It’s just about harvest time as Anthony Verdi walks through rows of trellises, hop plants growing about 15 feet into the sky. Verdi picks some cones from the plants, and we crush them in our palms to unlock the unique aromas that brewers will try to capture in the beers they make with this crop.
Cascade first. Lime green and cicada-sized with overlapping petals like a runty artichoke. Crushed fresh, it smells like bright citrus, grapefruit in particular. Smells like something else, too.
“Smells like a beer, right?” Verdi says.
Cascade grows well at the hop yard Verdi runs, Sky High Hops in Flemington. And it’s a handy variety to grow—for much of the craft brewing revolution of the last 30 years, Cascade was the most grown hop variety (now, it’s Citra, for what it’s worth).
We move onto Chinook, a hybrid variety created in the ’80s. Deep red fruit, like a fresh, juicy plum and abundant pine emerge from our palms. The odd balance of fruit and tree is kind of a wonderful mind-melt.
Last comes Centennial, another variety found in many pale ales. Before the hand-crushing is complete, the dankness of the variety wafts up to the nostrils, and a closer sniff brings the unmistakable smell of onion.
“I always thought that was bad,” Verdi says, “but when [a brewer] went through all the hops, he was like, ‘No, this is incredible. What we can do with this in a beer… This is unique to your yard and something I haven’t seen before.”
(The onion, if you’re curious, doesn’t come through in the beer, but the dankness surely does.)
So: three hop varieties cultivated to maximally express their individual characteristics (Sky High also grows Nugget hops, which weren’t quite ready for the smell test). All are certified Jersey Fresh, a designation given by the state to produce grown locally and sustainably.
Sky High grows these hops on about 700 to 1,000 plants growing vertically on ropes hung from trellises. The small scale of the yard allows Verdi and his team (which includes family, friends and, sometimes, volunteers) to be a little more particular throughout the growing season. Verdi, for instance, can look at the cones on a vine, pull a few, check the inside for signs of ripeness, and then harvest just that vine.
“The cool thing about having a small yard is you can pick plant-by-plant when they’re ready,” Verdi says. “You don’t have to take down several acres at a time because it’s the easiest way to do it.”
Now, the smaller scale of Sky High’s hop yard—one of only a few farms in the state growing hops—doesn’t mean that harvest is a small undertaking
“It takes at least an hour to pick one of these plants,” Verdi says. “When you consider 700 to 1,000 plants; you could start at the beginning of harvest season and go to the end and not even make a dent.”
So hand-harvesting is out. However, Sky High has a machine that plugs into a tractor that helps with the process—it has claws that grab the plant and separates the cone from the leaves. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to do. Like grain harvesting, a certain amount of hand sorting is also required to pull cones from the plant. After they are, though, the cones are dried, crushed and turned into pellets, which is the desired state for use in a brewery. Eventually the equipment to do all that will be on site at a new processing facility steps away from the yard.
Anything to save time would go a long way for Verdi, who maintains a 9-to-5 as an environmental engineer while running the hop yard. The 20-something was able to carve out some space on his family’s property—much of which is used for a horse boarding and training facility—to build out the yard and a small garden. There’s more room to grow, but not enough time at the moment, Verdi says.
“There’s more work required than we can handle at this point in terms of expanding the yard,” he says. “It’d be lovely to expand it; it’s not the growing component, but the processing especially requires a lot of manpower and hours that I don’t necessarily have [while working] full-time.”
But, maybe necessity breeds opportunity, in this instance. Because Sky High utilizes extra help from people interested in the process, it’s also building a community around the business. While homebrewing can easily take root in the Average Joe or Jane’s garage, basement or kitchen, growing hops on a garden scale is a little too impractical for those who would otherwise be interested.
“We get so many people who are willing to come and help out and spend their Saturdays with us,” Verdi says. “A lot of people who are interested can’t afford to buy this [harvest equipment]. It’s off the table to build a yard this size.”
So then given the challenges of cultivating a small hop yard, what possessed Verdi to get into it in the first place?
“I’ve always been interested in craft beer. It’s a cool subculture that’s formed over the years, and I looked into how I could get involved,” he says. “I thought, we have a farm, why not give it a shot? It’s not only an agricultural feat to accomplish, but look around, the trellis is an accomplishment in itself. It’s a combination of me being an engineer and being interested in gardening; it’s stuff I like doing.”
And the hops grown at Sky High are getting the attention of local brewers; Verdi says their interest level “has been a lot higher than I’d believe.” Sky High sells mostly to breweries (although homebrewers are welcome to purchase product), including Lone Eagle, Flounder, 902, Cape May, Bradley Brew Project, Ironbound, Triumph and more.
But getting to the point now where Sky High can build out facilities, begin to think about expanding the yard and continue to build connections with brewers has been a long process, about six years now. And refining that process has been a matter of trial and error. For instance, the first growing season, Verdi and Co. only planted Cascade and Centennial hops on the yard. The Cascade took off, producing plants with plenty of cones and few leaves, which makes harvesting both easier and more fruitful. The Centennial, however, didn’t grow as well, susceptible as it is to various weather and growth impediments. So, now there’s less Centennial on the yard, more of other varieties. Trial, error, improvement.
That work has broad application, too. Although many hop varieties don’t necessarily love hot and humid conditions, chances are—as in the case with Cascade—some do, and figuring out which work well could open doors for other growers to supply NJ’s burgeoning craft beer industry with local product.
The work Verdi and Sky High do to amend soils with nutrients—hops are needy suckers so amendments are typically required often—can also feed back into the knowledge base for other growers. It’d be a pay-it-forward-type return for the growers here, who learned the basics of the process by calling on experts at Cornell, Rutgers and other universities, as well as other growers, to learn where to start.
Now, for all intents and purposes, the hops on the vines this season look and smell fresh and high-quality. But Verdi says testing is an important tool in the process of determining the quality of the crop. Labs, which Sky High sends its product to, can uncover the chemistry in the hop to see if it falls within a range of quality; it can also determine moisture level, which serves as a check on the drying process.
“There is money to be made,” Verdi says in the circumstance that Sky High can scale up. Right now, it has to turn away customers because they simply can’t grow and harvest enough with their time and equipment constraints to meet demand. But, the goal is to continue growing out the yard, experimenting with the grains and, maybe, building out an on-site brewery with beer entirely sourced from a few feet away.
“That might be five years from now, 10 years from now, 30 years from now… the timing has to be right.”