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Hops on Lots — a win-win for beer lovers and neighborhoods

| Wednesday, July 19, 2017, 10:18 a.m.
From left: Pete Bell, Joe Chmielewski and Phoebe Armstrong-Mone are the team behind Hops on Lots, a project to grow hops on urban sites around Pittsburgh.
Chris Fleisher
From left: Pete Bell, Joe Chmielewski and Phoebe Armstrong-Mone are the team behind Hops on Lots, a project to grow hops on urban sites around Pittsburgh.
Hop plants climb a retaining wall in Stanton Heights on July 6.
Chris Fleisher
Hop plants climb a retaining wall in Stanton Heights on July 6.
Pete Bell, left, and Joe Chmielewski prune hop plants in Stanton Heights on July 6.
Chris Fleisher
Pete Bell, left, and Joe Chmielewski prune hop plants in Stanton Heights on July 6.

Every now and then, Pete Bell comes across a blighted city lot that no developer wants to touch and wonders whether it could be a hop farm.

“Hops are kind of easy to grow,” Bell said one recent afternoon at a retaining wall in Stanton Heights. “They grow vertically, which is ideal for urban settings.”

It doesn't matter how unconventional the site. Hops — the flowering plant that provides beer with its bitterness and floral aroma — can thrive just about anywhere with ample sun. And for anyone who wants to beautify industrial sites, Bell has a proposition: Let him put some hop rhizomes in the ground and create a cash crop for the community.

Bell is one-third of the team behind Hops on Lots, a kind of urban redevelopment project that is attempting to unite Pittsburgh's craft beer industry with urban agriculture. The idea is to establish hop yards in vacant lots around the city, then partner with local brewers who will use them in their beer and share the proceeds with the communities where they are grown.

The project, which Bell manages with friends Joe Chmielewski and Phoebe Armstrong-Mone, was launched in the spring 2016 with the planting of 78 hop rhizomes at the Stanton Heights retaining wall. The effort expanded this spring when they put some plants in Larimer's community garden and started a 1-acre farm in West Middletown, Washington County.

Hops on Lots represents the shared local-first ideals common among urban gardeners and craft breweries, both of which have been important to reviving blighted properties in Pittsburgh and other communities across the nation.

The Stanton Heights project began when the local neighborhood association contacted Bell — who had been tossing around the idea of growing hops in a community beer garden for some time. The association had recently been awarded a grant to beautify this embarrassing “gateway” to the neighborhood that sits near the intersection of Stanton and McCandless avenues. Hops could be a kind of leafy curtain for the wall .

The hops may play a role in helping to address another problem: controlling stormwater flowing into the street. Eventually, Bell hopes to use stormwater to feed an irrigation system for the hops and other plants around the wall.

“We are excited that irrigation for the hops is offering the possibility of further stormwater capture at this site,” said Lissa Geiger Shulman, the neighborhood association's president. “This is in addition to our original plans for rain garden installation, and a huge asset to add to the site.”

On a recent damp Thursday afternoon, Bell and Chmielewski were busy weeding and snipping stray tendrils at the wall's base as cars blew by on Stanton Avenue, ignoring the posted 25 mph speed limit. The hop vines spiraled up twine strung at least 10 feet up the metal wall, covering rusted steel in verdant green.

“It was unsightly, as you can tell,” Bell said. “It's a rusted out retaining wall and the city has no plans to do any renovations to it in the foreseeable future.”

The plants had not yet begun to produce the flowery hop “cones,” but they should begin appearing within a month and will be ready for picking by late summer.

Last year, they produced a modest crop weighing around 5 pounds, which was then added to a pale ale brewed by Roundabout Brewery in Lawrenceville. The proceeds from the beer's sale — $250 — were split between Hops on Lots and the neighborhood association.

This year, Bell is hoping for double the harvest to give Roundabout brewer Steve Sloan.

Sloan said he is eager to brew with the Stanton Heights hops again, but early on, he was skeptical.

He says supporting local is great ... if the local product is great.

“I always have quality concerns with raw materials of course,” Sloan said in an email. “But the main question was not over flavor concerns, rather more concern over potency since they would be first year hops which are known to be a little flat.”

He was pleasantly surprised. The Cascade and Centennial hops had a distinct “terroir” that contributed soft grassy and citrus flavors to the pale ale, with a bit of earthiness, he said.

But the bigger challenge for Hops on Lots isn't getting buy-in from breweries — it's getting the city development officials and neighborhood groups on board.

There's a lot of education involved, explaining what a hop plant is, how it grows along a trellis system, and whether the plants attracts pests. There's also a long-term commitment that people don't want to make. Hops are perennials and will grow more vigorous with time, and while Hops on Lots is offering to get the project going, they want the community eventually to take over its care.

It's a big commitment — not just a summer or two, but a decade or more — and that's too much for some people.

“I have to tell somebody that we have to wait three years before we get a definitive yield and then we can make market on this,” Chmielewski said. “I don't know how much we're going to get, we don't know how much we're going to produce, we don't know what the soil is going to produce and that's really hard to pitch to a community board meeting.”

They're hoping that Stanton Heights, Larimer and the farm in Washington County can help allay some of these concerns by offering a proof of concept, something community development officials can touch and see for themselves.

They also plan to work with an environmental consultant to test whether hops can help remove contaminants from the soil, which would only further bolster their case.

“Communities are saying, especially with highly leaded vacant lots in their community and they don't know what to do with them and people don't want to buy or build because of all the regulations, put in some hops,” Bell said.

Chris Fleisher hopes that he can get down to Roundabout this fall to taste Stanton Hops beer, crossing his fingers that it doesn't sell out in an afternoon like last year.

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