The Old Hops of New England

Text by Joyce Miller

Hops used to be commonly grown in the northeast United States, probably since the time of the Pilgrim settlers (hops are grown as part of the re-created settlement at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass.). Up until the turn of the century, most of the hops for the U.S. were grown in the northeast, from the Atlantic coast through upstata New York. Around the turn of the century, hop production moved to the newly-opened farmland of the Pacific Northwest when an epidemic of powdery mildew destroyed all of the hops in the northeast. Or so people thought...

Hops have survived in many places in the Northeast, and are now growing feral. The quality and aroma can vary depending on the conditions of course, but many are aromatic enough to have convinced me that our forefathers knew what good beer tasted like.

I have come across quite a few of these remnant hop patches in my normal travels to and from work, shopping, driving around, etc. I do not go out looking for them, although degrees in plant science & agriculture do come in handy in that I can frequently identify plants at highway speeds.

In general hops tend to have survived in areas where (1) there used to be a farm, (2) there is a relatively reliable source of water, and (3) the ground has not been completely developed. Because of their viney growth habit, hops were probably planted on marginland, and have survived in places that are still marginland to this day. For water, hops prefer flowing water, rather than swamps, but I have seen them at drainage ditches. They can survive without steady water, but will probably not bear cones reliably. Hops can also be found at historic farmsteads (duh), but historic preservation is not as reliable an indicator as one might think. Many historic farms have been landscaped numerous times, and a past gardener may have finally triumphed over those nasty vines out back.

I have also spotted hops growing in abundance in the dry moat surrounding the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City Canada, and at the shore at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York. I have no idea if the plants in these two locations bear cones or not, as I have never been there at the right time of year.

From a distance, hops look a lot like grapes to the unpracticed eye. However, the leaves are closer together, and are a different shape. They are also a darker green. They also tend to run over their supports, and cover them with more foliage than do grapes. If you have a friend who grows hops, observe theirs, paying close attention to the color & shapes of the leaves, the density, and the general shape of the plant on its support. This wall help you to differentiate between hops and other climbing plants.

If you happen to find a patch of wild hops, keep an eye on them during the summer. The cones will be ready to pick when they feel dry and papery (but aren't brown!), and the yellow sacs of lupulin are visible under the upper scales. Pick a few, crush them in your hands, and smell them. If they don't smell nice, don't use them. The patch may have had a substandard year, weather-wise, or maybe it really is a bad variety. You can only tell by checking on them several years in a row.

Some of the places I have found wild hops growing are:

1 -- On a tree across the street from the main entrance to DuPont Pharmaceuticals, on Treble Cove Road in North Billerica, Mass. I have no idea if these bear or not. There are also some plants on the DuPont grounds (growing up a tree at the bridge ovor the little stream between the main set of buildings and the old trucking company). These bear very nice and aromatic cones.

2 -- Growing up an apple (?) tree at a house on Rte. 4 at the Chelmsford/Billerica town line. This is a private house.

3 -- At the Job Lane house (in Bedford?). At least, I'm fairly sure they were hops. I was driving rather fast.

4 -- Growing up a utility pole at a house at the intersection of Route 110 and ??? in Chelmsford, Mass.

Where do I pick my hops? None of the above. :)

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