TALLMANSVILLE – Hooked on growing hops.
That’s how Upshur County farmer Fred Antolini would describe his state of mind from the moment he learned about the process of cultivating hops, the common name for the cone-shaped flowers of the humulus lupulus – or hops plant – at a farm conference in Charleston, West Virginia, several years ago.
Hops is one of four ingredients in beer, and it’s a pretty important one when it comes to taste. The perennial flower gives beer its flavor, balance and bittering component.
The three other components are water, malted barley and yeast, but without a bittering agent, beer would be “sickly sweetening and dull,” as one writer put it in an online article published by All About Beer Magazine.
Antolini, an Upshur County native who’s been farming local land now for about four decades, said his interest was piqued by the challenge of growing hops plants organically, made even trickier by West Virginia’s humid continental climate and rapidly changing weather patterns.
He’d been looking for a way to diversify his family’s Tallmansville farm, and he toyed with tomatoes and contemplated greenhouse growing but hadn’t settled on either.
“I went to a farm conference in Charleston (several) years ago, and attended an hour-long symposium or presentation,” Antolini said. “Dr. James Lewis from Farmington gave an hour-long talk on hops, and I was just absolutely enamored. I was like, ‘Holy moly, I think this could be done on the farm.’ There’s way more demand for it than could ever be filled, and then it just took off from there.”
Today, Antolini estimates he spends about 35-40 hours a week – on top of a full-time job – curating his hops plants on a 1-acre area of leased land in the Mt. Union area. The perennial climbing bines take a lot of work, but Antolini says he enjoys the challenge.
And there’s a definite local demand for the product: he sells 100-150 pounds of the most common kind of hops, the Cascade hop, to Elkins-based Big Timber Brewing Company on South Davis Avenue through his business, Hopped Up Farms LLC.
“Being a technical person, I love learning new things, and I love thinking out of the box, because people that think out of the box usually fix things,” he explained.
Antolini has worked as a mechanic at Buckhannon Toyota for a number of years, and finding unique ways to fix things is one of his passions.
“There’s not a textbook that helps you grow hops or hemp,” he said. “Well, there is a textbook about how to grow hops or how to grow hemp, but there’s not enough in it, so you’re flying by the seat of your pants.”
To the best of the 46-year-old’s knowledge, he’s the only hops farmer in Upshur County and the surrounding area. In addition to the nine types of hops he grows regularly – including Cascade, Centennial and Columbus – he’s experimenting with eight other varieties he planted just three weeks ago, which are Czechoslovakian, English and Bavarian in origin. Two experimental kinds he’s dabbling with are Fuggle and Hallertau.
“I’m doing some really cool stuff,” he said. “I really like having the freedom to think outside the box and create something cool for people to enjoy and try something that’s never been done before.
“You have to think fast because the technology is changing by the hour. It’s a very, very difficult crop to grow, primarily because of the weather.”
A self-taught hops grower, Antolini’s gathered a wealth of knowledge from resources and contacts in California and Colorado, where hops have traditionally thrived in the arid climate. When it comes to coping with rain in West Virginia, though, he’s had to do a bit of digging.
“Their climate is absolutely nothing like it is here with the dry heat. Out there, they water [hops plants] when they want to water them. Here, God waters them for me every 12 hours when they don’t need it,” he said with a chuckle.
Weathering the rapidly changing weather – and relatively frequent bouts of rain – is Antolini’s biggest challenge.
“They get overwatered and start having certain mildews that come out of the ground that jump on them,” he said, “and they’re mean. And since I grow organically, they’re 10 times harder to fight.”
Luckily, Fred’s got a “soil guy” in Elkins: Will Spencer of Environautics.
“He does a lot of cutting-edge microbial work to counteract those mildews in the soil,” Antolini said. “It’s interesting because then I can be passing that information onto the hemp farmers, and the hemp folks, at times, can pass that information back to me. It’s an absolute win-win for everybody involved.”
The link between hops and hemp?
Antolini describes the plants as “first cousins,” noting one is an ascending bine (hops), while the other isn’t (the strain of the cannabis sativa plant known as hemp). But hops being in the same plant family isn’t Antolini’s only connection to hemp.
In fact, he sells his own specialty compost to Upshur County hemp farmers, who are eagerly awaiting the official opening of Jason and Jamie Queen’s new enterprise, New Harvest Botanicals LLC – a hemp drying and processing facility in Upshur County. Hemp farmers and Antolini himself use the compost as an organic fertilizer.
“Hemp and hops are like first cousins, which makes the hemp industry coming here a double thumbs up to me,” he said.
But backing up a bit, who taught Fred how to farm in the first place?
Antolini said his grandfather, the late Bob Tallman, was the man who first planted a seed in his soul that grew into several flourishing patches of humulus lupulus.
He first got into farming with his grandfather, who he remembers as an excellent human being.
“Our family has actually been cattle farmers since I grew up, and something very different was spurred out of it,” he said. “I just liked that he and I were together all the time. He was a very, very, very good man. He and I were really close, and that’s the thing we would share, and once you get infected with that farming bug, it just doesn’t leave.”
He remembers being about six years old, driving the tractor under his grandfather’s watchful eye.
“I was just a little kid, sitting on the tractor, doing the driving because that’s what grandpas were supposed to teach their grandkids,” he recalled.
Now, every day is a learning experience for Antolini as he navigates the hops growing season, which begins in March and ends in August. The first sprouts poke out of the ground around the second week of April, but those are hollow, and per protocol, he cuts them off and waits for the second batch of shoots to emerge from the ground.
Late July and sometimes early August is harvest time, when the “beer babies,” as Antolini calls them, are ready to be plucked off the vine.
“Every variety peaks at a different time,” he explained.
For now, Antolini is only working with Big Timber but is eyeing opportunities with other breweries.
“I have a dozen that I’m in the process of working with now,” he said. “I just need to expand to meet their needs.”
Craft breweries create a constant demand for the ingredient so essential to the brewing process.
“Beer without hops is just like drinking old stale sugar water,” Antolini said with a laugh. “Rotten sugar water.”