A new use for land
By Alyse Horn-Pyatt
“My dream is to see these hops going into local beers and being poured at local restaurants."
Last summer marked the first year for the Lots of Pride Gardens in Beltzhoover, where, among other projects, South Hilltop Men’s Group and DECO Resources are collaborating to use four City-owned vacant lots for research into potential remediation techniques targeting lead in soil using sunflowers, mustard greens, and hops.
The lots, acquired through the City’s Adopt-A-Lot program, hold soil lead levels of 400-1,000 parts per million, meaning SHMG and DECO must use raised garden beds per City guidelines – but, through an agreement with the City, they will be allowed to let the plants root naturally into the soil.
Anthony Stewart, president and environmental director of DECO, said the study will last for several years and the data will be analyzed to determine what soil amendments and plants work best together to remove lead from soil and how that impacts the plants. With hops, the hypothesis is that “lead will be taken into the roots, binds, and leaves, but not transfer to the flower,” which is used to brew beer. If there are no traces of lead in the flower, Stewart said there is potential in the future to partner with local breweries to create a beer from the Betlzhoover plants.
The plan mirrors what community gardens in Stanton Heights and Larimer are doing with Hops On Lots Pittsburgh (HOLP). The group has been working with community organizations, DECO and the City to transform vacant lots into urban hop farms, and the hops are then donated to Pittsburgh breweries like Roundabout Brewery, Spoonwood Brewing Co. and Couch Brewery.
Hops On Lots Pittsburgh is a nonprofit community project that is owned by the Pittsburgh Hop Company (PHC), both of which were founded in 2016 by Pete Bell, Joe Chmielewski, and Phoebe Armstrong. Chmielewski said the goal is to get one neighborhood involved each year, but it can be difficult sometimes to get community members on board because they don’t know what to expect. That’s where Pittsburgh Hop Company comes in.
The PHC is located in Washington County on Rosegill Farm, the underbelly of HOLP. With 700 hops planted this summer, including Centennial, Nugget and Sorachi Ace, Bell said the farm is meant to act as a space to take community members and show them what a hop farm looks like. The farm produces the same type of hops that are grown in the city, so it can also act as a supplement if enough hops aren’t grown in Stanton Heights or Larimer.
This year, Bell said Stanton Heights yield was about 15 pounds from 50 plants, which is good for its second year of production, and the hops were sold to Roundabout Brewery. Larimer, which is in its first year of growth, only produced five pounds of Sorachi Ace, but because that hop was grown at the Washington County farm, PHC was able to prop up what was needed for Couch Brewery’s Larimer Loft, a wet hopped IPA.
“One thing about hops is that we have to be at the same location for a long time. It’s not one year and done,” Bell said. “Year three is when they reach maturity, and then the plants plateau.”
Rooted in history
Armstrong’s family has owned Rosegill Farm since 1793, and with its age comes a significant past; the farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad and throughout the centuries its production focus has fluctuated with the times from a tannery, distillery, wool-growing, and a horse and pony farm. Now, Armstrong says, it’s more of a “hobby farm” with “overly loved animals.” Armstrong’s mother, Ellen, said they also lease land to farmers in the area for grain and hay production, one of which is Weatherbury Farm – a grower of organic grains that sells a portion of its wheat production to Wigle Whiskey Distillery in Pittsburgh.
The farm has adapted to its surroundings, and Stewart believes its partnership with PHC is “very much on the forefront of this new industry,” which is beginning to get the attention of state government.
In September, Governor Tom Wolf announced the PA Preferred Brews initiative, “A branding program dedicated specifically for beers brewed in Pennsylvania using agricultural commodities grown in the state,” according to his website. The program is in addition to the “existing PA Preferred program under the state Department of Agriculture.”
This program allows members to use the registered logo – a blue keystone with a gold check mark – on products. According to the website, “Research has shown that 93 percent of Pennsylvanians prefer to buy and consume local products.”
Anthony Stewart (left) of DECO Resources began working with PHC last summer to develop and install a solar powered irrigation system at Rosegill Farm. The system was equipped to sense ground moisture and collect data from the National Weather Service to determine if and when the hops needed to be watered. If watering was needed, the system was able to open an irrigation valve throughout the day. It was also able to communicate with hop tenders through Wi-Fi, who could then control the watering schedule remotely. (Right photo: Justin Goetz of Meta Mesh Wireless Communities assists Stewart at Rosegill Farm.)
Bell said he appreciates the initiative, but he wants more. In New York, alcoholic beverage producers who buy ingredients from within the state and machinery that is predominately used for producing alcohol for purchase can qualify for exemption from sales tax. This also includes other supplies and packaging materials, as well as exemptions for farmers who harvest ingredients for alcohol and/or brew, according to New York State Department of Taxation and Finance.
Bell estimates that “for all [Pennsylvania] breweries to buy only PA hops, we would need well over 2,000 acres of hops [farms] in the state and we are at about 150 [acres].”
This past fall, there were 300 breweries in Pennsylvania with 40 more licenses waiting for approval. In Western Pennsylvania alone, Bell said there are about 50 microbreweries, but only seven hop farms. Most of those breweries are getting their hops shipped from the West Coast. But switching from West Coast to Pennsylvania hops isn’t as easy as getting more farmers on board. For Pennsylvania breweries to buy local hops, they may have to change their recipes as well. Hops grown in Oregon soil will differ from those grown in the Keystone State.
Steve Ilnicki, co-owner of Spoonwood Brewery, said a good example of soil’s impact on taste can be found in “a classic English strain like Golding [hops].”
“American [hop farmers] grow them as well, and while they are similar they do have different taste qualities,” Ilnicki said. “You can taste or smell the difference between the two.”
In September, Spoonwood brewed with PHC Nugget and Centennial hops the day they were harvested for a subtle pale ale called Mr. Freshly. The brewery received almost 20 pounds of hops, which is less than Ilnicki was hoping for, but they “ made the choice to strictly use [PHC] hops.”
“I just think when someone reads on a menu, a ‘fresh hop’ or ‘wet hop’ they’re thinking of something that is going to stand out, but we did get really good feedback,” Ilnicki said. “It was a tasty beer.”
As PHC gains traction and established plants throughout the City and Washington County, Armstrong said even homebrewers in the area will be able to “reap the benefits of having access to fresh hops” instead of using pelletized hops from the West Coast.
“My dream is to see these hops going into local beers and being poured at local restaurants,” Armstrong said.
By tapping into this hyper local movement, Chmielewski said he thinks PHC and HOLP are “hitting a new scale economy.”
“The local bar no longer serves just Bud[weiser], they serve beer from just down the street,” Chmielewski said. “People want the one-on-one relationship between [themselves] and the person who produced their product. It’s great and I can’t see it going any other way.”
Writer & Web Producer: Alyse Horn-Pyatt
Photographer: Anthony Stewart, Pete Bell, and Alyse Horn-Pyatt
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