ALNA — Down a bumpy dead-end dirt road sits a farm unlike anything the Midcoast typically sees.

Telephone poles stretching dozens of feet in the air carry wires hundreds of feet across a strange forest of vines. The farm, which almost resembles a land-based kelp forest, represents a venture into one of the fastest growing industries in Maine: Beer.

The farm is the Alna Hopyard, and each vine carries hundreds of hops – a small flower that gives beer its distinctive flavor. On Sept. 13 and 14, Oxbow Brewing in Newcastle was hard at work harvesting the plants to create its latest batch of beer, appropriately named “Harvest.”

“We’ve been harvesting here for the last three years,” said Mike Fava, head brewer for Oxbow. “You only have one opportunity a year to do it.”

As soon as its harvested, hops already start to lose some of their potency. Fresh hops will only remain fresh for around 36 hours, and every hour counts in the production of great beer. Long-term storage requires processing through an expensive pelletization process.

Several Oxbow staff and Mike Barker, owner of the Alna Hopyard, worked frantically to harvest and process the hops as quickly as possible. Back at the brewery in Newcastle, brewer Tyler Harrilko was busy brewing the beer that would be “wet-hopped” with the farm’s plants.

The work isn’t easy. Fava, and Tyler Sildbe, another Oxbow employee, go out to the field and smell each vine to make sure the hops are ready to use. Then, they pull each vine down and drag it back to the barn where the pungent aroma of hops assaults the senses. Citrus, lemon, passionfruit, pepper, and more can be discerned as the crew processes the vines.

Mike Fava (left) and Tyler Sildbe smell the hops to ensure they’re ready for use. Environmental influences like soil chemistry, sunlight, weather, and more can all affect the aroma and flavor. Staff photo by Chris Chase

To separate the useful flowers from the vine, a processing machine essentially beats the vines, pulling out the delicate flowers. Two people at a time feed the vines into what looks like an OSHA nightmare manifested – large whirring bars grab and pull the vines into the machinery. While it looks dangerous, there are safeties that make sure it’s just hops separated from vines, and not arms from people.

A series of rotating drums, fans, conveyor belts, and elbow grease eventually give rise to a growing pile of hops. Over 80 pounds will be used to make “Harvest.”

Hops bounce around in a large tumbler designed to separate them from the vine. Staff photo by Chris Chase

Fava said the opportunity to harvest their own hops locally is something that a lot of breweries don’t get. “We have a unique opportunity to be part of this,” he said.

The hops allow Oxbow to use 100 percent Maine ingredients on its beer. Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls provides the malt. It’s a product made locally by local people, fitting into the farm-to-table philosophy that Oxbow espouses.

Once the hops are processed, Fava and others box them up and bring them to the brewery, where Harrilko prepares the “coolship,” essentially a giant pan, used because it’s the largest device they have on hand.

Large boxes of hops get dumped into the device, and near-boiling hot beer is gravity-fed into the pan and circulated back out. The process imparts some of the complex flavor into the beer, though how it will taste is something even Oxbow will have to wait to find out later in the fall.

Near boiling-hot beer bubbles up into the “coolship,” which was earlier filled with 80 pounds of hops. Staff photo by Chris Chase

Barker said he took a risk with the farm because he believes that the future of beer in Maine requires local industry to support it. Hops farms require significant up-front investment, as they need large contraptions to support productive growth. Dozens of large poles with wires need to be erected to give the vines a structure to climb, and the first crop doesn’t come until three years after the vines are planted.

“It’s a risk, of course,” said Barker. “We knew that we had a great piece of land. Alna is great farmland.”

Hops, much like coffee, only grows in certain latitudes in the world. Maine happens to have prime territory to grow the sometimes finicky plant.

A relatively exhausted Barker, who worked for hours to make sure the harvest came in, spoke of the need for a local supply chain. “The strength of Maine’s beer industry is something that is going to be increasingly dependent on the local farms,” he said.

The local climate also offers a lot of opportunity. The French concept of “terroir” (directly translated as “land”), typically refers to wine, but also applies to hops in many ways. The phrase refers to the many environmental factors that contribute to the final product, under the presumption that each growing site brings unique qualities. The soil, the atmosphere around it, and the weather all contribute to the complex flavors hops can provide. Subtle differences can result in big changes to the finished product.

“It changes for a lot of different reasons. This year we have a different aroma, which is a smoky lemon aroma,” said Barker. However, after an experiment in which Barker processed the hops into a granular substance for potential storage, that aroma changed. “Just that bit can make a difference. Before it was smoky lemon, now we’re seeing passionfruit.”

Chemical analysis of the hops grown at the Alna Hopyard have been promising, showing high concentrations of favorable acids and oils. The goal is to establish Maine as a source of a unique and desirable product.

“We’re hoping to create the singularity of Maine hops,” said Barker. “To establish Maine hops as a singular unique product for beer.”

Those dreams of a growing hops industry are starting to get closer to reality. For now, though, Oxbow is happy to have a local product that will produce some unique and delicious beer.

“When this beer is ready, we’re going to be able to sit down and think of this harvest we did,” said Fava.