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Home | Business | Business News | Amid the vineyards, an organic hop farm takes root and grows on the North Fork
Craft Master Hops owners Pat Libutti and Marcos Ribeiro, center, in the field on the Mattituck farm last month. Photo: Katharine Schroeder

Amid the vineyards, an organic hop farm takes root and grows on the North Fork

It’s been a huge first season for Craft Master Hops, the organic hop farm in Mattituck planted a year ago with 12 acres of four different varieties. (See prior story.)

Owners Marcos Ribeiro and Pat Libutti have been going nonstop ever since. They grew and harvested “thousands of pounds” of hops, took brewers on tours of their operation — and sold their product to Greenport Harbor Brewery, Moustache Brewery and Blue Point, among others.

But even as they met the challenge of managing the farm — no small task in itself — they gained approval from the town to build a large barn to house the equipment that would pick, dry, pelletize and store their hops.

The view from atop the harvester as the machinery did its work. Courtesy photo

The view from atop the harvester as the machinery did its work. Courtesy photo

They took delivery on a 10,000-pound harvester shipped from Germany and put it together inside the barn. They built an oversized dryer, set up a pelletizer and constructed a large walk-in refrigerator for storage.

Craft Master also got its certification as an organic grower from New York State this year.

And now, Ribeiro and Libutti are preparing the remaining six acres of land for planting, installing the 600-pound, 25-foot Tamarack Larch logs for the trellis needed to support the 18-foot-tall hop vines that will be growing there next spring.

They are also preparing to plant barley on leased acreage not far from their 20-acre hop farm.

Where and when will they build the brewery?

Libutti laughs and raises a finger to his pursed lips. “Sssh,” he jokes.

Pat Libutti, left, and Marcos Ribeiro inside the storage and processing barn at Craft Master Hops in Mattituck, with the 10,000-pound harvester they had shipped from Germany. Photo: Katharine Schroeder

Pat Libutti, left, and Marcos Ribeiro inside the storage and processing barn at Craft Master Hops in Mattituck, with the 10,000-pound harvester they had shipped from Germany. Photo: Katharine Schroeder

“It was hard,” Ribeiro said of the first season, “intensely hard.”

They cleared the land last fall, put in the poles, planted seedlings — and prayed.

The seedlings overwintered well and the growing season began.

“It was a learning experience,” Libutti said. “We did better than most guys their first year. Most growers in their first year harvest a negligible amount.”

But the Mattituck hop yard did well in spite of their learning curve.

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Marcos Ribeiro, center, with Blue Point Brewery representatives during the harvest. Courtesy photo

Brewers who came to tour the yard and later check the harvested hops liked what they saw.

“The hops were really nice,” said Greenport Harbor Brewery owner Rich Vandenburgh. He bought some of Craft Masters’ wet hops and the brewery incorporated them into its fresh hop beer.

“The feedback we got was it was really nice beer,” Vandenburgh said.

“Their operation is really impressive,” he said. “They will potentially be the largest single hop farm in New York state.”

The beer is now being served in both of the brewery’s locations, Vandenburgh said. It will only be available till the end of the month.

Libutti and Ribeiro are like proud parents as they give a tour of their farm. One morning last month, workers were busy rooting 60,000 cuttings taken from two of the varieties they grew this year. Once rooted, they will be planted on the additional acreage, where the trellis system is now under construction. One or two new varieties will also be planted there.

“The chinook smells like lemon zest,” Ribeiro said of one of the varieties from which they took cuttings for the new acreage. “That’s unique to the terroir. They don’t get that in the northwest,” he said.

“Next year we’re going to pick certain varieties earlier,” Libutti added. “It will have a different flavor — more melon, less earthy. That will be a craze,” he said, grinning.

Both enjoy showing off the complex array of machinery that harvests and processes the bines from the plants after they’re cut from the field. They have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in it, buying more capacity than they need. While that allows room for growth, it also is designed to produce better hops.

Craft Master Hops is adding six more acres for the coming season. Trellis support poles are being installed and cuttings are being rooted for planting in the field over the next few weeks. Photo: Katharine Schroeder

Craft Master Hops is adding six more acres for the coming season. Trellis support poles are being installed and cuttings are being rooted for planting in the field over the next few weeks. Photo: Katharine Schroeder

“It’s all about the quality,” Libutti said. Organic production produces a higher-quality hop to begin with, he explained. “Without spraying, the hops get different oils.”

Their entire post-harvest approach is aimed at attaining a higher quality end result, Libutti said. He pointed to the drying process they use as an example.

“Most growers dry their hops in drawers with a propane heater. That’s quicker – overnight — but it removes the essential oils,” he said.

By using a slower process, drying in large custom-built boxes with an enormous dehumidifier, “we preserve the essential oils. It takes one to four days, depending on the weather.” But it’s worth it, he said. “It keeps the quality of the hop really high. We call the process Flavor-lock,” Libutti said.

“We’re doing things in a different way for the quality of the product,” he said.

The result of their effort has not gone unnoticed, even in their first season.

“They’re doing great work,” Greenport Harbor’s Vandenburg said, adding he’s looking forward to buying pelletized hops from Craft Master, too.

“It’s such an integral part of what our craft industry is,” he said. “We’re totally behind them and will do anything we can do to support them.”

SoutholdLOCAL photos by Katharine Schroeder