On a September evening, Greg Garrison and his family are preparing to pick the last of their first harvest of hops at their farm in Ballston, New York. After pulling the load of bines off the back of a truck, the hops are loaded onto an angled table.
They’re new at this – but I asked Greg’s mother, Claudia, if there’s a technique to picking the hops. She answers, “well yes, you have to be careful. I just left the part that had the little lupilin – however you say that, I’m trying to get the whole thing. And usually you can get it off without the stem, maybe that’s when you can tell they’re really ripe. I think of raspberries. You can pull them off without a problem when they’re ripe.”
Hops look like little green pinecones and grow in bunches almost like grapes. While his mother, uncle, and fiancée are placing the freshly picked hops into baskets, Greg shows me some of the equipment he’s built himself to prepare the hops.
“I dry them down, I built this oast – small scale just for now,” Greg Garrison explains.
Greg’s plan is to dry and package the hops from his first harvest so he can distribute samples to local brewers and others who might be interested in making a larger purchase next year. He’s already planted a larger crop for next year’s harvest, on a piece of previously unused land.
“I really hope the farm breweries start taking advantage of this, growing their own products, and then putting it right into the beer – or even distilleries, farm distilleries – trying to make a movement kind of like the wineries had in the Finger Lakes. So I think bringing these back to the region is a pretty neat movement.”
In January 2013, New York’s Farm Brewery law took effect. Based on 1972’s Farm Wineries Act, the law is intended to boost agricultural production of hops and barley across the state, and give incentives for farm breweries to open. As part of the law, a beer can only be labeled as a New York State beer if at least 20 percent of the hops and all other ingredients are produced in the Empire State. That percentage gradually increases, until 2024, when 90 percent of all ingredients must be grown in New York.
Steve Miller is a hops specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Madison County and works with growers across the state. Miller said before prohibition, New York was once the top hop-producing state in the country, with the Mohawk Valley and Central New York offering favorable growing conditions for both foreign and native hops.
“Hops are a northern latitude plant, and they do well where we are, secondly we have a lot of different soils in New York which means we can find the best places to grow hops, and we have adequate rainfall," says Miller.
Today, most of the hops grown in the United States come from the Pacific Northwest, but Miller said New York has some advantages over that region.
“Where they grow in the Pacific Northwest, especially in Washington state it's pretty much a desert, and they rely on irrigation on every inch of the plant to grow, where we do get a lot of the production here without the need for irrigation, or just supplemental irrigation.”
Miller said that in recent years, New York’s total acreage of hops has increased dramatically with the renewed interest in craft beer.
“We’ve gone from having about 15 acres of hops three years ago, to now we’re up to close to 150 acres of hops, and I think that number will be probably 250 acres by the summer of 2014.”
But Miller said before prohibition, New York grew 40,000 acres of hops.
Since the launch of the Farm Brewery program on January 1st, 2013, 14 breweries have received farm brewery licenses, including Brown’s Brewing Company, based in Troy.
“For us it’s about marketing and pride – we just like being local. We’re a local brewery and a local company, so we like to use as many local ingredients as we can,” said Gregg Stacey, vice president and director of marketing for Brown’s.
This year Brown’s produced a small-batch Harvest IPA sourced with locally grown hops. But Stacey said because the small number of growers in New York and not many folks processing the hops, it restricts what the breweries can make with the ingredients, because fresh hops have a relatively short shelf life.
“Since nobody is processing the hops, meaning drying them and getting them into a condition that you can have them throughout the year, we have to brew with them within two days of picking them or else they rot. So that’s really why we’re all making the beers at the end of the year that are made with locally grown hops. We’ve done that for about four years now, and now we’re just taking that to another level with more hop growers coming up.”
Stacey said the lack of barley and malting facilities in New York also keeps the brewery from producing other varieties of locally sourced beers.
“Grow barley! I mean everybody’s getting into the hop movement, and hops are a very obvious part of beer, but barley – we use far more volume of barley than anything else and it’s much easier to grow. We have a number of farmers in our area who have said 'I’m done with corn, it beats up the land too much, I’m worried about Monsanto' – for whatever reason they’re getting out of it, barley is a way for people to get into it, and it’s very easy to grow comparatively to hops,” said Stacey.
But it’s also not just the farm breweries looking for local ingredients.
Mike McManus is the Innovation Manager of Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York. His job is finding new ways to make beer. McManus said Brewery Ommegang gets most of its hops from the the Czech Republic, Germany, and the Pacific Northwest, but as the acreage increases across New York, Ommegang may begin looking to use local varieties.
“It looks like we might have in new York as many as 200 acres next year, so it’s coming along. We’re able to use more and more New York state ingredients. For us it’s a drop in the bucket to begin with but hopefully it’s a project that will grow.”
Working with Steve Miller at Cornell Cooperative Extension, Brewery Ommegang is growing several different and new varieties of hops in a trial program, to find what varieties can be grown most suitably New York. McManus said while it’s conceivable the trial hops could be used to make very small batches of beer, the goal is to share information and support growth among hop farmers.
“We’d like to support other growers in the region. We’re in the business of brewing, we’re not farmers," said McManus.
As the brewing industry in New York takes off, with more ingredients being grown and more breweries starting up, brewers are working together and with the state to make sure the industry grows at a healthy pace.
The New York State Brewing Association worked with the legislature on the Farm Brewery Law and other pieces of legislation to promote the growth of the industry.
I asked Executive Director Paul Leone if he thought if the craft beer boom is resting on a bubble that someday will burst, if market will ever reach a saturation point.
Leone said, “One of my favorite stats is that before prohibition, New York had 350 breweries with a population of 5 million. Today we have 140 with a population of 20-25 million, so there’s certainly room for growth in the industry.”
Leone said by the end of 2014, New York could be home to 200 breweries. Leone said the work being done by his organization at the state and federal level is to get New Yorkers to take pride in their beer.
“I think that we sell more beer from outside the state than we do our local beer, so we really need to get New Yorkers to think about their local beer. And in almost city or town in the state of New York, there’s a brewery of some sort – you can walk in and say 'what's your local beer' and get two or three answers – so our goal is to get New Yorkers to think about their beer.”
Back at the farm, Greg Garrison said he’s already seen an interest from regional brewers coming by to check out his hops. As his operation grows, Garrison hopes his practice on the small scale will pay off in the future.
He remarks, “Just like building models when you’re a kid and then working on real cars later on…this is the science experiment right here.”