Friends growing hops for local beer maker

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Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2017:08:23 23:20:11

Times-Tribune File Photo From left, Paul Robinson, Joe Mitchell and Tony Caputo stand in front of the hops plants growing on Mitchell’s property. The three men, along with Mike Barziloski, are growing hops at Avery Mountain Bines and Twine farm in Tunkhannock Township in Wyoming County. The hops are being sold to Irving Cliff Brewery of Honesdale.

By C.J. Marshall

Four partners in the Wyoming County farm of Avery Mountain Bines and Twine hope to bring new life to an old crop.

This year, area residents Joe Mitchell, Paul Robinson, Tony Caputo and Mike Barziloski have 1 acre dedicated to growing hops.

And, if you happen to be on Lane Hill, you might be surprised to see some hops plants approximately 20 feet high, growing along wire provided for support.

Hops is a main ingredient in beer, which gives the beverage its distinctive bitter taste.

Mitchell said their Tunkhannock Township business has entered into an agreement with Irving Cliff Brewery of Honesdale to take their entire crop.

At one time, hops was a popular crop in Pennsylvania, Mitchell said, and that’s where the name of Hop Bottom in Susquehanna County originated.

But in the late 1800s, many of the plants were destroyed by mildew, and Prohibition effectively killed the hops industry in the eastern section of the country.

The crop was primarily cultivated in western states like Washington and Oregon, where the laws were less stringently enforced. New York has made a comeback in hops production, but Pennsylvania has been slower in reintroducing the crop.

Recently, Mitchell said, leading agriculturalist Keith Eckel, owner of Eckels Farm of Clarks Summit, happened to be passing by and asked about the operation.

“He looked at everything up and down, and asked what it is,” Mitchell said. “I told him it’s a hops farm. And he said, ‘Get out of here.’”

Last year, the four men were thinking about starting a new business.

During a trip to Florida, Mitchell had seen a hops operation, and became intrigued with the possibility of setting up something like it in Pennsylvania.

Attending seminars and obtaining information from such sources as Penn State Extension, Michigan State University and the University of Florida, the owners set up an acre of land on Mitchell’s property and planted their first crop in May.

Hops come in more than 100 species, Mitchell said, and the guys decided to grow chinook

and cascade.

“They’re more reliable,” Robinson explained. “More resilient to mildew.”

But they discovered their work was just

beginning.

Unlike many other types of crops, hops require constant watching and care.

“Within a week, we realized it was going to be a struggle,” Mitchell explained. “We found out that hops need a lot of water.”

But too much water causes problems.

At first, the owners used a water truck.

Mitchell said that’s the worst thing you can do, because it encourages the formation of mildew, and is also detrimental to the plants in other ways.

The solution was to install a drip irrigation system, in which water is provided to the

plants slowly.

“Our biggest hurdle is water,” Mitchell said. “One hops plant needs about a gallon of water per day, then multiply that by 700.”

Bennie’s Nursery of Tunkhannock has been providing them with the necessary water.

Mitchell said that Veto Barziloski Sr., owner of Bennie’s Nursery, has been very helpful in supplying the water.

Next year, Mitchell said, they anticipate having 3,000 plants, and will seek assistance from excavator Frank Strumski.

“He’s either going to put a well in, or put a pond in the back,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell added he and his friends had been told not to expect a crop for three years.

Yet, something fell into place for the operation, because there are now hops plants in the field more than 20 feet tall.

“We have moved up our timetable in some areas — what we figured we’d be doing in five years has now been pushed up to two years,” he said.

The owners recently harvested the hops. But Caputo said they still must take great care in making certain nothing happens. Each day the plants are inspected for signs of mildew. Another big problem is insects — if left unattended, the entire crop could be devastated by European corn borers, or tent caterpillars.

The cones of the hops plant are what breweries use to produce beer, Caputo said. Looking like tiny green pine cones, they have the distinctive smell and taste associated with beer. This year, the operation is expected to yield a few hundred pounds of cones. More is anticipated next year.

Mitchell said he and his partners are very pleased with the results and are looking forward to expanding the operation. Everyone they’ve worked with in setting up their operation has been very helpful and supportive in their efforts.

“It’s better to try, than never to try at all,”

he said.

C.J. Marshall is a writer for Wyoming County Examiner, a Times-Shamrock newspaper.

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