Monday, May 16, 2016

Backyard Full of Nature

Late Sunday afternoon I took a walk into the right of way behind the house.  I wanted to check out where the power company had recently cleared (post here) because I have been thinking about sowing some wild flowers there, and perhaps putting in a bee hive.

As I walked down the hill, I started hearing the sounds of something moving through the wood lot.  It was just rustling leaves on the ground, and not very loud, so I thought it could just be a squirrel, or maybe a browsing deer - although that wasn't very likely.

But suddenly right in front of me a young bear popped out into the clearing - not 20 feet away.  He didn't see me, so I had time to get my phone and snap off a couple of photos.

As it happens, I'd seen him last weekend down at the stream, but I was too far away to get a photo.  This time it all worked out.  Afterwards, I made a lot of noise so he would look back at me, and maybe to scare him off.

It's not the first time I've seen a youngster around the yard, but it has been a few years - 2009, in fact, as documented in this post!  They stop in the neighborhood, and as long as they aren't encouraged to stick around, generally move on after a few days.  I hope that's what happened with this fellow.

The distraction meant I didn't make any progress on my plan for bee hives.  But Mother Nature wasn't quite finished with me yet - as I came back near the house I discovered a shed snakeskin.  It was a pretty decent size, about four feet long, left by a black rat snake.

This is a critter we see around here much more often - I'll bet I see one every year, and sometimes I'll see more than one.  Here's a post about one I saw at work in 2014, and here's another about the last time we had one in the yard.  

Of course, no post about black rat snakes would be complete without a link to this post, which is about the time I found one in the laundry room of the cabin.

To be honest, these encounters are part of what I look forward to on my weekends out here.  I like to think they help me find some balance, juxtaposed against a 45-minute commute and all those Excel spreadsheet exercises I have to do during the week.  And yeah, these two sightings definitely rounded out last weekend for me.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Visiting Pale Fire Brewing ( @palefirebrewing )

My flight at Pale Fire!
Knowing that our strings and w-clips were on the way for the hop yard, I went on a shopping trip down to Harrisonburg to pick up some additional supplies at Home Depot.  Since Harrisonburg downtown is home to four breweries, I decided to make a side trip to one of them - Pale Fire, which quite a few of my Luray friends have visited and recommended since it opened last year.  I was not disappointed!

The brewery is set in a adaptive re-use development in downtown proper, just across the street from the farmers market.  It's an old industrial facility of some sort, and they've set up some of the old pumps and machines around as art and interpretive elements of the old site.  There's a nice circular drive up into the property that I assume can accommodate a food truck or two when needed.

I grabbed a seat at the bar and began to check out the offerings, eventually deciding on a flight of five 4 ounce pours.  I was soon to learn that the name Pale Fire comes from the Nabokov novel of the same name (I'll have to reacquaint myself with the author, which I read often during my enlistment as a Russian linguist).  On tap were some interesting choices, and I settled on two Belgian styles, two pale ales, and a stout.

The Belgians - Saving Grace and To Hell w/ Good Intentions - were good, both made with the same yeast strain.  Saving Grace is Pale Fire's take on a traditional farm house Saison, and I'd like to have a taste of it again someday when I'm taking a break from weeding the hop yard.  The other one, To Hell w/ Good Intentions, was a collaboration with Adroit Theory Brewing in Purcellville, highlighting another Belgian tradition, using fresh adjuncts - blueberries and Thai Basil, in this case.

The stout, Lucille, was a good beer, but what I really enjoyed was the two Pale Ales, a style that has been growing on me for the last couple of years since I found a stray six-pack of 21st Amendment's Down to Earth at Bethesda Market.  Both of the Pale Fire versions were good, but Razor's Edge, a Rye Pale Ale, carried the day, in my opinion.

While I was enjoying the beers, which were accompanied by excellent write-ups, I took the time to smell the beers deeply.  I wanted to get some insight on the hops they used, since I grow a few of the varieties in evidence here.

One of the owners was sitting nearby and noticed my activities, so we struck up a conversation.  I told him I was growing hops and he was encouraging - only they have a 40 barrel brew kitchen.  I asked for advice about how a nascent grower like Hawksbill Hop Yards could potentially supply a brewery their size.

First of all, they require pelletized hops for consistency.  It's a fact that none of the current Virginia growers can supply a brewer at this scale consistently - even at full production our one- and two-acre farms could only deliver enough hops for a few batches!

However, it may be possible to support a Virginia hops harvest ale, using freshly picked, whole cone hops.  At 40 barrels, we estimated that Pale Fire would require about 120 pounds.  I expect to have that much in Cascade this year, but that would be almost the entire crop!  I offered to track how our plants do this year and check in again in July, when I make a final estimate of what the harvest will look like.

