Take a drive along Jackson County's Shawnee Hills Wine Trail this time of year, and you're sure to see rows of Chambourcin or Chardonnel grapes ripening on the vine in the late summer sun. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the ever-expanding wine industry in Southern Illinois. Glance over to your left about a mile along Illinois 127, heading south, and you'll likely spot something quite unusual for this otherwise grape-heavy landscape.
Rising above a grassy hill, rows of Cascade and Chinook tower nearly 18 feet in the air on a massive trellis system, and you realize quickly that you're not looking at a vineyard and these are not grapes.
You've caught a glimpse of Southern Illinois' first commercial-scale hop farm.
Windy Hill Farm is a true labor of love for proprietors Jen and Matt McCarroll and their two daughters, ages 9 and 3. The McCarrolls have a vision to bring back the era of the small family farm through sustainable practices and an emphasis on quality products, which include organic vegetables, herbs and, of course, hops.
"We have long been interested in the local food movement and organic foods. As vegetarians, we have always tried to be informed about the contents and production methods of the foods we eat," says Matt, an associate professor of chemistry at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Matt's wife, Jen, is a research associate working in geographic information systems at LSU. Both are longtime home brewers.
A move to Idaho in 1994 for graduate school prompted Jen and Matt to begin to explore the possibilities of harnessing this love for all things organic with one of their other passions - beer. Moving to Southern Illinois several years later gave them the resources and the resolve to bring these two interests together in tangible form.
"I have always embellished connections between my profession and my hobby of beer. I am an analytical chemist," Matt says. "It is actually surprising how naturally home brewing and being a chemist go together; there is a lot of chemistry in brewing. In fact, I am exploring possibilities of teaching an introductory course on the chemistry of beer for students of any background. It is a great way to teach a little bit of chemistry while educating folks about beer."
Speaking of an education, the derecho that struck Southern Illinois in the spring of last year taught the McCarrolls that they could do something unique with their farmland situated at the entrance of the wine trail.
"We have about 10 acres of land, and we found ourselves mowing about three acres as lawn," Matt says "We both began to feel frustrated with the amount of time and fossil fuel consumption it took to maintain the property. Cleaning up from the May 2009 storm was a catalyst for change, and we decided to try to find a better way to utilize our land. We knew we wanted to grow something that would be sustainable, organically produced and more useful than grass clippings."
And so they did. Hops provided the perfect vehicle to meet this multi-faceted objective. But what are hops, anyway?
Hops are the cone-shaped flower of the female humulus lupulus plant, a climbing perennial that has been used in beer brewing since the first century. Native to south central Europe, the plant was introduced in the United States by early colonists and is now most widely associated with the Pacific Northwest region of the country, specifically Washington, Oregon and Idaho, where nearly 100 percent of its domestic commercial production originates. In the last several years, in particular, farmers in other states have begun hop farming as well.
"Many of the stereotypes about where hops could grow turned out to be inaccurate. We found out that the main criteria for hop production is that they need a minimum of 120 frost-free days, and the length of day must be long in the summer. We have found several new hop startups in Wisconsin, Colorado and North Carolina. Even more importantly, we discovered that because hops grow vertically, it is a high production per acre crop. Since hop yards are measured in acres, not hundreds of acres, it is something compatible with the size of our farm," according to Matt.
While hops are predominantly used for beer making, they have also been used in a myriad of other applications, such as flavoring for foods and beverages, an herbal remedy, a cleanser in shampoo and an antibacterial agent in deodorant to a stuffing for pillows because of the long-held notion that hops promote relaxation. For all of their peripheral uses, however, hops are clearly most at home in beer. They provide the bitterness that's necessary to balance the sweet flavor of malt; they impart distinct flavor and aroma characteristics, while serving as a natural antibacterial agent, as well.
Like grapes, hops come in a dizzying array of varieties - more than 70 as of this printing - and all have their own unique purpose and place in brewing the world's 140-plus recognized beer styles. Some varieties are described as earthy or herbal, while others may be grassy, floral or citrus-like. Some traditional beer styles call for the use of one particular hop variety, such as the Czech Pilsner and saaz (pronounced "zahts") hop, and others use a combination of hops to provide just right levels of bitterness, aroma and flavor to beer.
The hop varieties the McCarrolls grow are unique in their own ways.
"The cascade hop is a variety somewhat unique among hops because it has essential oils not present in other hop species. These extra oils give it a unique floral/citrus aroma that is identified with American pale ales, Sierra Nevada being the best example," Matt says.
Chinook, the other hop variety at Windy Hill, is characterized by its distinctive pine-like character. It is often used to add bitterness to beer by adding it early in the boiling phase of brewing.
When asked about the place of hops in Southern Illinois' wine country, the McCarrolls are not shy about sharing their take on the matter.
"We are both mystified by the notion that people are labeled as wine drinkers or beer drinkers," Matt says. "When asked this question, I am reminded by my high school physics teacher's favorite non sequitur, 'Did you walk to school or bring your lunch?' We have been happy about the growth of the wine industry in Southern Illinois, but have been absolutely puzzled by the lack of microbreweries in the area over our decade of living here. I believe this is soon to change, and we hope our local hops can be a part of bringing a brewing revolution to Southern Illinois."
While Windy Hill Farm is not open to the public, the McCarrolls are exploring ways to get their organically conscious products in the hands of local consumers and, of course, brewers. In fact, St. Louis Brewery Inc., otherwise known as Schlafly, has expressed interest in working with the McCarrolls to create a test batch of a special beer style made from just-picked hops.
There's no doubt that Windy Hill Farm will not only be at the forefront of the brewing revolution in Southern Illinois, but its dedication to sustainability and locally sourced products will positively impact the entire region. And we can all say cheers to that!
SHAWN CONNELLY will be writing a regular column, Cheers to Beer, in every magazine.