Hops small flowers that provide the tangy flavor in beer are becoming an attractive specialty crop in the north country, where the burgeoning craft beer industry has planted roots.
By partnering hops and grain growers with craft breweries in the state, farm brewery legislation passed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last summer could provide a catalyst to expand the industry here over the next decade, said John K. Bartow Jr., executive director of the Tug Hill Commission.
After starting a hops yard three years ago behind their Adams Center home on Route 11, Mr. Bartow and his wife, Janet L., had their first successful harvest this August. But while the Bartows started the small plot as a hobby, they now plan to sell a portion of their harvest to craft breweries in the area seeking to buy locally grown hops.
We mostly started growing them as an experiment for relatives who are home brewers, but we had extra this year, Mr. Bartow said, explaining it takes about three years for hops to mature. Hops are planted in the spring as underground stems called rhizomes; they emerge during the summer as bines that grow over 20 feet tall and are harvested in August.
The Bartows plot, which has 24 bines of five varieties of hops, yielded a harvest of about 40 ounces this year. That supply is enough to brew about 40 gallons of craft beer. Varieties include Cascade, Centennial, Brewers Malt, Mt. Hood and Sterling.
Because plants will be more mature next year, Mr. Bartow said, the field should produce about 60 ounces. He plans to sell a portion of those hops to a craft brewery planned in Lowville by co-owners Gerald J. Haenlin and Dean T. Richards. To be called BarkEater Craft Brewery, the business will open in early 2014 at 5411 Shady Ave., Lowville.
BarkEater is applying to become a licensed farm brewery, which requires a portion of its hops and grains to be grown in New York state under the legislation approved last summer by Gov. Cuomo. Through 2018, at least 20 percent of ingredients must be produced in New York State to keep the farm brewery license. That figure gradually will climb to 90 percent by 2024 under the law.
Mr. Bartow believes the legislation will spur more breweries, like BarkEater, to purchase their ingredients from local farms, providing a niche market for the production of hops and grains.
The microbrewery industry in New York and across the country is growing pretty big, but how profitable remains to be seen, he said. State legislation will create a demand for hops and grain that go into the beer. And as the percentage of local ingredients required (by state law) goes up, that will put demand on farmers or hops growers to generate products in New York state.
BarkEater will obtain most of its hops from White River Farm CSA in Turin, where it has established an agreement to grow hops on five acres of land. It now has 75 bines that were planted two years ago on one acre, Mr. Richards said. It eventually could grow over 125 bines on the land for employees to harvest by hand, he said.
To expand beyond than that, the brewery would need to acquire harvesting equipment because of the labor-intensive work involved.
Its very labor-intensive, and thats going to be the challenge for farmers in New York state, Mr. Richards said. Research shows it takes a man 12 hours to harvest one plant thats how many hops grow on a mature bine. As the state tries to grow hops farms, they need to provide more support for farms to harvest them. A commercial harvester is over $100,000, so we have to find ways to do it collectively.
The Northeast Hops Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes the specialty crop, allows farmers to rent portable harvest machines during harvest season.
BarkEater an English translation of the Mohican word Adirondack will qualify as a nanobrewery according to state law, Mr. Richards said, because it will use a small half-barrel production system. The 1,500-square-foot brewery, which is now being renovated, will be allowed to sell an array of beers on tap as a certified farm brewery. The beer will be produced at a production area in the back of the building.
The businesss long-term plan includes building a large production facility and opening three more tap rooms across the north country, Mr. Richards said. Sales in the craft brewery industry in New York have climbed by about 15 percent over the past five years, he said, and that trend is expected to continue. In turn, he believes farmers who start hops production will also reap the benefit.
The attractive thing is it doesnt take much land to grow a tremendous amount of hops, he said. A one-acre footprint will produce 2,000 gallons of beer. Its a big expense to get started and takes three years for plants to mature, but I think farmers who commit to it are going to be hard-pressed to keep up with the demand in the future.
BarkEater plans to purchase its grain from Farmhouse Malt, an artisanal malthouse based in Newark Valley. That company buys its barley grain from farmland in Madison County, east of Syracuse.
The whole purpose of the farm brewery legislation is to increase farm-to-table products the hops and grains. Mr. Haenlin said. Theres very little grown barley and few malthouses in the state, and theres a huge need in this industry. The brewery industry should kickstart farming, because they need a market for the product.