I was really glad to find the time on my hands to make this stop.  As an aspiring grower, I got some great insights to the process for supplying a brewery operating at this scale.  We'll have to work on coming up to speed in a few years, and come back around to see if we can make something happen.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Ready for Stringing @hawksbillhops

The Cascades will climb themselves
if there's no string around.
With Spring Planting out of the way, the rains came back to the Valley.  There were a couple of days of sunshine mixed in, and that was all it took for the Cascade bines to take off.


Of all the varieties we have at Hawksbill Hop Yards, this one, developed as an American variety in the Pacific Northwest, is most suited to the Virginia climate.  It does very well here, as the photos show.  The bines are practically climbing themselves while they are waiting for us to tie them in.


Here's about 1,000 coir strings.
We took a little different approach this year, and ordered supplies as a co-op.  I went in with three other growers for my strings, and in the process saved a good 50% of the cost over last year.  While it meant a little more coordination and getting them a week or two later, the savings are worth it and we'll probably do it again next year.

The product we use is coir strings - made from Sri Lankan coconut husk fibers.  You can get them in several formats, but the ones we get are pre-cut to a length of 20 feet, 6 inches.  Our lines are 16 feet, so there is a little extra room for tying them and then a couple of feet of extra twine on the ground afterwards.

We'll start to work on this during the next week or so, first soaking the strings to soften them up so they untangle easily, and then taking them over to the yard so they can be tied and anchored.

More updates on that to follow, of course!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Spring Planting 2016 @hawksbillhops

Here's a section of the new Fuggles half row.
We had our spring planting event at the hop yard on the last Saturday in April.  It had been a wet, rainy week, but the weather broke just in time for planting.


Unlike last year, when we were just starting up the farm and had to plant all 700 rhizomes, this year we had planned to do some fill-ins.  We added a row of 60 Chinook, so that we have three now - about about 180 plants.


Also, because they were slow starters last year, we had considered taking out the half row Centennials and putting in a row of Fuggles in their place.  The Centennials were up and at 'em this year, 27 plants, so we decided to plant the balance of that row with Fuggles, so now we have about 85 of those along with the Centennial.  There is a 12 foot space between the two varieties in that row so that we can ensure we don't mix them up during the season, when they can intertwine at the top cable across that distance, or during harvest.

One of the Goldings hills after weeding.


We also added some fills in our Cascade rows, patching about 25 empty spaces where plants didn't come up this spring.


The second major undertaking was to weed the Goldings.  These are an English variety that I'd really like to see have a go, but they seem ill-suited for the Virginia climate.  When I scouted the row - we had planted 50 of them last year, I only spotted 25 or so of them.

There are a couple of our volunteers who are especially dedicated to these plants - they planted the rhizomes last year and checked on their progress several times throughout the season - and they happily jumped right into the task of weeding them.  In the process, they found the rest of the Goldings - so we're up to 50.  Time will tell if they can make it with all the competition from Virginia weeds, and the challenges of Virginia daylight hours being shorter than their native England!

Once the field chores were done everyone took a break
under the pole barn.
All in all we had about 15 folks come out to help, and like last year they made pretty quick work out of planting the rhizomes and the weeding.  At the end, everyone spread out into the yard and freelanced on more weeding.  We pretty much cleaned up the Cascades, leaving the Chinooks and Columbuses for later this spring.

Of course we had Luray's famous donuts from the Fairview Grocery for refreshments.  We also had some homebrews to share - one made with hops from our yard, and two others that included hops that Kevin grew in Luray.

The help from the volunteers is so valuable and important to our little start-up hop yard.  This work will go a long way towards helping us get to a viable harvest this year - especially with the new rows and the Goldings!  I'm really looking forward to the growing season now!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Cabin Lore - the Hawksbill Cannery

I see these colorful can labels around the county from time to time.  There are a couple of them, on cans and in frames, at the Hawksbill Diner in Stanley, and this weekend I found these two examples in Gathering Grounds in Luray.

The Gathering Grounds piece has a few of the tokens and chits that were issued by the cannery, I guess to workers and others.  There was an auction last year for a token printed with 4 cents on it - these items date from the late 1800's into the early 1900's.

So that inspired me to do a little research to see what I could learn about it, and off to Google I went.

As with the building on Zerkel Street where we hope to operate the brewery soon, the first things that came up in my search were trade publications.  The cannery was listed as a hotels supply vendor in the one I found, dated 1922.

There are a couple of photos in the "Luray and Page County Revisited" book by Dan Vaughn.  The author has included a photograph of the cannery under construction in 1906, located on North Hawksbill Street in Luray.  It was called Luray Canning Company at that time.  The business was renamed Hawksbill Cannery after I.N.Dovel bought it in 1914.

A subsequent photo shows well drilling for a proposed but failed expansion in Stanley.  Apparently there was a fire in 1950, but it was rebuilt by Dovel's son and by 1954 was one of the leading canners of watercress - that's one of the labels that they have at the Hawksbill Diner.

In any case, I have always like the color and graphical style of these labels.  I'm on the lookout for some.  And we're going to use them for inspiration in the brewery logo - we'll have to see what the designer comes up with on that one!