Last year, Cape May Brewing Company came up with the idea of producing an all-Jersey beer — but one major drawback to the concept of a beer brewed with entirely New Jersey ingredients was the considerable lack of hop production in the state.
Thankfully, a former union bricklayer named Mike Kane got the wild hair of an idea to start growing some hops in Hopewell. After laying brick for 16 years, Kane picked up and moved to Maine, where he worked for around 12 years as a commercial fisherman. While there, he became friends with some organic farmers who turned him onto hops as a potential cash crop.
So, he moved back home and bought a hay farm — Big Oaks Farm — which he has turned into Laughing Hops, the largest hops yard in New Jersey. And because he was there, Cape May Brewing Company was able to brew their highly rated Three Plows American India Pale Ale.
Kane, 55, grew up in Hopewell, graduating from Hopewell Valley Central High School in 1980. His father Joseph died 10 years ago, but his mother, Jean, still lives in Pennington.
Kane’s sister Jeanette died in 2013, leaving him some money which he used to purchase his 15.2-acre farm on Reed Road. Today, a little over two acres have 188 poles with 2,800 glorious hop bines twisting among them.
Let that sink in for a minute: the largest hop producer in the state is doing it with fewer than three acres.
“I’ve always had an affinity for growing things — I love to grow stuff,” Kane says. “But there’s a lot more work involved than I really had contemplated.”
This is an understatement.
Growing hops is not the easiest thing in the world to do. First, the hop bines need support — if they don’t have a structure of some sort to grow on, they don’t grow. So Kane needed to get those 188 poles — tree trunks which he harvested from a friend’s property and brought back to the farm.
In addition, hops are delicate little things. They’re susceptible to humidity-driven disease, and, as you probably know, summers in New Jersey are insanely humid — on a hot summer day, the humidity can be oppressive for a human, much less a little hop cone. Kane has had to deal with “downy mildew” — a microbe that can be devastating to hops.
“It’s a manageable disease,” he says. “It’s just expensive to spray for, and any leaf litter or anything that falls off, we really need to clean all that stuff up because the spores will overwinter in the ground, and then next year, they’ll come back.”
Hops also need a lot of water and nitrogen. They require about an inch of rain a week, he says. “I’m lucky enough here at this farm that I have a big, two-acre pond. I’ve just now gotten the hard pipe from the pond up to the poles. Last year, I didn’t have any irrigation, and that was a big drawback for me. I didn’t lose crop from it, but I didn’t get nearly as much as I should have.”
Yet again, this is an understatement. Kane should be able to produce about 2,000 pounds of hops. He got about 250 last year, his second year harvesting the crop. Two of his five varieties of hops were completely unharvestable — his Willamette and Centennial hops were useless. Nonetheless, he was able to provide clients like Cape May Brewing Company with all of the Magnum, Chinook, and Nugget they needed for last year’s iteration of Three Plows.
Kane is growing the same five varieties again this year, and hopes to increase his yield tenfold from 2016. Harvesting should begin in August; as of mid-May, the bines were just beginning to snake up their supports. “It’s been a big learning curve for me, but I’m getting there,” he says.
And he’s got time. It takes about three years for hops to come to maturity. The first year, you get bupkis. The second, you’re at about 50 percent of production. So, by this year, Kane should be flush with hops. “As long as they’ve got water and they’ve got nitrogen and you can control disease, you should be good,” he says.
It takes about three years for hops to come to maturity. So by this year, his third, Kane should be flush with hops.
Furthermore, to get hops from the ground and into a delicious brew takes a lot of infrastructure. In addition to the poles, harvesting the plants from eighteen feet in the air is a challenge — Kane built his own basket/ladder combo and sets it up on a tractor.
From there, the cones need to be separated from the leaves, then dried. He’s built his own driers, as well — basically little drawers with chicken wire and heaters. Then, they’re either vacuum packed whole and frozen, or ground in a hammermill and pelletized.
Like most breweries, Cape May Brewing Company uses pelletized hops. They dissolve better, they deliver better hop flavor in the finished product, and they make cleanup of the brew kettle and fermenters easier afterwards. Kane is the only guy in the state with a pelletizer.
