1 of 5
Jonathan Staples owns and oversees the 53-acre working farm, brewery and hop processing center of Black Hops Farm. (Photo by Jay Paul)
2 of 5
Black Hops staff. (Photo by Jay Paul)
3 of 5
Hop bines at Black Hops Farm. (Photo by Jay Paul)
4 of 5
Solomon Rose, managing partner of the processing facility, inspects some product. (Photo by Jay Paul)
5 of 5
Cascade is just one of many varieties grown on the farm. (Photo by Jay Paul)
“Look this way.”
Jonathan Staples pivots 45 degrees until his back faces Sugarloaf Mountain. On this muggy morning, our line of sight shifts from an open sore of tractor-torn red clay to a grassy field of saplings under cerulean sky. A crow startles from an abandoned deer blind, ascending toward the houses in the distance. Once the trees fill out, they’ll hide the prefabs’ yellow and blue sidings; all that visitors will see is the picturesque, 53-acre working farm, brewery and hop processing center of Black Hops Farm.
Staples, the owner, maps out the farm’s future: In mid-November, he’ll open what will be one of the largest plots of hops in the state, offering tours of its hop and barley fields. He sees food trucks pulling up directly to one of the taproom’s sets of Dutch doors, where plates — whether it’s barbecue by celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio or local food truck fare — will be handed directly to hungry revelers in the beer hall. He envisions bands playing on the stage by the bar as the piney, floral aromas of Cascade and Centennial hops waft out of the roast house where they dry, readying for processing and pressing into pellets. He pictures the day when the farm is marketing to other breweries: In addition to producing the farm’s own rotation of beer made onsite from its own hops and wellwater, the outfit will sell to breweries, offering its hops; imported hops from Austria and Germany; and poles, plants and vines for others looking to try their hand at farming. Staples says Black Hops will also offer a consultation service, designing and managing other farms’ fields.
It’s a large-scale operation with more than a few moving parts, but here, on planting day in June, six acres of fast-growing perennials composed of five different species of hops are only just digging into Loudoun County earth.
The hamlet is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Richmond, past a strip roadside motel, Amish pies, eggs and honey sold by Loudounberry Farm Garden, and a polka-dotted silo marking an antique village. Huge tracts of land remain from Loudoun’s dairy production days. Some parcels have become wineries — there are 44 in the county, to be exact — and others have sprouted housing communities. But tax laws here favor farming over development, and Staples believes that a hops farm and processing center built around a functioning brewery will draw both farmers and agri-tourists to the area, while supplying a demand for pelletized hops. Building a commercial-scale processing facility onsite will allow for the preservation of his hops’ fragile aromatics, he says, and also those of other growers within a 50-mile radius, reaching as far as Maryland and Pennsylvania. Unlike wet hops — which must be used immediately after harvest before they lose their pungency — dried and pelletized hops can be preserved and malted throughout the year.
Humulus lupulus, better known as hops, is a perennial climbing bine. Unlike vines, which attach with suckers, bines grow in a helix around their support, producing cones that look like the tip of a spear of asparagus or miniature mossy pinecones. They are commonly compared to cannabis, a distant relative of the plant, and both share similar organoleptic properties: They can smell and taste like resinated green tea with a hint of citrus. Hops shoots are considered a delicacy in Italy and eaten with risotto. Trellised, they provide shade for backyard growers and, most important, they preserve and flavor beer, from the 8-IBU (International Bitterness Units) Budweiser to the 102-IBU Lagunitas Hop Stoopid Ale. The higher the IBU, the more hops go into the beer. The craft beer movement, fueled by consumers’ desire for more bitterly floral, hoppy beers, has sparked an interest in growing both breweries and hops in Virginia.
On planting day, Staples stands in front of a show stable and a horse arena, holdovers from the farm’s days as an equestrian center. Today, these mark the boundaries of a future beer garden. Inside the arena, the brewery is under construction. A sloping concrete floor runs behind a 20-tap bar to keep sudsy overflow from the nearby fermenting tanks at bay. The space is unrecognizable as the one photographed last November when Gov. Terry McAuliffe presented Staples with a Publishers Clearing House-size check for $40,000 to assist in creating the first commercial-scale hops production and processing facility in the Mid-Atlantic; Loudoun County soon matched the sum. Every little bit helps, though Staples estimates the farm’s final cost will reach upward of $1.6 million.
