There are over 27,000 vacant lots in Pittsburgh alone. And there are over 50 breweries (and more on the way) in the Pittsburgh region. Though the connection between the two may not be obvious, Pete Bell saw one. Along with a couple of longtime friends, Bell launched Hops on Lots Pittsburgh, a project that works to improve communities and get locally-grown hops into the hands of Pittsburgh’s brewers.

Bell dreamed up the venture after attending one of Grow Pittsburgh’s community gardening classes. But instead of launching a typical community garden model—where residents use a shared space to grow produce for their own use—he decided to go in another direction. He wanted to use his newfound love for gardening to give back to the community in a different way. Bell sat down with friends Joe Chmielewski and John Snider and, after a bit of brainstorming (over a couple of pints, no doubt), Hops on Lots Pittsburgh (HOLP) was born.

The concept is simple. Plant hop rhizomes on vacant lots or otherwise underused spaces around Pittsburgh. Harvest those hops and get them to local breweries. Put the resulting beer on draft at neighborhood bars and donate a portion of sales back to the community.

“Hops are good for urban gardening,” explains Bell. “They don’t need much space, since they grow up.” Hop plants need just a few feet of dirt on the ground, but typically reach heights of 20 feet or taller by the end of a season. HOLP uses this to their advantage, planting hops in places where other plants would struggle.

Planting in Stanton Heights. Photo by Pete Bell.

HOLP found two sites to pilot the first season of the new program. Tiny Magnum hop plants (which were donated by Slippery Rock’s Keystone Hops Farm) are starting to climb up twine at the upper edge of the Hazelwood YMCA garden. The hops are destined for beer brewed by Full Pint and Spoonwood, and the profits will allow the garden to grow more food for the neighborhood. Over in Stanton Heights, the HOLP team planted 78 hop rhizomes along a retaining wall. “Hops can grow and benefit the community not only financially, but also aesthetically,” says Bell. Before long, the rusty, battered wall will be covered with vibrant hop cones.

Though the venture has gathered plenty of support and help from the community, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. The team was quickly thrown into the world of community meetings and tangled city ordinances, encountering concerns about the invasiveness of the plants. “It’s been a learning process,” says Bell. “We’ve had the positive community experiences and . . . the not so positive ones.”

Even so, the HOLP team has big dreams for the project. They are working with the city to find more growing sites, aiming to eventually plant an acre of hops around Pittsburgh. Chmielewski and Bell are currently building a small oast house, a special chamber that will allow them to dry the hops they harvest. And though they don’t know exactly where the new venture is heading, they are keeping a “community first, profits second” credo at the heart of everything they do. “One day, we hope to build a playground with beer,” laughs Bell.

If you know a great space to grow hops in your community, reach out to Hops on Lots Pittsburgh. Check out the HOLP website for contact information and to volunteer to help.

A newly planted hop in Hazelwood. Photo by Hanna Mosca.

Drew Cranisky

Drew Cranisky is a writer, bartender and recent graduate of Chatham University's Food Studies program. He enjoys cats, pinball and fancy burgers.