January 17, 2018

 Just a few years ago, producing hops commercially in Connecticut was nothing more than a topic of conversation among a handful of potential growers contemplating putting in a crop to capitalize on their passion and the state’s booming craft-beer industry.

“Five years ago there were no hops in the ground here at all,” said Alex DeFrancesco, President of the Connecticut Hop Growers’ Association said during the group’s second annual meeting Saturday in a greenhouse complex at his family’s farm in Northford. “Three years ago there was maybe 20 acres. Now we have 45-50 acres in the ground – I would say that’s a success.”

Evidence of the rapid evolution of the state’s hop industry was on display throughout the daylong meeting, attended by about 40 growers and brewers.

Demonstrations were given of a hops dryer and a climate-controlled facility where dried hops are formed into pellets for storage before being brewed – both vital steps in the harvest-to-brew process.

Precise temperature and moisture levels must be maintained so that the hop’s flavorful oils are not compromised and the hop cone overcooked into “rabbit food,” said DeFrancesco, who planted his own hopyard about two years ago and is the state’s go-to source for pelletizing .

“You can raise a phenomenal crop but if it’s not dried correctly and stored correctly you might as well throw it in the garbage,” he said.

Determining which varieties of hops would thrive in Connecticut is being achieved by research at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, led by Chief Scientist Dr. James LaMondia and begun a few years ago with grants from the Dept. of Agriculture.

LaMondia gave a presentation at the meeting in which he detailed his research on finding varieties suitable for Connecticut’s climate and resistant to perhaps a hop grower’s biggest enemy - downy mildew - which thrives in moist conditions and can be fatal to plants. 

Downy mildew, and to a lesser extent powdery mildew, typically infect plants in the humid weeks of late summer.

Spores are often spread by the wind, and can arrive here in storms that originate in the South.

LaMondia advised controlling the mildew with sprays, including horticultural oils. 

“But just because you do one application in the spring doesn’t mean it’s not going to blow in from somewhere else,” he advised. “You need to scout for the fluffy little white spores on the plant.”

Hops are also affected by spider mites that arrive in hot, dusty conditions and cause discoloring, and potato leaf hoppers that can stunt a plant’s growth.

Growers can bring diseased plants to the experiment station to determine which pathogen has infected it.

LaMondia is now using a Dept. of Agriculture grant to collect wild hops that are native to Connecticut and may be resistant to certain diseases.

“If they have been growing out in the woods for a hundred years on their own, they probably have hardy characteristics that would be useful,” he said.

Plants found so far are not the older varieties known to be native to Connecticut, he said, but hybrids of different European and Native American varieties that have cross-bred over the decades.

Lamondia and DeFrancesco gave a presentation on the progress of the Connecticut hop industry last month at the Northeast Hop Alliance annual meeting in upstate New York, where about 400 acres of hops are under production.

“A few years ago we didn’t exist,” said DeFrancesco, who also has traveled to Britain to work with hop growers there. “Now people are paying attention to us.”

DeFrancesco said about ten of the approximately 70 craft breweries in the state are now using Connecticut hops, with the most popular and successful varieties being Chinook, Cascade and Centennial – all standards in the industry. 

Last summer, the General Assembly approved a “Farm Brewery” bill that allows growers to obtain a farm brewery manufacturer permit to make, bottle and sell their own beer, as well as offer tastings and sell it at farmers’ markets.


The bill requires permittees to use a certain amount of hops, barley, or other ingredients grown or malted in the state in order to sell their product as Connecticut Craft Beer.


Saturday’s meeting also featured a tasting of Connecticut beers brewed by members of the growers’ association and others.

“What the last few years have taught us is that we can absolutely grow hops successfully in Connecticut,” despite the often-humid climate, LaMondia said. “But a lot depends on the brewer. We can certainly grow a very good crop, but it’s up to the brewers to make a good beer.”

One of those who brought a sample of his own brew was Jeff Standish, a firefighter who is growing a half-acre of hops at his family’s historic 100-acre farm in Colchester.

He now has more customer demand from local breweries than he has product, and is planning to expand the hopyard at his Fox Hollow Hops at Standish Farms to about two acres.

Standish brought a small keg of his first-ever batch of beer, an India Pale Ale named “Karma Blend” that includes nine different hop varieties.

“It’s a lot of work but I love it,” he said of the growing and brewing process. “The self-satisfaction of growing a crop and seeing it brewed is fantastic. It’s like payday.”