Hops and Change

Vermont Pub & Brewery concocts a series of überlocal beers

By Corin Hirsch [05.30.12]

It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon, and almost every seat is filled on the outdoor patio of the Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington. At a corner table, owner Steve Polewacyk pours some amber-hued beer from a triangular beaker into tiny glass snifters. His gray T-shirt reads “Make beer, not war.”

“This is the rye India pale ale,” he says, as the murky liquid fills the glass. It smells yeasty, but one sip reveals a gentle bitterness balanced by a slight fruitiness and a spicy, lingering finish.

The beer is still in secondary conditioning, so over the next few days the yeast particles will settle and the flavors will mellow. Then, on June 4, this IPA will have its commercial debut as the first product of VPB’s All-Vermont Grains and Hops Project; the quartet of experimental beers brewed with local ingredients will be released on four consecutive Mondays in June. The other beers include a spelt extra pale ale; a “6-Row Fruit Cup” brewed with local berries; and a Vermont Bière de Garde.

“If we get to a place where we’re doing all Vermont hops and grains for our beers, that would be awesome,” says Polewacyk. “The idea that we could do something to support Vermont agriculture is huge.”

The 25 pounds of hops used for the beers came from the University of Vermont experimental hops field in Alburgh, a project led by UVM assistant professor and agricultural researcher Heather Darby, who sips the IPA at VPB and nods her approval. Polewacyk heard Darby speak about the UVM hops project at a Vermont Brewers Association meeting and decided to collaborate.

While the growing of hops can be a complex endeavor — weather, harvest time and method, and packaging and storage are all factors — it is ultimately brewers’ needs that determine where the nascent trade will go, says Darby. “And if [the hops] cost too much for the farmer to produce so that the end user can’t afford them, that doesn’t work, either,” she adds. “How do we take this good and unique product and make it work?”

Part of that plan is partnering with Vermont’s brewers to test the hops grown in the one-acre UVM plot, a stone’s throw away from the Canadian border. “I think there are always these people who step up first, who take that brave step,” says Darby, alluding to VPB.

Polewacyk unearths a sheet of loose stats and ticks off the beer’s properties: 13 percent rye malt; 8 percent oat malt; 79 percent six-row malted barley. Willamette and Galena hops were used during brewing, and Willamette during finishing.

Besides 11 varieties of local hops, the four beers are also flavored with 300 pounds of malted grains grown in Vermont — rye, spelt and oats from Butterworks Farm in Westfield, and the six-row barley from Nick Cowles of Shelburne Orchards. Darby picked up the grains this spring, drove them down to Valley Malt in Hadley, Mass., for malting, then dropped them off at VPB. “We’re very excited to be her research guinea pig,” says Polewacyk.

The experimental beers are a continuation of the spirit and vision of VPB founder Greg Noonan, a pioneer in both home and commercial craft brewing. Noonan passed away in 2009, and Polewacyk and VPB brewer Russ FitzPatrick began the experimental beer series last year. They (and a few guest brewers) have had a rollicking time using their brewery as a lab, brewing with almond milk, passionfruit, snow, watermelon, coconut and chiles, among others. They’ve also thrown in Honey Nut Cheerios, and once brewed a wheat beer with some blueberry muffins baked by a staffer. Each batch yields about 15 gallons — roughly a keg — and customers are given a “beer score card” on which to record their sensory impressions.

The local beers presented their own challenges. “One of the things we’ve noticed is that, with Vermont grains, there’s a lot more protein,” says FitzPatrick. And the local hops are less aromatic, which he thinks could be offset by adjusting the time of seed-cone harvest.

Darby has a theory, though, about why Vermont-grown hops are milder in aroma and flavor: She thinks it might be the plant’s adaptation to the harsh climate. “Plants respond to windy conditions, the ones our hops have, by building stronger cell walls,” she says. Hence brewers may eventually need to develop alternate methods of flavor extraction.

When Polewacyk mentions the hops’ pallid scent, Darby nods and looks thoughtful. Each challenge — such as the downy mildew that’s currently attacking the plot — forces her and the UVM team to find solutions, and thus strengthens their end game. Of the 19 varieties planted on the test plot, she says, the most resilient ones so far seem to be Nugget, Cluster and Galena. “The Cascade did OK,” Darby adds, but the Fuggle and the Perle did not.

Darby is committed to perfecting local hops, and rejects the suggestion that local brewers would use them only because they’re local. “We don’t want [our hops] to be second best,” she says. “The only hops that are going to be successful in Vermont are the ones that brewers use.”