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On Tap: A Brew That Honors Fred

Nobody knows why Fred picked the hops. Tim Wilson figures it was simply something for him to do. Fred’s wife died during the harvest season in 2004 and a chore may have been something to keep him occupied during a difficult time.

Fred Berg, of Norwich, picks hops in front of the brewery at the Norwich Inn on Oct. 4, 2004. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Fred Berg, of Norwich, picks hops in front of the brewery at the Norwich Inn on Oct. 4, 2004. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

During the late summer harvest years ago, guests at the Norwich Inn would have seen an older man sitting outside the brewhouse, plucki ng hops.

His name was Fred Berg. A Navy fighter pilot in World War II, Fred lived his retirement years in a home across the street from the inn. He visited often when Tim and Sally Wilson renovated the building in 1991, and when Tim Wilson planted hop plants two years later, Fred offered his free labor.

“He did most of the picking,” Wilson recalled. “He would pick and pick and pick until his fingers were black with resin.”

Fred died in 2009 at age 88, and Wilson has since moved on from brewing in Norwich, having sold the inn seven years ago. But Fred is still remembered fondly by longtime employees, and soon, the ale house will put on tap a tribute to the man who harvested all those pounds of hops.

“Fred’s Pick” is an English Bitter made with the hops that Wilson planted 20 years ago, and which continue to climb every summer up a trellis tucked behind the parking lot. Paralleling the trend toward local food, there has been a growing interest in using locally grown hops and, more recently, local malted grain in producing beers to create something with truly New England flavors. The University of Vermont Extension has started a program to revive commercial hop production in Vermont, once the second largest hop producer in the nation, with a goal of serving the exploding number of brewers in the state. But while that program develops, breweries such as the Norwich Inn have experimented with their own hop yards.

Jeremy Hebert tends to the Norwich Inn’s plants now. He was hired as the head brewer three years ago and never knew Fred, but he knows the man’s story and decided to continue a semi-annual tradition begun by Wilson of using the hops in a beer. In so doing, he has created something unique, something that could never be replicated, even by him. The flavors and aromas imparted by the hops change with each season, determined by weather patterns and cross-breeding between varieties Wilson planted in 1993.

More than imparting freshness of flavor, brewing with homegrown hops is a challenge to the brewer, as you never quite know what you’re going to get.

“I love variety and I like difference,” Hebert told me one recent afternoon at the brewhouse. “It’s kind of fun to see what you’re going to get year-to-year.”

The 2013 variation has a decidedly more modest hop character than last year’s, Hebert said, which was like a punch to the nose. Hebert said it delivered a blast of hops, and was like a low-strength IPA.

That is not the case this year. His English Bitter is slightly stronger in alcohol, though still modest at only 4.5 percent, and gives off an herbal and spicy hop aroma. It’s a very balanced, light golden-colored beer, with a slightly toasted malt body and dry finish.

Hebert used the hops “wet” rather than drying and storing them for later. But this technique can be tough to pull off, requiring the brewer to use the hops within 24 hours of harvesting.

Some people talk down wet-hop beers, complaining that they have a grassy aroma of fresh lawn clippings. I’ve noted this in several wet-hop beers I’ve tasted, but not the one Hebert made. Rather, his simply tastes fresh, and the difference between his bitter and one you might buy off the shelf is like the difference between a bouquet of flowers picked from the field and one from a florist. Both are nice, but the first offers something a little brighter.

Wilson dried his hops, but even then, he said, “you could taste the freshness.”

Nobody knows why Fred picked the hops. Wilson figures it was simply something for him to do. Fred’s wife died during the harvest season in 2004 and having a chore may have been something to keep him occupied during a difficult time.

Or, maybe he just appreciated the harvest and the role he served in making something unique, something that could never be made anywhere else at any other time, and that tasted fresh and young.

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Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.