Hop Crops: Madison County and other New York state hops are in demand for specialty beer industry
Published: Wednesday, June 22, 2011, 12:49 PM Updated: Wednesday, June 22, 2011, 1:20 PM
Steve Miller wants to make hops, a key ingredient in beer, a cash crop in New York state once again.
And with the re-emergence of hops, he wants to make New York state beer as big a tourist attraction as New York state wine has become in the last 35 years.
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Madison County hired Miller as the state’s first hops specialist this year.
“My role is to work with the growers to get the information they need to produce a quality product and make money at it,” he said. “I don’t work with growers just in Madison County, I work with all of New York state.
“On the West Coast, you’re looking at 29,000 acres of hops. In New York, it’s 50 acres,” Miller added. “Less than 10 acres are in Madison County (once a nationally recognized hop center).”
The advent of refrigeration decimated the hop fields. Before refrigeration, there were hundreds of small local breweries because beer couldn’t be stored long or shipped far. By the 1950s, hops had disappeared from New York’s agriculture map.
Miller said with refrigeration and the opportunity for longer storage and wider distribution, “Bigger breweries got bigger and a lot of smaller ones disappeared. We’re going in the opposite direction now.”
Rick Pedersen re-introduced hops to the region on his Seneca Castle Farm in Ontario County in 1999, and Kate and Larry Fisher’s Foothills Farms in Munnsville followed with the first larger scale Madison County hop fields.
“There were hops in this area a long time ago, and I felt that because of all of the microbreweries in the area, there was potential for hops to be a cash crop again,” Miller said.
Hop fields are expanding gradually, side by side with the craft beer industry, which today sells 10 percent of the beer consumed in New York, he said. Craft brewers are eager to use the high-quality aromatic hops grown in New York fields, he said, but they have to be sure they can get a steady supply.
“I’m working with 100 people who have hops planted or will plant them this year or next year. At least half are not in the commercial bracket (more than 1,000 plants),” Miller said.
The rest are growing at least a half acre of the flowers, but even people who have only 100 to 200 plants “are selling to home brewers and microbrewers (who are) looking for a special product,” he said. “Microbreweries have expanded by 20 percent over the past 10 years. Some microbreweries are planting their own (hops).”
Growers get from 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of dried hops per acre, or enough to make between 5,000 and 7,500 31-gallon barrels of beer, Miller said.
“There are thousands of types of beer,” he said. “That’s part of the interest now. People are looking at beers having individual qualities and trying a lot of different varieties. We want to make New York a destination for people looking for the (beer) products.”
Farm winery legislation passed in 1976 allowed small vineyards to start selling under their own labels, creating a booming tourist industry. Legislation being considered at the state level could do the same thing for the beer industry, Miller said.
“We’re looking at setting up farm breweries across the state. That would require that a large portion of ingredients be grown in New York state,” he said.
That means hops.
That means hops.
By R. Patrick Corbett