Aroostook Hops was recently awarded a $50,000 grant from the state’s ag department. The grant is being used to make a number of infrastructure improvements, including a new harvester and a building to house it. Photo courtesy of Aroostook Hops

by Enrico Villamaino

If nothing else, 2020 gave us all an understandable reason to enjoy a good beer (or possibly several). But for brewers to provide us with good beer, they first need access to high quality hops. In Maine, that’s where Aroostook Hops comes in.

Situated on four acres in Westfield, Maine, Aroostook Hops was founded in 2009 by husband and wife Jason Johnston and Krista Delahunty. A native of Aroostook County, Johnston studied biology and environmental science at Bowdoin College, the University of Delaware and the University of Maine. He currently works as a wildlife ecology professor at UMaine’s Presque Isle campus, conducting research in the fields of ornithology and forest ecology. Originally from St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, Delahunty relocated to the Pine Tree State after completing her graduate studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland. In addition to studying mammalian genetics at the Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor, she also teaches biology for UMaine at Presque Isle. The Aroostook Hops team is rounded out by daughters Kathleen, 12, Marie, 9, and Elise, 5.

In that four acres, Aroostook Hops manages to fit in an impressive infrastructure, including its 18-foot-tall trellis system. Hundreds of poles support tens of thousands of feet of metal cable, all anchored at the perimeter with guy wires. Hop plants are perennial, and grow up coir strings to the top of the trellis each year before being cut down to be run through the harvester. The farm’s irrigation system utilizes a dedicated well that runs through buried PVC into a drip tape fertigation system. Aroostook Hops worked with the USDA-NRCS in planning and designing the best system for the hopyard. This allows the farm to provide adequate water and deliver nutrients through the fertigation setup.

According to Johnston, Aroostook Hops is committed to conducting business in a way that is both organic and locally oriented. Certified organic by the USDA, Aroostook Hops’ farming practices favor human health, microbial soil growth and biodiversity, all while minimizing negative habitat effects. Even weed management is handled in an eco-friendly manner.

“We use sheep as sustainable helpers in weed and downy mildew management. Without use of synthetic herbicides…, weeds can get to be a problem in an organic hopyard. Once the hop bines have grown tall enough, we graze sheep from our neighbor’s farm intensively until they clean up all the weeds, all without damaging the bine itself,” Johnston explained.

Establishing a primary market in the immediate area just made sense to Johnston. “With over 90% of all U.S. hops grown in the Pacific Northwest, we are excited to be able to provide Maine’s ever-growing brewing industry with quality local Maine hops,” he said. “Mainers care about eating and drinking local ingredients, and more and more neighborhood brewpubs are opening to provide the Maine-grown products that consumers are really interested in.”

Maine brewers using hops grown in the immediate area focus on more than just hometown pride – there’s also the desire to delight discerning draft drinkers. Johnston explained that terroir is a factor. Often used to describe wine, terroir is a French term used to detail environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype. “Hops have a terroir and take on unique flavor characteristics based on the soil and climate they are grown in. Our northern Maine-produced Cascade tastes a little different than the Pacific Northwest Cascade hops, which we think makes them very interesting, and our brewers do too!”

Among the breweries supplied by Aroostook Hops are Maine favorites Geaghan Bros. Brewing, Northern Maine Brewing Company, Allagash Brewing Company, Lubec Brewing Company, Gritty McDuff’s Brew Pub, Fogtown Brewing Company, Throwback Brewery, Baxter Brewing Company, Sasanoa Brewing, Blank Canvas Brewery, Black Bear Brewing Company and Footbridge Brewery.

Not content to rest on the laurels of the past decade’s success, Johnston is always looking to improve. A recent grant awarded to his farm is allowing him to do just that. “We received a $50,000 grant from the Maine Department of Agriculture. We’re using the money to update the company’s harvesting equipment and drying/processing operation,” he said. He recently purchased a used harvester from Germany to help with harvesting. Johnston laughed, “Although it’s not new, it’s new to us!”

With some drying/processing machines, hops can encounter high temperatures due to friction, resulting in a lower quality hops pellet that has degraded oils. A new, custom-built drying set-up funded by the grant allows for better air movement and can achieve dehumidification in 15 hours at a lower temperature, which produces superior pellets. As for infrastructure improvements, Johnston said he’s building a hop facility to house the harvester.

Despite having an operating season that runs mainly from May through September, Johnston said that his farm is always giving him something to work on. “We’ll keep being busy for quite a while.”