Beer drinkers can be as poetic as wine aficionados when cataloging the flavors of their beloved beverage. For example, when describing the finish achieved by adding hops to malted barley, beer heads are prone to descriptors such as "bright," "citrus," "cilantro" and "fresh-cut grass."
In this autumn's batch of Yazoo Brewing Co.'s pale ale, one flavorful adjective will trump the rest: local. Because the bright-citrus-and-cilantro-scented hints of fresh-cut grass on the head of the limited edition Bells Bend Preservation Ale come courtesy of hops grown in the fertile fields of Davidson County.
Just after Labor Day, Yazoo brewmaster Linus Hall, machete in hand, climbed into the scoop of a bucket loader and chopped down approximately 50 hop bines in the front field of Sulphur Creek Farm on Old Hickory Boulevard. (Unlike creeping vines, bines rely on thick stems to grow upward. The hop bines are trained onto twine suspended from cable between large poles. The system looks like a series of oversized laundry lines.) After the harvest, which took only minutes, family and friends gathered around long tables to strip the pale green buds of bright-citrus-cilantro-and-grass-scented hops from spiraled coils of twine and bine.
A couple of hours later, Hall hauled 40 pounds of hops — like fluffy miniature artichokes — to his Gulch brewery, to steep in pale ale for a few weeks. In the process, known as "dry-hopping," the buds will infuse the fermented liquid with a bright acidity, offsetting the sweetness of malt and barley.
The path to Bells Bend Preservation Ale began last year, when Yazoo teamed up with farmers and conservationists — including Barry Sulkin, Keith Loiseau, Eric Wooldridge, Tom John and Sumter Camp — to support local food and help "keep it country" in the corridor between Bells Bend and Beaman Park. In recent years, the rural area, minutes from downtown, has been the target of development efforts, such as the proposed May Town project. Residents objected to the mixed-use development, fearing it would flood their quiet country roads with traffic and end life as they knew it in the bucolic acres near Scottsboro. They organized, branding their cause with the lyrical logo of whooping cranes, in honor of two endangered birds that took up residence in a Bells Bend field.
The May Town controversy subsided when city officials denied approval for the project, but the whooping crane remains a symbol of the community's commitment to preserving its open spaces and agriculture. This fall, the bird is also the symbol of Yazoo's dry-hopped beer. The label for the oversize bottles, designed by artist Jim Osborn, bears a graceful crane foraging for hops against a picturesque backdrop of hop trellises at Sulphur Creek Farm.
Bottles represent significant growth for the Bells Bend hop project, which last year produced only enough beer for a short run on draft in the Yazoo taproom. This year, the crop doubled, so there will be plenty of brew to bottle.
The relative bumper crop landed in Yazoo's lap about as fortuitously as an endangered bird landing in an endangered field. A friend of Wooldridge read about the Preservation Ale project and offered to contribute some heirloom hop rhizomes from his family's East Tennessee farm. More hop poles were erected to support the additional plants, and, despite challenging drought conditions, Hall & Co. collected twice as many hops as last year.
The 40 pounds of hops will flavor about 600 gallons of ale, which will be released Oct. 5 at a party and square dance at Sulphur Creek Farm. Starting Oct. 6, Bells Bend Preservation Ale will be available in bottles and on draft at the Yazoo Taproom. Proceeds from the sale of Bells Bend Preservation Ale will go toward community-supported agriculture and conservation in the Bells Bend to Beaman Park corridor. Among other things, the group will invest in an irrigation system to help with watering in the driest months.
Only time will tell what flavors the hops impart to the underlying pale ale, since the East Tennessee varietals were not identified. From the shape and smell of them, Hall guesses they might be Nugget or Willamette stock. He'll steep the Centennials and Cascades he planted last year in one batch of beer and the mystery hops in another batch. Then he'll mix the two batches and hope for the best. Ideally, he says, the hops will infuse the beer with bright notes of citrus. Or pepper and cilantro. Or the fresh-cut grass of a Middle Tennessee meadow.
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