Climbing Their Way Back

beer and hops

CLIMBING THEIR
WAY BACK

Hop growing returns to the Hudson Valley

BY BEN KEENE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PHIL MANSFIELD

They appear in mustards, salads, cigars, tea, soap and shampoo. They can be made into decorative wreaths and garlands or used in pillows to promote restful sleep. Historically, they were also sought out for their medicinal properties. For the past 200 years, however, the coneshaped female flower of Humulus lupulus has become better known as the common hop, the critical ingredient that brewers use in making beer—either whole, or more commonly as a pellet or an extract. These plump, bright-green structures begin to appear on the climbing bines in late June or early July, and contain the soft resins and essential oils that impart flavor and aroma to the brew, while also serving as a natural preservative.

Hop harvests typically occur in September. Today, the majority of hop farming in the United States is concentrated out West—particularly Oregon,Washington and Idaho. Roughly three-quarters of the nation’s hops are now grown in the Yakima Valley’s well-irrigated volcanic soil. But it hasn’t always been this way.

In the 1850s, New York grew more hops than any other state in the Union. A lot more. At the peak of the hop boom, farms in Otsego, Oneida and Madison Counties produced upward of 2,000 pounds of dried hop cones (the female flowers) per acre of plants. By 1880 yields of this crop, commonly used as a bittering agent by dozens of brewers in Brooklyn and Manhattan, had reached their peak—60 million pounds in a single year. The turn of the century and industrialization brought change to the hop-growing practice, and the one-two-three punch of aphids, downy mildew or blue mold, and the National Prohibition Act (or Volstead Act) spelled the end for hop farmers throughout the Hudson Valley along with the rest of the Empire State. Even the repeal of Prohibition couldn’t revive an industry that had suffered so much misfortune between 1909 and 1919.

Roughly a century later, signs of recovery have begun to appear. Craft beer is booming in the valley and throughout the state, and farmers have taken notice. In fact, just last November, Greene County officials announced plans to create a test plot for growing hops locally again. Given the nationwide demand for hops and the number of microbreweries and brewpubs that have appeared across the state from the Finger Lakes to the Hudson Valley, it only makes sense. As of last year, New York had 59 operating breweries with several more slated to open in the near future. And according to Steve Miller, a hops specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension, agricultural entrepreneurs are starting to respond to the demand for this key flavoring ingredient in beer.

Hop on Crop

“Right now people are growing all the way down to North Carolina,” Miller notes. “But hops need long days, and they grow better in northern latitudes, which is anywhere in New York State. I’ve got some people with six to ten acres, and a lot with half an acre. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Miller has been working with growers around the state, helping them understand cost and care, potential disease pressures and the importance of marketing this rediscovered agricultural commodity. He explains that while little information on East Coast hop cultivation is currently available, farmers found the preexistence of a market for hops encouraging. New York brewers, whether or not they presently use local hops, would overwhelmingly embrace a local hop resource. A 2002 survey conducted by the Northeast Hop Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the future of this specialty crop, concluded that two-thirds of the state’s brewers were interested in buying regional hops. And when state and country officials announced the grant for the agricultural incubator project that includes funding for small hop yards, representatives from both Cave Mountain Brewing Company in Windham and from Crossroads Brewing Company in Athens were in attendance.

The main obstacle to increasing supply is cost. According to Miller, a farmer’s initial investment is considerable: between $10,000 and $12,000 per acre. By the second year, however, he estimates that a farmer with healthy bines (hop shoots) might expect to earn as much as $10 or $15 per pound of dried cones or flowers. “There’s a pretty big payback,” he says. “If someone wants to make those harvest beers with fresh hops, you’ve got to buy local. But people are also finding out they’re a lot of work.”

Mick Bessire, who also works for Cornell Cooperative Extension as an Agricultural Educator, shares Miller’s optimism, to an extent. “You bring us local hops and we’ll make a brew out of ’em is basically what they said,” he remarks, referring to the response from Hudson Valley brewers to news of a hop resurgence. “But our scale is limited. It’s not gonna buy you a new house.”

Bessire outlined the Greene County initiative in greater detail, explaining that three primary cooperators or growers in Athens, Coxsackie and New Baltimore were chosen based on soil suitability, proximity and their level of interest in the project. Then, after months of research and planning, it was time to put rhizomes, the stem base of the hop perennial, in the ground. Working together in a marathon session of planting, the assembled team dug holes, erected poles for the hop bines (which can grow as much as two feet per week) and hoped for the best. Altogether, roughly half an acre of Chinook, Galena, Mount Hood, Willamette, Zeus, Nugget and Cascade hops were planted in June, later than intended due in part to an unusually wet spring.

