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Hobby a growing passion for Georgetown resident

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GEORGETOWN, Del. (AP) — Jim Passwaters always wanted to be a farmer growing up, but he never had the land. At 58, he still doesn't.

That hasn't stopped Passwaters from starting Delaware's first and only commercial hops-growing operation in his 1-acre backyard. A retired Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control captain, Passwaters was told that there was no way one of beer's vital ingredients could grow in the state's steamy climate.

"Someone forgot to tell my hops that. They seem to be doing just fine," he said last week with a grin under dozens of blooming and burgeoning hops cascading downward from homemade supports.

Hops, for those out of the beer loop, provide that bitter taste some beers have. The green and flower-like cones are also used as a stability agent, known for their antibacterial effects. More importantly for Passwaters, they require a small footprint to grow. His current operation only takes up an eighth of an acre. The homemade setup of trellises are behind his homebrew shop, JAG Homebrew, right outside of Georgetown.

The plant grows like a weed, climbing homemade spindles attached to 16-foot-long two-by-fours driven 3 feet into the ground. This is the first year he's grown hops at this scale, with about 400 plants in the ground.

His aim is to provide Delaware's exploding microbrewery scene with locally-grown hops and other ingredients. This year he expects to harvest 40 to 50 pounds. Next year, 200 to 300 pounds. He estimates he could grow 2,000 pounds of hops if he utilized the entire acre. Hops sell at $7 to $10 a pound.

So far, Passwaters has one customer. The recently-crowned Delaware State Fair homebrew champ, Mispillion River Brewing in Milford. In about two weeks' time the year's yield of hops should be ready to pick. He'll be providing 20 pounds of the fresh hops up front to the brewery, and 10 pounds of dried hops later on. Dried hops, which are concentrated, will get you more of a bang for your buck, but aren't nearly as fresh.

Eric Williams, co-owner of Mispillion, said he expects they could get maybe 15 barrels, or 200 cases of beer, with the fresh hops. Fresh hops are an expensive proposition, usually requiring shipment from West Coast providers. Using locally grown ingredients is good for business and the community, Williams said.

"Small breweries are community-based companies and to take a local hop and put it into one of our beers is pretty exciting to us," Williams said.

The amount they're getting this year is a drop in the bucket for Mispillion's production. They've produced several hundred barrels of beer so far this year, Williams said.

If the locally grown hops prove to create a popular brew, there's no reason why they wouldn't buy more next year.

"He's definitely obsessed with what he does," Williams said. "We'll see how the beer turns out. If it's good, great."

The local hops will be used for a special beer, that should be available in September or October, at the latest, he said.

Passwaters' interest in hops is relatively new, as is his homebrew hobby. The operation started a few years back when he had a visit from Delaware's most popular brewery. One day in September 2012, a truck driver for Dogfish Head Brewery turned up at his house to purchase several trees.

Some backstory first, though. Passwaters, a DNREC employee for several decades, started his own landscaping and nursery business in the mid-1980s. The state never really paid all that well, he joked.

It was with that business he was able to harness his love of growing. With a dual-degree in psychology and environmental science, agriculture wasn't exactly an expertise.

"I killed a lot of things over the years," he joked, standing among dozens of plants, including bananas, pineapples, tomatoes, grapes, blackberries, yellow raspberries and the insanely-bitter, but healthy, aronia. That's also known as a chokeberry.

So why all this growing in his backyard?

"I just wanted to try and see if we could do it," Passwaters said. "And we can."

That's sort of a theme for him. Plant something in the ground, care for it and see what happens. It's part of his overarching philosophy about "work."

"If you find a hobby and you can figure out how to make a little bit of money out of it, you're not really working," he said, marching toward his blackberry bushes. Some of the blackberries were over an inch long and close to an inch thick.

It was that approach that got him started on hops, and accepting an offer from that Dogfish Head truck driver. He looked at all of the extravagant and unique things Passwaters was growing and asked if he wanted a cutting from a hop plant. The offer jived perfectly with his vivid and varied assortment of plants grown for love, and the hell of it.

"I don't even know what his name is or anything else," he said. "I was really shocked when he came back. But he did, and they grew."

His first attempt last year only saw about 10 plants grow. This year, 400.

"When we expanded, we expanded big," he laughed. "But I'm not sure how much more we want to expand."

He said he contacted Mispillion about the hops late last year after they opened. He has since provided them with other ingredients, like pineapple, sour cherries and lemongrass. The hops were a bit of a surprise, though.

"It's very difficult and heavy on the cost to grow hops," Williams said. "I don't see a huge hop operation happening in Delaware, but it is definitely cool that we can get stuff."

There is interest from some other breweries, too. Warlock Brewery, the startup in Smyrna, has expressed interest. As the business grows, more land will be needed. Right now he's using his backyard, and his neighbor's as well. His son is in on the production too, scouting land in Sussex County.

What he doesn't use, he'll keep to brew his own beer. His northern-style ale placed third in the state fair's homebrew competition. He was told it tasted like Newcastle Brown Ale, but Passwaters admitted he's never even tasted the nutty brown ale hailing from England's Northeast.

It's all a playground to him. One day, he'd like to start his own brewery. But that would require land.

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Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com

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