Krista Delahunty holds on to her youngest daughter, Marie, while her oldest, Kathleen, helps check out the hops.
The reputation Newfoundlanders have of enjoying a drop of the pure has been mythologized far and wide, so perhaps it's fitting that a native of Kilbride has found herself - along with her husband and two young girls - the owner of the largest hops farm in the state of Maine. Don't be fooled by the size of the acreage, though. Aroostook Hops is all about quality over quantity.
Krista Delahunty and her husband Jason Johnston of Maine started growing hops at their home in Westfield, in the northern part of the state, about five years ago. At first they just grew a small amount for their own home-brewing purposes. Delahunty says the hops were so much fun to grow, they decided the next year to plant more.
"The amazing thing about them is how much they grow in one season. The vines get to be over 20 feet tall in one season," she says.
Delahunty describes the vines as looking something like really thin asparagus when the red-purple shoots first show through the ground. They don't resemble asparagus for long, though. Already the hops vines on their land this season have grown about 20 feet.
"The flower isn't very showy. It's a little tiny yellowish thing and that grows into a cone," says Delahunty.
Inside the cone is the oil that provides beer with flavouring and acts as a preservative. The plants need support to reach their great heights so a trellis has to be built ,with posts about 50 feet apart, and heavy duty aircraft cable at the top to support the strings which the vines grow up in a clockwise rotation.
Delahunty says the northeast U.S. was once popular for hops. Today, the vast majority in North America are grown in the northwestern states on very large plantations. Even with those large-scale farms, a few years ago there was a shortage. Delahunty and her husband saw an opportunity to grow local hops to serve the smaller microbreweries of the area and people into home brewing.
"So we called a few people and had really good conversations with breweries who were really excited and interested in having local hops produced," she says.
Since 2009 they've been commercially productive and the feedback on their hops has been tremendous. Delahunty says the owner of Gritty McDuff's, a microbrewery in Maine, has praised their product.
"He said, 'Whatever you're doing, keep doing it, because for 25 years I've been brewing from England to Maine and these are some of the best hops I've ever used.'"
Along with McDuff's, they sell their hops to Allagash Brewing in Portland, Me., and Throwback Brewery in North Hampton, N.H., among others.
They've now expanded their operation into four acres.
"It's quite a lot of hops," Delahunty says with a laugh.
Too much, in fact, for them not to expand on some of their farm infrastructure. Before now, come harvest time they would have picking parties with music, food and, of course, beer, for a few weekends in a row.
"We try and make it sound fun so that people will want to come out and pick hops," she says. "For the scale we were at it worked until now."
As their farm grew, so did the need to pick faster. Once ready, there's a short window of opportunity whereby the hops can be harvested and hold their quality. And one vine can take between 20 and 40 minutes to limb by hand. Hops growing takes a lot of investment in the beginning, Delahunty says, both financially and in terms of labour.
It also takes about three years for the plants to fully mature.
"It takes a long time to turn it around and have it come back to you."
What they now need is a harvester, and Delahunty and her husband have come up with a unique way to raise the money to buy one. They decided to start a campaign for their harvester on Indiegogo, an international crowdfunding website where anyone can raise money.
"We hesitated at first to do it because we didn't want to be asking for charity," says Delahunty.
So they decided to offer unique merchandise to people who got on board with their project. They have pint glasses, shirts, hats and key chains with the Aroostook Hops brand on them, Aroostook being the county in Maine where the farm is located. The more a person donates, the more they get in return. For people living close enough, a certain donation can even get somebody a row of hops on the farm named in their honour. There's also a dinner served on the farm up for a generous donor complete with homegrown veggies and fresh, home-brewed beer.
With a little outside support, Delahunty says they hope to support the grow-and-buy-local campaign.
Since they started, they've already seen and helped others in their area set up their own hops operations. They want their family farm to be an example of how small-scale, organic farming can make for a better environment - not to mention better beer.
"Hops are like grapes. ... The hops that come from our soil, the same variety will taste different from somewhere else," says Delahunty.
To check out the Aroostook Hops campaign for a harvester, go to indiegogo.com and search for "Make it a hoppy harvest in Maine".