk asked: “I wonder who thought of it, of putting hops in the beer . . . ”
He thinks, then decides that, like the rest of his hop story, “it was probably an accident.”