On LI, it’s hip once more to grow hops

By JIM MCCUNE //

It’s been nearly three years since Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the New York State farm brewing law to spur demand for locally grown products and increase the economic impact of the burgeoning craft brewing industry.

And it’s apparently working, at least here. Long Island already has a dozen farm breweries, with a dozen more in the planning.

The law created a new brewery license that, among other things, allows farm-based breweries to sell beer by the pint, produce and sell hard cider, even market other products produced under the law’s much more friendly rules.

The friendliest feature of the new license: It allows breweries to sell their beers in up to five satellite tasting rooms.

To qualify for a farm-brewing license, a brewery must source 20 percent of its ingredients locally – that is, from New York State – until 2018, when the percentage increases to 60 percent until 2023. Thereafter, a farm brewer must source 90 percent of ingredients locally.

The new and immediate need for local brewing ingredients has provided new opportunities for hops, malt and barley providers, with the promise of additional business to come as the law’s out-year provisions phase in.

As a result, New York has already tripled its hops acreage since the law was enacted, to 250 “acres strung” for harvest this year.

LI_Hops_9_15The state is taking the resurgence of hop farming seriously, investing millions of dollars in research studies to determine which hop varieties perform best in the New York climate and how to protect those that do from disease and pests.

Thor Kampher, president of LI Hops in Riverhead – the fourth hop farm to pop-up on Long Island’s North Fork – provided an abridged look back on the demise of New York’s once legendary hop industry.

“Towards the end of the Civil War, brewing became popular in America and created an enormous demand for hops,” he said. “New York had the perfect climate, a large population of German and Dutch brewers, and a superior transportation system – it naturally became the largest producer of hops in the country and second in the world, only to Germany.

“But a combination of factors led to the fall of the hops industry by the early 1900s. A shift from agriculture to industrial was part of it, plus slight climate changes that led to devastating hop mildews.

“The final blow was Prohibition. With alcohol banned, there was no beer brewing, thus no need for hops. As Prohibition dragged on, the entire hops infrastructure eventually collapsed.”

Michael Sutton, vice president of sales and technical support for New York City’s Hopsteiner – a world leader in hop growing, processing and distribution – picks up the story from there.

“As the epicenter of U.S. hop production in New York collapsed, it began to move West, looking for a better climate, with less disease pressure and great soil, and also to be closer to the burgeoning West Coast brewery scene.

“A handful of multi-generational family farms have kept hops growing without much competition ever since. Today, the Pacific Northwest, primarily the Yakima Valley of Washington, produces nearly 80 percent of the country’s hops.”

So, what exactly is a hop? Hops are actually the female flower of the hop plant – generally called hop cones but also seed cones or strobiles – that are dried and used in the brewing of beer for aroma, flavoring and as a natural preservative.

Hop bines – yes, they’re called bines, not vines – are trained to grow up strings that are strung across rambling wire and pole trellises.

“It takes a lot of patience and effort getting them going, but they’re fairly maintenance free and autopilot from there,” noted Tony Caggiano, the co-owner of LI Hops. “They grow at an amazing rate of about two feet per week, until they reach heights of about 20 feet and start producing hop cones.”

Female hop plants grow cones that are about two inches long and, when cracked open, reveal green scales that turn papery and yellowish as they ripen. They also feature small, yellow glands that fill with the essential oils and acids that give each hop variety its unique set of bittering and flavoring characteristics.

From late July through September, the flowers are painstakingly harvested by hand, the local exception being Wading River’s Condzella Farm, which uses a German-made harvester acquired through a Kickstarter.com.

Once picked, the flowers are usually dried before use. When brewing beer, the bitterness of the hop is used to balance the sweetness of the malt, and the essential oils add a flavor and aroma that cannot be achieved by using any other plant in the world.

“The farm brewery law opened the door for people like us to take a chance growing hops, where it wasn’t economically feasible before,” said Melissa Daniels, another LI Hops partner. “In theory, that also means that if we grow hops, or one of these other ingredients, we can have a farm brewery as well.”

(And we like the theory, Melissa.)

I recently attended the Wet Hop Co-Op Session IPA Release Party at Long Ireland Beer Company in Riverhead. The Wet Hop Co-Op is a tasty India Pale Ale brewed exclusively with fresh hops from local Long Island hop farms.

Greg Martin, president and co-owner of Long Ireland, said he used a blend of Centennial and Cascade hops from Condzella, LI Hops and Wesnofske Farms to make the IPA, using about 60 pounds for a 20-barrel batch of beer.

“Wet hopping is when the hops are picked fresh off the vine and immediately delivered to us for brewing,” Martin explained. “Rather than using hop pellets, we use the raw, unkilned, ‘wet’ whole hop cones, which impart an unequivocally fresh hop flavor to the beer. Until recently, this was impossible for breweries on the East Coast.”

Dan Burke, the co-owner of Long Ireland Beer added, “We buy and support local hops and local business, regardless. Unfortunately, the infrastructure is not there yet to support a brewery of our size. It’s impossible for us to be compliant with the requirements, therefore we chose not to renew our New York farm brewer license this year. But we think it’s a great opportunity for new breweries starting up. It’s a great time to be in the craft beer industry, especially in New York.”

Justin Wesnofske sits on both sides of the fence. His family owns Weskofske Farm in Peconic, a grower of potatoes, fruits and vegetables for the last 50 years. He decided to add hops to the mix about five years ago.

“We’ve collaborated with other local farms to provide enough fresh hops for breweries like Long Ireland, Port Jeff and Greenport to produce some amazing-tasting, 100 percent local, wet-hopped beers,” said Jason, who doubles as Long Island sales manager for Greenport Brewing, “Right now we’re concentrating on producing top quality hops for local, small batch, novelty and wet-hopped beers.”

And we’ll allow a plug: Watch for Greenport Brewing’s first, 100 percent New York State ingredients brew, being released soon.

“We hope by growing fresh hops here on Long Island, we can contribute to New York State’s flourishing industry of locally produced, handcrafted beers, and beer ingredients,” added LI Hops’ Kampher added. “We’re really proud to be a part of the Long Island craft beer movement.

Next time you see one of these fine Long Island beers, try one. Chances are it contains fresh, local ingredients: Long Ireland, Moustache, Other Half, Greenport Harbor, Big Alice, Destination Unknown, 1940s Brewing, Lithology, Barrier, Finback, Po’ Boy Brewing and Saint James Brewing. And stay-tuned for many more to come.

They’re using ingredients from: Condzella Farms, Wading River; LI Hops, Riverhead; Weskofske Farms, Peconic; and Farm to Pint, Peconic.

McCune is director of the Craft Beverage Division of Melville-based EGC Group. Reach him via jimm@egcgroup.com or at 516-935-4944.