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New Gazette column by Russ Phillips: Local beer, local ingredients



Last modified: Friday, September 13, 2013
Beer lovers in the Pioneer Valley are pretty lucky these days. We’ve got a dozen or so breweries producing plenty of amazing beers and even a few more breweries currently being constructed. Walk into any package store or watering hole and you’re bound to come across a number of local options to enjoy. So, while there is no shortage of locally brewed beer here in the Valley, two local businesses are helping to make the beer you drink a little more local.

A few weeks ago I found myself standing in the middle of a hop field surrounded by big, bright, green hop cones strung up on a network of trellises high overhead. A bald eagle circled above a few times before flying off, which only added to the excitement I was feeling as I took part in the University of Vermont Extension’s Massachusetts Hops Field Day at Four Star Farms. This is harvest time for one of the most important ingredients in beer and the L’Etoile family that runs the farm was busy preparing for year number two in the hop business. Unlike most of the commercial hop farms in the country that cover vast swaths of land in states such as California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, Four Star Farms’ hops are grown on seven well-tended acres scenically located along the Connecticut River in Northfield.

Four Star Farms, which has been farming and growing turf for over 25 years, holds the distinction of running the only commercial hop growing operation in the state. This year they will supply hops to local breweries such as Berkshire Brewing Company, The People’s Pint in Greenfield, Northampton Brewery, and Amherst’s High Horse Brewing to name a few. The hop varieties they grow (Cascade, Nugget, Mt. Hood, and Magnum) are collectively known as “aroma” hops. The other types of hops are known as “bittering” hops and are usually associated with the Pacific Northwest. Berkshire Brewing Company recently used Nugget hops from the farm to brew a “wet-hopped” India Pale Ale that will be the first release in their new “Brewer’s Choice” series. “Wet-hopped” beers are brewed with hops that have not been processed or dried. This gives beer a more pronounced fresh hop aroma and flavor. Look for that beer on tap and in bottles sometime soon. With the increase in production and demand, Four Star Farms is planning to expand their hop field to 10 acres. This will mean more local hops for more local beer.

Along with hops, Four Star Farms also grows a variety of specialty grains that they send to Valley Malt for processing at their malt house in Hadley. Started by Christian and Andrea Stanley in 2010, Valley Malt is one of only a few small malting operations in the entire country. Many local farms provide a variety of grains for malting at their facility. The People’s Pint, High Horse Brewing, and Stoneman Brewery each uses at least a portion of malt from Valley Malt in all of their batches of beer, while Element Brewing, Brewmaster Jack, and Lefty’s Brewing have also brewed beers using their malt. Despite requests for malt from around the country and beyond, Valley Malt is committed to working with local farms and local brewers.

With the hop field at Four Star Farms and Valley Malt both being relatively young, each having started up in the past three years, it’s nice to know that the demand for what they offer is getting stronger.

As they grow, we can expect to see more local ingredients being used in more local beers in the future. So, the next time you’re sipping a locally brewed beer, remember that it might be more local than you think. So drink up and support your local brewery, local farm, local hop field and local malt house.

Cheers!

Editor’s note: Originally from California, Russ Phillips has called the Pioneer Valley home for the past five years. He is the founder of www.craftcans.com (a website devoted to the canning segment of the craft beer industry), a member of the North American Guild of Beer Writers, and the author of Canned! Artwork of the Modern American Beer Can (being released by Schiffer Publishing this fall). His musings on beer have appeared in magazines and online.

A lover of all things craft beer, Russ has been writing about the world’s most widely consumed alcoholic beverage for almost a decade. He lives with his wife and two children in Easthampton.

He has a Facebook page called “The Piobeer Valley.”