Elgin man hopes to attract brewery interest in his hops project

  • Elgin resident Robert Denwood is growing all-natural hops in his gardens and hopes a local brewery will want to get involved in his experiment.

    Elgin resident Robert Denwood is growing all-natural hops in his gardens and hopes a local brewery will want to get involved in his experiment. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 5/1/2017 5:41 PM

If you read Robert Denwood's "Elgin Hops Project" blog, you'll see phrases like "stored carbon sugars from photosynthetic processes" and "breaking atmospheric C02 and binding carbon back into the soil."

But really, it's all very simple, the Elgin resident says -- mix a bunch of seeds, scatter them about, and see if great beer comes out of it.

 

"I am really not an expert," he said. "You could say I don't know what I'm doing. We'll see."

Denwood, a part-time firefighter/paramedic in Hampshire, launched his experiment in March to show that one can grow great crops with methods that are natural, cheap and easy. He figured if he hooked his project to hops, he might attract interest from the ever-increasing craft beer-loving public.

"Craft beer is hip," he said. "The environment is not that hip. Or not as much."

One goal is to enlist the help of a brewery to do a "taste test" to compare beer brewed from traditional hops and beer brewed from his hops.

Robert Denwood planted his hops April 3 and is happy they are growing faster than anticipated in his Elgin backyard.
Robert Denwood planted his hops April 3 and is happy they are growing faster than anticipated in his Elgin backyard. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Denwood's hops, planted April 3, already have sprouted, faster than anticipated and much to his delight. "Is it exciting," he said.

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He and his wife, Jamie, who are raising their 14-month old daughter, Ivy, have long cooked vegetables grown in their backyard. His wife is a vegetarian, and Denwood, who eats a plant-based diet, is used to his fellow firefighters making fun of him for eating "rabbit food."

But it's precisely his job that spurred his project, he said.

"People aren't getting healthier. There's all these 40-year-olds with heart problems and diabetes," he said.

Diet has a huge effect on health, but it all starts with the soil, because the healthier the soil, the better it is for the environment and the crops it yields, Denwood said.

Denwood, who blogs at elginhopsproject.blogspot.com, is basing his experiment on the concept "polyculture," a form of agriculture that calls for multiple crops planted in the same space, which helps the soil's biodiversity, he said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Robert Denwood, a firefighter/paramedic in Hampshire, said great food comes from great soil.
Robert Denwood, a firefighter/paramedic in Hampshire, said great food comes from great soil. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

He did a lot of research at the library, including reads such as "Restoration Agriculture" by Mark Shepard and "The Soil Will Save Us" by Kristin Ohlson. Once he learned the concepts, the execution was very simple, he said.

He rented a rototiller, scattered "cover crops" -- sometimes called "green manure" -- or a mix of clovers, beans, beets, radish and more, and covered them with thick straw mulch. About two weeks later, he planted the hops by inserting them in random spots in the mulch.

He is staying away from chemicals and is not doing any weeding. Instead, he planted a separate plot with aromatics -- lavender, camomile, sage and more -- that attract beneficial insects and also can be used as beer additives, he said.

Total cost? About $300 in seeds and hops, plus the $50 to rent the rototiller. He also built a $350 fence, but he was going to do that anyway. He hopes to have his first crop of hops in August or September, he said.

"I want to get involved with a brewery in the area," he said. "I hope they'll be interested."

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