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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Lyndeborough once home to commercial hops industry

Jessie Salisbury

I don’t particularly like the taste of beer – it’s a bit too bitter for me – but I do like the cause of that bitter flavor: hops.

The attractive, noninvasive plant requires no care on my part, since I don’t harvest the flowers that are used in the beer. ...

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I don’t particularly like the taste of beer – it’s a bit too bitter for me – but I do like the cause of that bitter flavor: hops.

The attractive, noninvasive plant requires no care on my part, since I don’t harvest the flowers that are used in the beer.

While usually called a vine because of its climbing habits, botanically, it’s a “bine,” a clambering plant that dies down each fall. I have a stone wall covered with them. Mine probably date to the mid-1800s, when many farmers raised them as an extra source of income.

Many of those farmers also made “small beer.” Actually an ale, its low alcohol content made it preferable to frequently unsafe water. It is said that the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth rather than continue when blown off course because they had run out of beer.

Any water on the Mayflower must have been far from fresh and awful by that time.

This came to mind recently while watching the restoration of one of Lyndeborough’s oldest homes. The town history of 1905 notes the property once had a “hop house,” the structure needed to dry the flowers before they were pressed. A later owner had it torn down and replaced by a “modern” barn sometime prior to 1905.

According to an Internet source, the hop, or oast, house was two stories, with the upper floor slatted and covered with burlap to allow air circulation. A heat source was on the lower floor. When dry, the hop flowers were pressed and an oil, lupulin, was extracted.

The female hop flower resembles a little green pine cone.

Lupulin is mildly antibiotic, favors the action of the brewers’ yeast and keeps the beer from spoiling.

The earliest recorded use of hops to flavor beer in Europe was around 1100.

The hop vine can grow up to a foot a day under the right conditions and may reach 25 feet. It has a tough stem and winds itself firmly around whatever is handy. My source notes that hops vines always twist clockwise. I’ve never checked.

According to the Greenfield history, farmer Philip Fletcher raised enough hops to make it worth his while to drive his crop to Boston. It is said that on his return trip in 1795, he brought the rum that was used in the raising of the Greenfield Meetinghouse. (No building was raised without rum. A Lyndeborough “dry” advocate tried it and got little help with his barn.)

The Lyndeborough history says there were “hopyards” in town until 1860. Cider presses were used to extract the oil, including at the farm of Deacon Jones, whose house I was watching being restored. Hopyards require a lot of sun, good soil and a support on which the vines grow. These supports were usually like teepees, the vines planted in a circle with poles meeting at the top.

As with most of our early agricultural products, hops grow much better somewhere else. Most are now grown commercially in western Washington and Oregon.

I won’t make any beer, but the vines are kind of fun to have around – a little bit of history. We don’t have a lot of it left.

Keep up with the past with Another Perspective, which runs every other Sunday in The Telegraph. Jessie Salisbury can be reached at 654-9704 or jessies@tellink.net.