HILLSBOROUGH, N.J. (AP) — Farm-to-table cuisine is a well-known food trend in which locally grown produce is used seasonally by chefs to create an authentic hometown taste.
But now, in Central Jersey, there is a new trend — farm to tap.
It’s a natural partnership: A craft brewer using a farmer’s locally grown hops to create a beer with a unique “Jersey Fresh” taste.
That’s why Jeremy Lees of Flounder Brewing in Hillsborough and Anthony Verdi of Sky High Hops in the Three Bridges section of Readington have partnered on producing beer that has earned the label of Jersey Fresh because it is made entirely with New Jersey ingredients.
“I had spoken back in February at the New Jersey Agricultural Convention about brewing and farming in New Jersey and one of my talking points was seeing the young hop growers start to utilize the Jersey Fresh program and how important that program is in promoting New Jersey agriculture and it should help promote New Jersey hop farms starting up,” Lees told the Courier News (http://mycj.co/2fmOMHO).
Verdi is the 24-year-old owner of Sky High Hops, a 700-plant hop yard on his parents’ 65-acre horse farm, Sage Hill Farm. This is the second year that he has been growing hops, which can reach 20 feet in height, for other breweries, including Lone Eagle in Flemington and Triumph in Princeton, cideries, distilleries and home brewers.
A graduate of the University of Delaware with a degree in environmental engineering, Verdi has a full-time job in the environmental field, but taking care of his hops “has become a second full-time job.” He estimates he spends 30 to 40 hours a week tending to his hops with a devout respect of nature and a dedicated attention to the details of agriculture.
“We take time every day to treat each plant with love and care and groom our yard meticulously to ensure our plants grow healthy and strong,” Verdi said.
Though there are 700 plants, “it feels like even more,” Verdi said. “I’m out here every day.”
Before his first growing season, Verdi used horse manure from his parents’ farm to prepare the soil. After carefully testing the soil, he added fertilizer and he checked the sun’s daily trajectory to make sure the plants received the maximum amount of sunlight. He even studied the yard’s air flow
“It’s really complex,” Verdi said. “I did a lot of research.”
And the work is not done. Before Verdi expands his crops, “I want to make sure it’s 100 percent.”
According to All About Beer magazine, there are only three essential ingredients to beer — malted barley, yeast and water. But beer brewed with only those ingredients would be enjoyed mainly for its alcoholic impact, and not its taste. That’s where hops enter the brewing process.
By adding bitterness, hops balance the sweetness in beer created by the fermentation of the grain. Hops also give beers their unique flavors and aromas.
Craft beer devotees talk about their favorite brews in the same detail that once only oenophiles used to describe their favorite wines.
The essence of brewing’s art is the selection and deployment of hops. What hops a brewer chooses and when he deploys them in the brewing process determines the beer’s taste. The quality and variety of hops is as important to the brewer as the quality of a grape is to the vintner.
For example, Cascade hops, one of the main varieties at Sky High Hops, play an important role in American-style pale ales or IPAs with its flowery, spicy taste with a hint of grapefruit.
Chinnok, another hop grown at Sky High, has a fresh pine flavor and aroma with a fruity subtlety that makes it essential for American ales.
Lees, who lives near Sky High Hops in Raritan Township, could not contain his curiosity last year when, as he was driving on nearby Route 202, he saw Verdi’s first growth of hops.
He investigated and soon he and Verdi had struck up a partnership.
Lees, whose Flounder Brewing occupies two units in an industrial building at I Ilene Court off Stryker Lane in Hillsborough, is typical of the microbrewing explosion.
Lees confesses that he is “obsessed” with beer and microbrewing. He and his then girlfriend used to take vacations to visit breweries so it was only natural that he proposed to her in a brewery.
What was once touted as New Jersey’s smallest licensed “nano” brewery has turned into the sort of success story most home brewers dream about.
Brewing started as a hobby with his brothers in a small Morristown apartment (Flounder’s Hill Street Honey Ale is a homage to the address), moved to their grandmother’s garage in Lyndhurst and now has turned into a serious full-time job for Lees with part-time employees.
“People are lining up for our beer,” Lees said. “A lot of people enjoy the experience.”
He has a simple but elegant business philosophy. “What’s our hope?” he said. “It’s that every time you crack open our beer; you’ll have a good time, take a moment for yourself and enjoy the people around you.”
The Hill Street Honey Ale is the “flagship” of the brewery which produces 300 barrels (31 gallons each) a year. “It’s the favorite of all the big hops fans,” he said.
Another favorite is the Hop Harvest Ale, in which Verdi’s crops play a starring role.
Depending on the time of the year and the demand, Flounder regularly produces about a dozen varieties, which are available during tastings and tours.
Flounder is open for tours 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, 4 to 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday for growler fills and tastings. Founder is also available on tap at The Landing, Chimney Rock Inn, Tapastre, Big Heads, Fox & Hound, Northside Lounge, Tavern on the Lake and Sol Mexican Cantina
Flounder also produces “one-offs” for special occasions like a wetdown for the Flagtown Fire Company or Clinton Firehouse Beerfest. The beers will also be featured at NJ Beer Night at the Somerset Hills Hotel in Warren on Sept. 28 and the Morristown Big Beer Brewfest at the Morristown Armory on Oct. 7.
“We’re still growing,” Lees said.
— MIKE DEAK, Courier News