Despite being past peak season, the green columns of hop plants at Polk-Sharp Farm filled the balmy fall air with a mild citrus scent that quickly amplified as John Elkins ’11 & ’14 gingerly plucked a flower from a plant twining well above his head and pulled it apart with his fingers.
“Do you see these little yellow spots at the base?” Elkins asked, while pointing to pinpricks of color at the base of the flower’s bracts. “Those are lupulin glands that contain the aroma-producing oil.”
For beer brewers and enthusiasts alike, the sharp, slightly bitter smell is unmistakable. Varied combinations of hops, grain, yeast and water have been used for millennia to create the alcoholic beverage that remains ubiquitous to this day.
Elkins said he initially didn’t plan to grow hops on the roughly 200-acre family farm in San Augustine County that he manages today, but an article he read in “The Old Farmers Almanac” piqued his interest.
“I actually asked Dr. Leon Young his opinion about growing the crop,” Elkins said, referring to Dr. Leon Young, former Stephen F. Austin State University professor of agriculture. “We were going to conduct some trials out here, but he passed away before we could get started.”
Despite the loss of his mentor and friend in December 2016, Elkins moved forward with his first attempt, which he admits was a shaky start.
“I made a bunch of small mistakes along the way that added up to one big failure,” Elkins said. “I started with 100 hop plants and had five still alive at the end of the year.”
While some may have interpreted this as a sign to pursue another crop, Elkins was unfazed.
“You just have to be able to change,” he said. “That’s the thing about being a farmer — every day is different. If you can’t adapt, you fail.”
Armed with an electric cooler in hand, Elkins then set out for North Carolina to obtain his next set of rhizomes, the rootstock from which hop plants grow. Roughly one year later, the once thumb-sized rhizomes had taken root and produced Elkins’ first successful harvest.
According to the Brewers Association, the nonprofit trade association dedicated to small and independent American brewers, Texas ranks eighth in the nation for its number of craft breweries. The oldest of these Texas craft breweries is Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing Company.
When Elkins learned that the brewery also hosts a farmers market, he seized the opportunity.
“John approached me at the farmers market and actually had a container full of his hops,” said Colin Klingemann, lead brewer responsible for special projects at Saint Arnold Brewing Company. “Me being the guy that’s always looking for local and fresh ingredients, I was immediately on board.”
Klingemann said he and Elkins then spent the next several hours engaged in a conversation about hops and new hops products produced in the Yakima Valley region of Washington state, the nation’s leading producer of hops.
Because the majority of hops used in brewing are pelletized rather than fresh, Klingemann said this was his first opportunity to handle fresh cascade hops, the variety grown by Elkins and used in a number of the brewery’s beers.
“I learned a lot about fresh hops conducting the 2016 hops selection for Saint Arnold in Germany and the Czech Republic,” Klingemann said. “When John brought me his hops, the only word that comes to mind is juicy — they had this really peachy juiciness.”
After the initial meeting, representatives from Saint Arnold made the two-and-a-half hour drive from Houston to San Augustine to carefully select each hop from the vine.
Ultimately, 10 pounds of Elkins’ best hops were collected and used to brew Fresh Hop Elissa IPA, a limited-edition beer available to brewery visitors.
While Elkins did taste the final product, he said he doesn’t drink any more. He is far more interested in the science and environmental nuances that shape the flavor and quality of his crop, rather than imbibing in the final-brewed product itself.
He maintains an exhaustive record of soil composition, topography and water requirements within his growing area and regularly uses SFA’s Soil, Plant and Water Analysis Laboratory for insight into the invisible factors like micronutrients that determine plant growth, production and taste.
“That’s one experiment on that side,” he said, motioning to a section of a row. “The soil is different within a span of feet.”
With his first successful harvest complete, Elkins, who specialized in agricultural engineering technology at SFA, is looking ahead to next season and researching ways to improve the efficiency of subsequent harvests, as well the potential agricultural applications of hops that dry on the vine and are unsuitable for brewing.
“My bother, Benjamin, who also is an SFA alumnus, is an engineer and with our mechanical backgrounds we should be able to make a cheaper automated picker than commercially available that can harvest the hops on the full-height trellis without cutting them down,” Elkins said. “Then I can have multiple harvests in a year.”
Multiple harvests from the Polk-Sharp Farm are an exciting prospect for Klingemann.
“It’s a really cool opportunity, and I think the big thing for us is supporting local agriculture,” Klingemann said. “I hope that we can move forward with this relationship and allow John to grow his business even larger so other breweries in the state can purchase from him.”
In addition to hops, representatives from Saint Arnold also harvested 50 pounds of pears from a tree on Elkins’ property to incorporate into another limited-edition beer available at the brewery.
The land tended by Elkins is closing in on its 125th year as a state-certified working farm. Although the crops have changed during the past century, the family’s love of farming the land has remained consistent throughout generations.
“My business card says ‘old roots, new beginnings’,” Elkins said. “If you cut a rhizome and give it to someone else, they technically don’t know how old the plant is, because while the rhizome produces new growth, the rhizome itself could have been harvested from a much older plant.”
Elkins said that is how he views his new venture. From more than a century of deeply established roots at the Polk-Sharp Farm, brand new growth has risen.