Words and Images By Matt Foster.
The Indie Ferm Hop Yard preserves agricultural land in Plymouth with its hop crops.
“Most people don’t think of beer as an agricultural product,” Paul Nixon says, gesturing to the rows of hop trellises before him. At 18 feet high, the 16 rows of trellises combine to support 400 plants that will provide one of the four central ingredients in the beer he brews at Indie Ferm Brewing. “There are a lot of people involved in each glass of beer,” he continues, listing the various professions that contribute to the brew. There are the farmers of barley, wheat, and other cereal grains that make up the backbone of every beer; the maltsters, who ready the grain for milling and mashing; and the forgotten heroes—the drivers who move the raw and processed ingredients all over the country.
Paul has been planting, tilling, weeding, and harvesting the hop cones in the “Indie Ferm Hop Yard” since 2017, when the Wildlands Trust, a local conservation organization, approached him with an idea: help us preserve this parcel of land in the Chiltonhead neighborhood of Plymouth for agricultural use by using it to farm ingredients for your beer. Paul, who has made it a point to “source as much, as close as possible,” had already been getting a lot of his malted barley and hops from Massachusetts-based businesses like 4 Star Farms in Northfield and Valley Malt in Hadley. He didn’t hesitate. With the help of Whip’s Farm in Plymouth (who lent equipment, manpower, and know-how), Indie Ferm employees, and a few patrons, the Hop Yard debuted with four rows of ten plants each.
Paul started by planting Cascade, Centennial, and Nugget varieties, hops all known for thriving in the particular soil and climate conditions of New England. He doubled the size of the yard to eight rows in 2018, then doubled it again 2019, as well as adding a new variety in Teamaker (a hop low in bitterness with strong aromatic properties).
Hops might seem to be an outlier crop in New England. When most beer-drinkers think of hops, they picture the lush vine-covered hills of Washington and Oregon, the seat of the craft beer industry boom in the early 1990s. But back before Prohibition put the brakes on domestic brewing, hop farming was a solid part of New England’s diverse agricultural portfolio.
Located at the intersection of Clifford Road and Doten Road in Plymouth, between the street and the Eel River, the yard stands out from the field of wild grass that covers the rest of the plot. From the street, passersby see only a large structure, covered in what might be vines, 100 or more yards from the road. More than a few folks, Paul says, have driven down the long dirt road that leads to the yard, just to investigate.
Paul had no farming experience when this opportunity presented itself, but he says the work has been a pleasant change and totally different from working in a brew house. The realities of the coronavirus pandemic and the troubles of the world “all kind of melt away,” he says, while out in what he describes as one of the most beautiful locations in Plymouth. He recognizes that Plymouth doesn’t have much true farmland left and he appreciates spending a large portion of his time working on some of what remains. By-products of the work he does in the brewhouse make their way to the hop farm as well. Spent grain and hops from Indie Ferm’s beer, as well as SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast) from their kombucha are incorporated into the fertilizer used at the yard.
Last year, the crops yielded about 25 pounds of hops, all harvested by Paul and Indie Ferm co-owner Rose Forbes (“an excellent home gardener!” Paul enthusiastically declares), along with volunteers from among Indie Ferm’s regular customers. The hops are brought directly to the brewery for use in Pickin’ and Grinin’, a wet hop ale. Wet hop ales, sometimes referred to as Harvest ales, are generally pale to amber in color and feature hops that have been harvested within 24 to 48 hours of brewing (with 48 being on the long side). Whole hop flowers are typically dried (often pelletized or further processed to concentrate the different oils and acids so essential to brewing), whereas flowers straight from the vine and into the kettle are fresh, or “wet.” These take up more space in the kettle, which typically leads to a lower volume of finished beer. That beer, however, features a fresh bouquet of hop aroma with a bright bitter hop flavor.
Harvest day 2020 will fall around Labor Day weekend. Paul expects more than 100 pounds of fresh hops from the now mature plants (with a yield of around one pound of hops from each mature plant), as well as additional cones from the younger plants. This will be enough for approximately 200 to 300 barrels of beer, almost two-thirds of Indie Ferm’s annual output.
Paul’s future projects with the farm involve determining how exactly to use the massive volume of hops he’ll be harvesting. He’s growing more than Indie Ferm can use in a season. Some of the harvest can go into the beer they produce, but although Indie Ferm uses a lot of hops, they need more types than the four varietals Paul is currently growing and yet they can’t use his full harvest. Experiments in air drying are in the immediate future, as dried hops are more easily stored for future use.
127 Camelot Drive
Plymouth MA 02360