Four Star Farms, a second-generation family farm, is working to meet the demand of the growing hop market across the Commonwealth suppling more than 30 breweries with wet, whole-leaf and pelletized hops.
Despite the fact that hops haven’t been a viable crop in New England since the 19th Century, the L’Etoile family in Northfield is looking to change that.
Since 2007, at Four Star Farms, 17 acres of its 280-acre property have been dedicated to growing and harvesting budding green cones used to make some of Massachusetts most renowned liquid, beer.
While New England can be tricky for any farmer to grow anything -- extreme weather and unpredictable seasons being a large factor -- hops in particular are difficult to nurture in this humid and often rainy climate.
“Similar to tomatoes, hops are susceptible to mildew and insect pressures,” says Liz L’Etoile, director of sales and marketing at Four Star Farms. “They want a difficult combination of a desert like environment, yet a lot of access to water. The whole plant does not want to be wet, just the roots. You have to have a strong program in place to control for these challenges or the overall flavors, aromas and hop quality can be affected.”
Four Star Farms offers their hops to brewers three ways; wet hops, which are picked fresh and need to be brewed with-in 24-hours, whole-leaf-hops which have undergone a drying process and pelletized hops which are ground and pelletized for ease of use and better storage.
Hops are a perennial plant which is a benefit to the L’Etoiles, which also grows sod and grain on its farm. However, as with any farming there is still a great risk. “We can’t harvest a hop plant until its second year, and it won’t be fully mature until year four,” says L’Etoile “So unfortunately, if there’s a high demand for a variety of hop that we don’t have, we can’t be as nimble as we’d like to be in that moment. We also won’t know the yields that we will get from a particular variety until we’ve invested four years of time and resources. We rely heavily on our brewing customers and our knowledge as farmers to hand select each variety we grow for the characteristics that we need.”
Shipping in wet hops from the West Coast is costly, and due to the work involved, only a handful of brewers in Massachusetts grow their own hops, namely Hitchcock Brewing Company in South Deerfield and Start Line Brewing Co. in Hopkinton, MA.
Four Star Farms harvests more than 12,000 lbs. of hops a year that are sold to 30 different breweries in the state of Massachusetts. They also supply breweries in neighboring states, Vermont and Maine.
Wormtown Brewing Co., in Worcester MA has been one of Four Star Farm’s biggest and longest customers, with their hops featured in every “Be Hoppy” batch brewed, a left coast style IPA.
Abandoned Building, Aeronaut Brewing, Bone-Up Brewing, Exhibit ‘A’, Lamplighter Brewing Co., Medusa Brewing Co., People’s Pint and True West are among the breweries that will receive wet-hops this year from Four Star Farms.
"We are grateful to be able to work with Four Star Farms and utilize ingredients in our beer that were grown and produced in the state in which we are operating," says Keith Sullivan, co-founder of Medusa Brewing Co. "That makes these particular beers that we are doing even more special."