“They have to pick up enough nutrients,” says Bessire. “You don’t really trim the vines or cut back anything. You just let it alone so it has lots of leaves and an extensive root system. On each hill you’ll have two or three, and they’ll put on some really good roots by the end of summer.”

Todd Erling is another guy who knows something about growing hops. He and his wife planted a quarter acre of Cascade rhizomes on their Willow Spring Farm in Columbia County three years ago. Erling, the executive director of the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation, also has free-range, pasture-raised Berkshire pigs and chickens. Although he says he hasn’t yet hit his optimal yield, Erling considers himself fortunate: he’s able to sell all of his hops to Chatham Brewing for a special batch of their IPA, a copper- colored, medium-bodied blast of bitterness. For him, hop cultivation is viable even on a small scale. “I see significant potential, especially in the Hudson Valley,” Erling says assuredly. “They complement our cycles of growing seasons very well. It’s also on a scale our farmers are used to working with.”

Erling isn’t the only one to have recognized this opportunity, either. Even before the test plots in Greene County, others elsewhere were cautiously experimenting with hop growing as early as 2001. In central New York, Pedersen Farms and Foothill Hops have led the way, supplying a variety of bittering and aroma hops to Ithaca Brewing Company, Empire Brewing, Good Nature Brewing, Rooster Fish Brewing and Butternuts Beer and Ale, among others. Tom Crowell of Chatham Brewing says he gets multiple calls from farmers considering hops as a potential new cash crop several times a month. Meanwhile, Miller estimates that there are now close to 100 growers of varying sizes (mostly small) across the state.

“At this point only a handful are producing enough that they can supply brewers,” he adds for the sake of clarity. “And brewers aren’t gonna spend a lot of time looking for them. It’s gonna take a few years.” Maybe so, but then again, Miller might be underestimating the brewing community’s commitment to sustainability and local foodways.

In 2004, for example, Ithaca Beer Co. introduced a Double India Pale Ale, brewed exclusively with New York hops for a few years until sourcing became too challenging. It was the first such beer the state had seen in five decades. Since then, a handful of smaller brewers have followed suit, crafting their own seasonal ales with Cascade, Chinook, Willamette and Nugget cultivars. Like Chatham, Brown’s Brewing of Troy does a fresh or “wet” hopped Harvest IPA, an intense, robust ale that relies on an abundance of bright-green hop cones picked at their own Hoosick Falls farm.

Tim Butler, the director of Brewing Operations at Empire Brewing in Syracuse, has had his Hop Harvest Pale Ale in regular rotation for almost three years now. He insists that Empire tries to get involved with local farmers as much as they can, an assertion borne out by the tap list at their Syracuse brewpub. Their Apple and Pumpkin Ales use produce from Critz Farm in Cazenovia, Deep Purple is brewed with New York State Concord grapes, and Golden Dragon, a Belgian-style golden ale, derives its spice from Thai basil grown in their own organic garden. Sourcing hops locally, then, was merely an extension of what the brewery was already doing.

“If I could get all of my hops from New York State I would,” says Butler. “Not one grower from the Yakima Valley has ever come to my brewery. I want to talk directly about my needs and that relationship is invaluable. You’re crazy if you think West Coast brewers don’t have a relationship with their growers.”

Supply and Demand

History, opportunity, and relationships— these are the three elements that will ultimately promote the spread of hop cultivation in the greater Hudson Valley. And yet obstacles to rapid growth remain. New York, as many will point out, is simply not in the position to produce the volume of dried or pelletized hops that regional and contract brewers would need in order to consider sourcing them locally.

Another 60-million-pound yield isn’t likely anytime soon. A large-scale brewery such as Saranac in Utica would typically use the quantity of hops in a single day of brewing that Chatham might need for an entire year. Plus, even the larger farms in the state harvest their hops by hand, and only a few places have the ability to process the hop cones once they’ve been removed from the bines.

Compared to dried, pelletized hops, fresh hops are much less stable and must be used soon after harvesting. Of course, this is less of a problem for brewpubs, microbreweries, and nanobreweries that have more flexibility with regard to small-batch, limited-release beers.

“We’ve got to find somebody to process,” Butler remarks. “The infrastructure is not that easy, though, so I think there’s some hesitation. And then you might as well throw a malt house [a structure where cereal grain is converted into malt] in there as well,” he continues. “If we could get some of that…I would go 100 percent New York.” Sentiments like this are precisely what Steve Miller and Mick Bessire want to hear. With one growing season behind them in Greene Country, their work is more note-taking and investigative than holedigging and productive. Bessire hopes brewers of all sizes will gradually become more receptive to New York hops as the industry matures. He also thinks that malting barley could be the next stage.

“I’m optimistic,” he declares. “We used to have hops until the ’20s and ’30s. Why couldn’t we do that again?”

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