Black Hops sits on a little bit of history: In the 1960s, husky boys came to Camp Macabee to lose weight, sleeping in World War II bunkers that still stand. Later, the land housed a horse farm and is still home to a decrepit mill and reedy creek. Staples, co-owner of James River Distillery in Richmond, drove past the scenic spot on his way home to Frederick, Maryland, and fell in love, though it wasn’t until he brainstormed with Laurie Mills — his longtime project manager who has helped with other build-outs, including Family Meal — that he landed on a farm-brewery concept.
“At wineries, you have this experience,” he says. “I want to have the elements of a winery that people love: a working farm and tractors, like at Early Mountain, but with beer. Take Lickinghole Creek [Craft Brewery]: It’s clearly a farm, not a fake farm with a brewery attached.”
In Oregon last April, 11,500 industry professionals milled around the Craft Brewers Conference where it was announced that there are, on average, two breweries projected to open every day in the U.S. over the course of 2015. Growers in the Pacific Northwest aren’t sure if they can double their output and upgrade equipment stores in time to meet the national uptick in demand. The Great Return — one of the hoppier beers made at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery — uses 1 1/2 pounds of hops per 31-gallon barrel, local brewmaster Brian Nelson says. He brews roughly 120 barrels of Great Return every two weeks. At that rate, he requires more than 10,000 pounds of hops annually for this beer alone. But that’s a drop in the barrel compared to what Stone Brewing Co., the ninth-largest craft brewery in the United States, requires. Stone’s upcoming large-scale brewery, restaurant and beer garden in the East End is expected to use 150,000 to 200,000 pounds of hops in 2016 from the get-go. Though the beer behemoth hasn’t found a Virginia hop to its liking, that isn’t off the table.
“Most of our hops come from the Pacific Northwest, primarily Yakima Valley in Washington,” says brewmaster Mitch Steele. “We are not using Virginia hops, however, a small amount is used for some pilot batches we brew. At the moment, we only use pellet hops for our large brewing system in Escondido, California, and have yet to find a grower in Virginia that offers pelletized hops.”
If Staples has anything to do with it, they’ll find one soon enough in Black Hops Farm.
Solomon Rose of Organarchy, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic hop yard in Maryland, manages the hop yard at Black Hops. Rose is flanked by his dog, Mamma Bear, and his sunburned forearms are two sleeves of weathered ink below biceps defined by labor. It’s a humid 80 degrees at 11 a.m. when a dozen volunteers and two dozen onlookers gather in June to break ground for 5,300 hop plants he picked up the day before in Michigan. Cascade, Brewer’s Gold, Centennial, Newport and Crystal — the hop names sound more like recreational drugs than a plant genus.
He hopes to expand the hops yard at Black Hops by another 25 acres this season. “I’m pushing for larger-scale plots to fill a quota,” he says. “I plan on reintroducing this crop [of hops] to the area, like grapes were 20 years ago. If all goes according to plan, we’ll have hop pellets available to brewers this fall.”
Black Hops’ wholesale and consulting plan was structured to aid and foster the state’s growing hops community. Stan “the Hop Man” Driver of Hoot’n Holler Hops has been growing hops in Southwest Virginia for almost 20 years and serves as co-chairman of the Old Dominion Hops Cooperative, which works with Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, as well as local hop farmers, to share knowledge and raise awareness for growing hops in Virginia. Chesterfield County’s Huguenot Hops farm, which was established in the spring of 2013, recently added a small-scale hops harvesting and pelletizing service for local growers. According to owner Devon Kistler, its yield will not even make a dent in the juggernaut of demand for dried cones. Hawksbill Hops Yard in Luray is another newcomer, having launched last January.
Experimentation and collaboration are key words in Staples’ lexicon, but so is fun. He envisions Black Hops Farm — named for one of his favorite video games, “Call of Duty: Black Ops” — as a thrilling production brewery cranking out interesting beers using Virginia agricultural products, with guest brewers flying in from far-flung places such as Germany, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro. The thought of creating sours, wild ales and spontaneous fermented beers for his 8,500-square-foot tasting room and 20,000-square-foot outdoor beer garden bewitches Staples. More than that, he’s excited to bring guests a product that’s entirely sourced and brewed on-premises. “We’re not boiling glass, so your mug won’t be from the farm,” he laughs, “but everything else will be living on or growing on the farm.”