Cartons’ passion for hops ‘a work of art’
FREELAND, Md. — People interested in growing hops occasionally visit Ché and Lisa Carton’s farm atop a windy, wooded hill just a stroll away from the Pennsylvania line in Baltimore County.
Eventually, they’re introduced to the Cartons’ two-story vertical hops picker — a Frankensteined, Escher-esque maze of wooden beams, sprockets, chains and belts, engineered and built by Ché himself.
Some people, he said, stare at the machine — jerry-rigged with rubber belts from discarded treadmills — reconsider the complex, equipment-heavy hops production process and decide at that moment to grow something else.
“It’s a work of art,” Lisa Carton said, beaming at the two-story apparatus, which separates hops from their bine.
It’s the kind of impressive, handmade ingenuity that’s helped the Cartons grow an ambitious home brewing hobby into a small business selling locally grown hops to breweries across the region.
The Cartons put their first plants in the ground in 2006 after a nationwide hops shortage the previous year squeezed the beer industry, and small brewers — or home brewers like the Cartons — were unable to find any.
“We were like, you know, ‘How hard could it be?’” Lisa Carton, 39, said, laughing. “We’ll just throw some hops in the ground and see what happens.”
They planted 40 vines, and their leap into production was well-timed with a growing nationwide interest in beer made with local ingredients. DuClaw Brewing Co. in Baltimore released a limited Black Locust Venom Ale with the Cartons’ harvest that year, and the couple quickly established themselves in the regional brewing community as committed sellers. Ché, now 40, was working as a construction contractor, and Lisa was a preschool teacher, but they expanded immediately.
“Brewers were asking us, like, ‘Oh, can we get in on that?’” Lisa Carton said. “It was right before the farm-to-bottle movement was really happening, right on the cusp. … We did very little marketing.”
Their first crop was handpicked by a group of supportive friends. That only lasted a year.
They planted 400 plants on a leased property the next year.
And 1,200 the year after that.
Eventually, they bought the farm on which they currently grow about 4,000 plants.
Black Locust developed a strong relationship with Frederick’s Flying Dog Brewery, which relocated from Colorado in 2006 and has built a reputation for buying and promoting local hops and brewery ingredients, Lisa Carton said. Flying Dog also partnered with the University of Maryland Extension on a project in Keedysville last year to develop hop varietals that can thrive on the East Coast and grow the regional brewing industry.
Although Maryland farmers produced a significant amount of hops before Prohibition, the state’s moist, humid climate isn’t ideal for growers. The vast majority of hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, parts of which feature a more hospitable climate and latitude. This year’s record-setting rain and lack of sun led to Black Locust’s worst crop ever, Ché Carton said. Their farm lost 75 percent of their projected harvest.
When they’re choosing varieties, the Cartons said they look first for disease resistance, second to a variety’s flavor profile. Crop protection chemicals must be applied to the entire plant, forcing Black Locust to use special equipment. Leafhoppers, downy mildew, mites, Fusarium cone tip blight and Japanese beetles are among the plant’s common pests in Maryland.
To manage this, Ché Carton built a high-pressure hops blower system that could apply product up to 18 feet high. Without it, they would have needed to buy a backpack blower and spend about 20 more hours spraying. He built a machine that takes the processed hops and pelletizes them for delivery, and they developed a system to safely dry their hops, a highly sensitive process that can quickly ruin a crop.
“It’s a lot of thinking on our feet,” Lisa Carton said.
Black Locust grows four varieties: Cascade, Chinook, Brewer’s Gold and Nugget. Cascade — known for its distinct aroma and spicy, citrus-like quality — and Chinook were selected because they’re among the most popular varieties in the country. The others were chosen after performing well on test plots the Cartons grew. They’ve since stopped growing those plots, deferring to the Extension’s ongoing work.
“There’s over 100 varieties at least right now, and there’s more coming on the market every day,” Ché Carton said. “We go through all of them and pick the few that seem as though they’re going to grow the best in our environment but also produce the type of hop we want — you know, the citrusy or tropical fruit finishes, whatever we think might be desired by the brewers.”
They generally hope to harvest a pound and a half per plant and sell them at about $10 to $12 per pound. Oliver Brewing Co. in Baltimore buys some of their hops after harvest each fall and creates a limited wet hop ale. They’ve also sold to Flying Dog. Their hops usually go into seasonal specialty products, though some smaller breweries will buy up to 100 pounds to supply year-round beers, Lisa Carton said.
Black Locust is also picking and processing hops for other growers, up to 3,600 strings in a day if need be. The Cartons also hope to open a brewery and tasting room on their farm, but that’s been delayed for several years due to regulatory hurdles with the county government.
It’s no longer a hobby, but a business, fueled by a wave of interest in local farm brewing.
“For us, it really grew organically,” Lisa Carton said.
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