Local hops experts meet in Farm-to-Glass Classroom

On Saturday, January 18 the Carey Institute for Global Good will be hosting a Farm-To-Glass Classroom Hops Workshop for farmers, brewers and those interested in the growing local craft brewing movement. Novice and intermediate farmers, as well as brewers will hear from specialists in the field of hops production.

Topics to be covered by a panel of experts include site and varietal selection, infrastructure design, troubleshooting, post-harvest and processing considerations, and farmers’ experiences in the field. Speakers will include Steve Miller, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Statewide Hops Specialist; John Arnold and Cory Skier from New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ Food Safety Division; Dietrich Gehring of Helderberg Hops in Altamont; and Casey and Kelly Holzworth of Kelsey’s Quarter Acre Farm in Greenfield.  The event will run from 10am to 1pm,  and include networking session for farmers and brewers during a break.  The fee for the event is $20 at the door; those interested in attending should call 518-797-5100 to reserve a space. 

There is no question. New York State is in the midst of a craft brew renaissance.  Today, New York State is home to about 170 small breweries, more than five times the number that existed ten years ago, according to Cornell Cooperative Extension.  And, more breweries are emerging from the woodwork with the intent to support the State’s domestic farmers in the wake of Governor Cuomo’s 2012 Farm Brewery Law.  The law creates a farm brewery license for operations that purchase at least 20% of their hops and 40% of their other ingredients, including barely and other small grains, from New York State producers through 2018; in the following six years the mandate escalates to a 90% domestic ingredient purchasing requirement.

However, at this time, New York State-grown hop supplies are so meager it is anticipated farm brewers and distillers will experience significant challenges sourcing ingredients to satisfy these benchmarks.  In fact, supplies are so meager that a single micro-brewery, something the scale of FX Matt (brewers of Saranac), could consume all of the hops presently raised in the entire state.

Despite cultivating nearly 40,000 acres of hops in 1880 (more than 80% of what was grown in the entire country) according to the United States Census of Agriculture, the vast majority of American hops are grown in Washington, Oregon and Idaho today.  Hop and malt-grade grain production went by the wayside in New York State due to a variety of reasons, including the 1913 Blue Mold Blight and the discovery of more-productive, higher-yielding hop lands in the Pacific Northwest.

Nonetheless, New York State’s new fascination with craft beer has opened the door for domestic farmers seeking new profit centers for their farms.  Up from 65 acres in 2012, Cornell Cooperative Extension Hops Specialist Steve Miller estimates that 150 acres of hops were cultivated in New York State in 2013, and projects reaching 250 acres this summer.  However, there are significant challenges and learning curves to be met to bring hops supplies up to speed with demand.

Gearing up for hops production, farmers face substantial financial and labor investments in infrastructure, including purchasing and planting rhizomes, making necessary soil amendments and building hop poles and trellises.  There are also risks associated with pests. For example, some farmers in the Helderberg Hilltowns struggled with aphids this summer, a particularly virulent insect that also incubates a damaging fungus.  Other impediments, including mites, mildews, root rot and rodents, can cause an entire harvest to go bad.

When it comes to harvesting, farmers face another challenge.  Hop harvesting by hand is incredibly time consuming and labor intensive.  Without a mechanized hop harvester, which can be prohibitively expensive, farmers invest approximately 200 man-hours into each acre of hops harvested according to Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Furthermore, there are also processing issues associated with hops.  After harvesting, hops are typically dried, vacuum sealed and frozen for future use in brew batches.  Many new hop farmers are unaware of the food processing regulations associated with vacuum sealing hops.  Following harvesting, hops are typically dried at low heat, vacuum sealed and frozen.  While passive drying and freezing are not regulated food processing activities, vacuum sealing is regulated.  New York State Agriculture and Markets law requires a food establishment license which costs $400 for two years, as well as regular water testing and health department inspections for any operation conducting regulated food processing activities.  Furthermore, an additional variance application and approval is required for vacuum sealing at food processing establishments, creating a significant regulatory hurdle for small farms looking to make the jump to hops cultivation.

As hops production comes back into the mainstream in New York State, there are several considerations that require further research, development and education.  Furthermore, as the industry is reestablished there is a call from farmers to uncover the institutional and historical know-how associated with hops cultivation.

In step, the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville has emerged as a leader in the effort to close the gap between agricultural supplies and demand from brewers and increase capacity for New York State’s budding farm brewing industry.  Starting in 2014, the Carey Institute will be resurrecting a New World Dutch Barn, circa 1760, on its campus to house New York State’s first farm brewery incubator.  The Carey Institute has partnered with CSArch, an Albany-based architecture firm, to adapt the barn so it may function as a new economic and social hub that connects farmers, brewers and craft beverage enthusiasts.  Last month, Empire State Development announced the award of $108,000 to the project, dubbed the Helderberg Brewshed; an ongoing fundraising campaign is underway to secure the rest of the project budget.  The barn will house three key programs, including a Model Farm Brewery, A Farm-To-Glass Classroom, and a Farm Brewery Incubator.  Stay tuned to Facebook for upcoming Farm-To-Classroom events and opportunities to engage with the Helderberg Brewshed Project.