Following the road less traveled, he found himself in a Hops Field
Farmer and business owner Doug Weber inspects the seven miles of airplane cable used to support his hops vines.
Photos by Douglas Foulke
Doug Weber navigates along the winding roads of Morris. He is wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of field-worn jeans. We chat as he drives to the hardware store for a few parts to get his irrigation system running. Earlier in the day he and his team at Pioneer Hops transplanted young hops from the nursery to the fields and the new plants need a good drink of water.
Five years ago, today might have seemed like a distant dream. After a career in media sales in Manhattan, Weber decided he needed a change. A fervent beer aficionado and local food enthusiast, he turned for inspiration to the then nascent craft-brew industry blossoming in Connecticut. It was 2013 and there were only 12 breweries in Connecticut but Weber wanted to be a part of what seemed to be a growth industry. And so he set out learning everything there is to know about hops farming.
He began reaching out to brewers around the state, asking whether they would be interested in local hops. The response was the same across the board, they absolutely would, but under no circumstances would they be willing to lower their quality standards just to purchase locally. “Managing client expectations has always been a challenge,” Weber says. If he was going to make this work, he’d need to get it right.
Fast forward to today, Weber is the sales agent for his own farm plus the three others in the state, including Smokedown Farm in Sharon. Together, they supply hops to Connecticut’s rapidly expanding market of craft breweries.
Weber grows three varieties of hops: Cascade, Chinook, and Centennial. The first two varieties turned out to be so unique and superior in flavor that Weber was able to patent his own varieties, CONNcade and CONNnook.
One of the secrets to the success of his hops is the drying method. Weber’s hops are never subjected to heat. Instead, pumped air and a dehumidifier do the job. It takes longer this way, but Weber is sure that this is what helps maintain the remarkable pungency of his crop.
Throughout 2014 and into 2015 Weber and his team worked tirelessly, preparing the land they rent from South Farms in Morris and constructing trellises with seven miles of airplane cable to support their crops. Each year the hops must be retrained in the spring and the weeds and runners sent out by the hops themselves constantly maintained. In 2017, most of Weber’s Chinook crop was wiped out by downy mildew, and there’s always the threat of pests.
But that’s just how farming goes and none of it seems to be slowing Weber down. Having conquered the commercial market, he is beginning to open up the supply line to homebrewers. The single criterion: they absolutely must be in Connecticut.
Weber credits much of this success to the teams he’s built over Pioneer’s handful of seasons.“We’ve been really lucky throughout the years, this year particularly, finding really good people to work for us.”
Weber has been on the lookout for the right situation to increase his crops. He’d like to add another 20 acres but so far the perfect piece of land to work has not materialized. Weber is patient and optimistic. The market in Connecticut is poised to continue its massive growth and Pioneer plans to grow right alongside. “What we’re creating are unique brewing ingredients that you just can’t find anywhere else.” By following his passions for locally sourced ingredients and a love of quality craft beer, Doug Weber and Pioneer have helped establish a new era in the Connecticut craft brew industry.