Talk hops with the modern American brewer and the conversation will likely drift to the Pacific Northwest. The region boasts the perfect growing conditions for hops, so whether you’re in Cleveland or Albuquerque, you’re probably enjoying a beer brewed with hops from that area. According to the Hop Growers of America, in 2011, 100 percent of commercial hop production in the United States came out of Washington (78%), Oregon (14.5%) and Idaho (7.5%).
Flash back a century and that was not the case. Believe it or not, there was a time when Central New York ruled the hop industry. The state attained national leadership in hop production in 1849, and was selling over three million pounds annually by 1855.
Sadly, the Empire State lost its footing in the hops market when Prohibition slayed all things beer related in the country. A killer fungus in the early 20th century also played its own role in putting the nail in the coffin of New York’s hop industry.
Sensing economic possibilities and the state’s hoppy past, Governor Andrew Cuomo worked with area brewers in 2012 to create a farm brewery license to promote the use of local ingredients.
“The legislation signed today demonstrates that the new New York is truly working for small business, as this law will allow breweries and wineries the opportunity to invest in new opportunities and expand their operations,” Governor Cuomo said in a July 2012 statement.
A little over a year later, and Central New York is already seeing benefits of this legislation throughout Madison County in the form of Harvest Moon Cidery, Henneberg Tavern, Foothill Farms, Empire Brewing Company and Good Nature Brewing.
Good Nature Brewing is hell-bent on supporting the buy local movement, even if it’s at their own financial risk. Currently they purchase their hops from Foothill Farms, a seven-acre hop farm founded and operated by Kate and Larry Fisher.
“We’re paying almost double what we would out west,” says Good Nature’s Matt Whalen. “But we’re proud to do it.” The microbrewery has purchased more than 2,000 pounds of locally-grown hops in 2013.
Whalen is also proud to call Good Nature one of the first farm breweries. The legislation helped them by allowing the small startup to open a taproom in nearby downtown Hamilton and sell pints.
“The profit margin has been awesome,” Whalen says, noting they’ve been able to start paying themselves and create three new jobs after working around the clock without vacation for a year. In just 90 days of operation, the brewery grew from a two-barrel system to seven. This is the kind of business one can presume Governor Cuomo was hoping for.
“We’re in this to try and hire folks,” Whalen explains. “Everyone who works for us gets a living wage.”
While most are complimentary of the legislation, Whalen sees problems on the horizon with the bill.
Currently, the legislation requires that 20 percent of the hops and 20 percent of all other ingredients must be grown or produced within the state of New York. The numbers jump dramatically between January 2018 and 2023, when no less than 60 percent of the hops and 60 percent of all other ingredients must be local. By 2024, the numbers hit 90 percent.
Though all admit the idea is well intentioned, Whalen says 60 percent by 2018 is not “doable” at this point because of the high costs associated with local goods. But like any piece of legislation, it’s unlikely this bill won’t see any changes over the 12-year period they’ve laid out.
“We have a lot to do to catch-up with the West Coast,” says Whalen. “But in three years, we are leaps and bounds further.”
Steve Miller, a hops specialist for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Madison County, sees some of the “catch-up” firsthand. “There are 130 acres of hops in New York State now,” he explains. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that doubles in 2014.” This puts the state in fourth place when it comes to hop production. Miller doesn’t believe it will ever be possible for Madison County to regain its former crown, since the West Coast exports to China, Japan and Europe, but he does see a possibility of reaching 500 or more acres in the near future. “I would say we will be up to 250 by next spring.”
Hoping to add to the state’s hops acreage are John Henneberg of Henneberg Tavern in Cazenovia and David Katleski of Empire Brewing Company in Syracuse. Henneberg is currently working on attaining a farm brewery license for a property in Cazenovia where he hopes to become completely self-sufficient within the next eight to 10 years.
Katleski has been pushing for the Empire Farmstead Brewery to be located on Cazenovia Lake, and plans to grow their own lavender and barley in addition to hops. Construction on the 18,000-square-foot facility has been slowed by community concerns that the farmstead would leave too large a footprint, outsizing Walmart or other big box retailers. Empire put these concerns to rest at a community meeting where they offered a prototype, showing the farmstead to be much smaller.
They’re now at the end of the site plan approval process and architectural review. If all goes well, Empire anticipates breaking ground in the spring of 2014, launching in the late fall. The new brewery location is expected to create an estimated 50 jobs in the next three years.
Until then, Empire will continue to, in part, rely on Foothill Farms for their hops.
At Foothill Farms, the Fisher’s interest in growing hops stretches back to Larry’s first visit to the Madison County Historical Society’s Hop Fest in 2000. One year later, he planted approximately 160 plants at Foothill. Once the planting begun, he knew he was in it for the long haul.
“It takes three to four years in this area to get a full crop,” Fisher explains. Their breakthrough came when Fisher met Tim Butler and Katleski at the 2010 Hop Fest and convinced them to use Foothill’s Cascade hops at Empire. “Ours taste different than Pacific Northwest hops,” says Fisher. The result was Empire State Pale Ale, and now Empire can’t seem to get enough hops from Foothill Farms.
The Fishers appreciate the community support, and have paid it forward by convincing Good Nature to open. “Their first brews were all our hops,” says Kate. “They get a lot of credit for using New York ingredients.” She goes on to applaud their state representatives for “discovering the economic impact of hops.”