Hops on Lots is adding some greenery to underutilized spaces, like this roadside retaining wall in Pittsburgh's Stanton Heights neighborhood.

Courtesy of Hops on Lots

The Beer-Fueled Project That’s Prettifying Pittsburgh

Hops on Lots is turning the city’s vacant plots into landscapes of greenery, one 10-foot hop plant at a time.

What’s better at bringing people together than shared mugs of beer? In one Pennsylvania city, two drinking buddies think they might have an answer: hops.

At two sites in Pittsburgh — an unseemly roadside retaining wall in Stanton Heights and a recently shuttered YMCA in Hazelwood — hop plants are adding some much-needed greenery on their crawl up 10-foot-high trellis systems. Used to add a bitter, zesty flavor to beer, the leafy hop cones are being donated to three local craft breweries, who will then donate the proceeds from each batch of beer brewed back to community projects.

The seeds for Hops on Lots Pittsburgh (HOLP) were planted in Pete Bell’s mind during a community gardening class. A part-time trade-show coordinator, Bell loved the idea that those without backyards could share a plot with their neighbors. But he wondered if there was a better way for all the produce and herbs he was learning to grow to benefit the entire community, not, he says, just the people who are able to garden. One night, over drinks with friend Joe Chmielewski, an operational support assistant at the University of Pittsburgh library, the conversation turned to how the two men could find a project they’d enjoy that would, in turn, benefit others. The pals, who Bell confesses enjoy “a lot of beer,” decided on growing hops. They believed the urban agriculture could support the red-hot craft-brew scene while prettifying some of the city’s 27,000 vacant lots.

“There are so many little breweries everywhere. They’re popping up, it seems, by the month,” Bell says. And yet, “nobody in the area was growing any hops.” Microbreweries around town jumped at the offer of locally harvested hops. “They like the idea that they’re fresh, right off the vine,” says Bell. “They don’t have to get hops shipped in from the other side of the country.”

Bell waters the hops two or three times a week, with five-liter jugs he keeps in the back of his car. The plants at both sites have grown to full size, pleasing the guys who nurtured them from seedlings. Now, says Bell, he’s watering the Stanton Heights crop in a narrow two-foot space between the retaining wall and a busy road.

Harvested hops make their way to area breweries. Courtesy of Hops on Lots

Seeing HOLP’s success, Bell’s already scoping out sites to grow more hops next season, and as ale aficionados contact him from other cities, he’s helping to spread the idea nationwide. He warns them to be patient in waiting for other people to get on board, but he promises the idea is a sure-fire win: “Throw them in the corner of a community garden, and you have a cash crop there,” he advises. Bell says he’s willing to take calls from any aspiring gardeners.

That is, after he recovers from yesterday’s party. On September 18th, HOLP held its first annual celebration to raise money for the Stanton Heights community. (The funds have yet to be allocated, but Bell says money will go to fixing playgrounds, renovating the firehouse, installing rain barrels, or whatever else residents want to see.) Revelers poured into Roundabout Brewery to try to the pale ale brewed from the local hops, eat pizza and dance to the strains of a bluegrass band. Amid the carousing, a toast was in order: Here’s to more beer next year!

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at chris@nationswell.com.