Regardless of these barriers, Jersey’s making good hops. You know, you can take a tomato plant from New Jersey, bring some soil with you and move to California, but you’re still not going to get a Jersey tomato. They’ll still turn out to be those orange things you find in the supermarket in January.
Same deal with hops — they take on characteristics of the area in which they grow, known as the “terroir.” New Jersey just has the right combination of climate, latitude, and soil to make some extraordinary hops.
“It’s definitely a much fresher product when it’s locally-sourced,” Kane says.
The folks at Cape May Brewing Company hope Kane’s success will create more interest in hop production in New Jersey, and with the success of a recent Audubon Society event in their Tasting Room, bringing together hop producers and other farmers, they think it might.
Kane agrees. “Since starting this yard two years ago — I think I was number four or five in New Jersey to start a hop yard — I’ve seen at least half a dozen other hop yards go up in the area. But, small — quarter-acre, half-acre,” he says.
Kane was thrilled to be part of the making of Three Plows IPA. “I was kinda blown away by a ‘big brewer’ like Cape May — in my eyes, (they’re) a big brewer,” he says. “I think it was a great opportunity for me, and I’m quite humbled by it.”
Ryan Krill, president of Cape May Brewing Company, says Three Plows was an experiment in hyperlocal brewing that really paid off.
“We’ve got some of the best produce in the world in the Garden State, and the beer allowed us to cultivate meaningful relationships with farmers all over the state,” he says. “From the malters at Rabbit Hill to Mike Kane at Laughing Hops, CMBC owes them a debt of gratitude for the success that Three Plows became. We’ve got it on the schedule again this year, and are looking forward to again brewing a beer with some true Jersey pride.”
James Priest is owner and founder of The Referend Bier Blendery, a brewing operation that happens to be just down the street from Laughing Hops. Like Cape May Brewing Company’s brewers, he has also concocted an all-Jersey beer using Mike Kane’s hops.
“Having a hops farm across the road is/was pure serendipity,” Priest writes in an email. “We were both looking for properties there simultaneously, and didn’t know of each other until the hop poles went up and the barrel deliveries started rolling in.”
The Referend makes beer differently from Cape May Brewing Company. Beers made by The Referend are spontaneously fermented when they are exposed to natural yeast floating in the outside air. It’s a brewing process that’s rare in the United States, but fairly common in Belgium, where the process of spontaneous fermentation has been refined for centuries.
“Driving around the northwest of Belgium, one sees these family farmhouse hop fields, usually that size or smaller, scattered around the countryside,” Priest says. “It’s nothing I thought I’d ever see here in western New Jersey.”
Priest even helped Kane harvest some hops last year. hopes to use hops from Laughing Hops at Big Oak Farm in a wet-hopped cask of Jung this September, “getting the cones from bine to beer in a matter of minutes,” he says.
Ultimately, Kane’s plan is to devote more of his farm to hops. “I’ve got about 10 or 11 more acres that I could plant, but the infrastructure costs and the startup costs for everything here was so much money — and me not having a real good farming background and all of the challenges that I had this year, I really want to plant next year, but let me manage what I’ve got now and get it going to where I can hold onto it,” he says.
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Cape May Brewing Company will be taking part in or hosting several events in June. Escape the Cape, on June 4, is a triathlon that they sponsor each year. Triathletes jump off the back of one of the Cape May-Lewes ferries to start the swim portion of the event. Escape the Cape, the beer, is a straw-colored, lager-esque ale, crafted to appeal to beer drinkers yet meant to be refreshing enough after a long race.
CMBC will be at the Wildwood Beer Fest on June 10. They will also be in Glassboro June 15 for “Meet Me in the Square,” an event with live music, local artisans and food trucks to celebrate the town’s recent $2-million town square renovation. They will also be at the Cape May Hops Festival on June 24.
Scott Armato is the storyteller for Cape May Brewing Company. A version of this story originally appeared on the Cape May Brewing Company blog, Straight to the Pint.