By Mike Murphy
FARMINGTON — The air smells like, well, beer. A breeze is blowing on this late afternoon, but rather than cooling things off, it’s only stirring up the hot, sticky air and the aroma of hops, a key ingredient that gives certain beers their bitter taste. A cold beer just might help, and two just might make it a perfect summer night, as sweat drenched Bluebell Hopyard partners Kurt Charland and Fred Armstrong, along with Derek Armstrong and Casey Kindlon, secure a load of hops stalks on a trailer.
They’d love a beer, but duty calls.
They have just stripped the Centennial variety of the plant from the hops poles placed in rows along Mud Creek.
This particular batch of hops is headed to a nearby farm, where it will be fed into a harvester — a hops combine, if you will — and stripped. The cones — which produce the aroma — are collected and will be driven back to the Bluebell barn in Farmington. They then will be dried in a process that takes between 12 and 18 hours.
After packaging, some will go directly to breweries — most are local craft breweries such as VB Brewery in Victor and Fairport Brew Co. in Monroe County, but some will be on the way to the New York City area.
“It’s important to really get them harvested, dried, packaged and processed and stored properly,” Charland said. “Otherwise you start to lose the integrity of the hops.”
So the work is only beginning on this day.
But someone, somewhere will raise a locally produced craft beer and toast friendships, lament a lost love or seize what remains of the day.
More and more, that craft beer is brewed locally and made with hops grown locally — not exactly but similar to the way it used to be done in New York.
State Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard A. Ball, who on a recent visit to the Finger Lakes area toured a local hopyard, noted hops production is nothing new for New York.
“It’s really rediscovering an old industry,” Ball said.
Fred Armstrong, on whose property the Bluebell Hopyard calls home, said that in the 1800s and early 1900s, New York growers supplied more than 90 percent of the hops in the United States.
“They were basically grown from Scottsville all the way to Albany almost,” Armstrong said.
Disease and pest pressures at the turn of the 20th century hit New York growers hard, depleting crops and making production more difficult, said Marie Anselm, agriculture economic development specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County.
Throw in favorable growing conditions, and hops production began to shift to the West and thrive. Prohibition hurt hops growers like last call kills a party on a Friday night.
“Demand for hops plummeted, and production in New York disappeared,” Anselm said.
Their experience with hops production has been a bit history lesson and science lab rolled into one. Armstrong said he found a variety of hops growing wild on his land that he believes was introduced to the area by German settlers.
Bluebell also is cultivating an heirloom hops variety.
“It’s really supporting New York and bringing some of its history back,” Charland said. “Some of the varieties have been growing 200 years on this farm. That’s pretty special.”
Planted as a root, the hop plant grows upward, guided by the poles that reach up to 15 feet or higher. They’re tied with string to guide the growth.
Take a country drive in Ontario County and head out toward Yates County, as Ball did on his recent tour, and chances are you’ll see hop poles where you might not have seen them just a year ago.
At least two such small growing operations are within a short drive of Canandaigua Town Hall, said Doug Finch, director of development for the town.
Besides inquiries about hops growth, Finch said he has fielded requests about locating small breweries and other businesses that rely on locally grown products in town. Such operations fall within the town’s mission of preserving farm operations and promoting agricultural products.
“There is definitely a lot of interest in hops and opportunities associated with it,” Finch said. “Some smaller farms have started or are looking to start.”
As the popularity of craft beer and local food products continues to grow, locally grown hops will feed into that growth, Anselm said.
“The Finger Lakes region is well positioned for future expansion in the hops industry,” Anselm said.
The craft beverage industry jump-started after state legislation dealing with “farm breweries” went into effect in January 2013.
In order to be considered a farm brewery, at least 20 percent of hops and other beer ingredients grown locally must be sourced, Anselm said. The legislation has not only helped brewers but growers as well, and it should continue to do so.
In three years, 60 percent of hops and other local ingredients will be required — and the percentage climbs to 90 percent by 2024.
“This too should keep hops production growing,” Anselm said.
Hops require well drained soil, access to irrigation and full sun, Anselm said, and many places in Ontario County meet the criteria.
“This area also has the needed farmland, production experience and agritourism base to support the hops industry, which makes this region very well-suited to hops production,” Anselm said.
Hops acreage has increased from about 15 acres in 2010 to 300 acres this year. Although that pales in comparison with the thousands upon thousands of acres devoted to hops in the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, New York still has seen a “dramatic” growth, Ball said.
More research at the Cornell University Agriculture and Food Technology Park in Geneva on varieties and methods of production will help to meet the growing demand from brewers looking for New York hops and barley to make their beer, Ball said.
“You’re going to see more hops poles going up,” Ball said. “I think this area is poised for it.”
Big versus small While much of the hops production in the Pacific Northwest is done on large farms, hops in New York is done on a much smaller scale.
Hops can be grown at a variety of scales from large, commercial operations on down to home gardens.
Reasons vary, from growing experience to harvesting capacity, Anselm said. Some operations might be an acre or less, although most commercial operations are in the 3- to 5-acre range.
“Many hops operations in New York are still in their early stages, but as hops become more established in New York, average farm size will increase as well,” Anselm said.
Hops production is difficult and time-consuming — a “full-time part-time business for us,” Charland said, which is one of the reasons he said Bluebell will remain a smaller operation He said he believes eventually, a few growers will try to build up, perhaps even buy up and manage, some of the smaller yards, Charland said.
But it will take some time, if ever, for New York to reclaim its dominance in hops production.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever get yards in the thousands like they have there,” Charland said. “Maybe. The industry here is still learning, and we have hurdles to overcome. We’ll see what happens.”
Thomas A. Bullinger, owner and brewmaster at VB Brewery in Victor, understands that some areas of the country are experiencing hops shortages. In Portland, Oregon, 90-plus breweries operate within a 10-mile radius, and the competition for hops is fierce, Bullinger said.
“Since this is one of the few environments where hops thrive, it makes sense that the local industry has lots of headroom for growth,” Bullinger said.
That growth will be somewhat throttled by the amount of capital investment required for large hops farms, and by the lack of large-scale growers, processing equipment and brokers to market and sell the hops — all of which exists in the Pacific Northwest.
“As the local growing industry expands, so will the required infrastructure to support it,” Bullinger said. “This will encourage more growers, feeding a growth loop.”
The exciting part of this for local growers, Ball said, is no one sees the top of the market yet.
“The demand is growing every day,” Ball said. “I don’t think we really know where this ends.”
Bullinger said about 90 percent of the hops used in the nano brewery’s products come from Bluebell and a small amount from Farmington-based Schmidt Farm.
Like wine, hops grown in different areas — even hopyards across the street from each other — provide distinct flavors, aromas and bitterness, Bullinger said.
In his case, supporting the local community goes beyond simply using local products. Bullinger spent a rainy Saturday a few years back helping the Bluebell folks plant hops.
“We’ve been good friends ever since,” Bullinger said. “It’s a privilege to work with Bluebell and have an appreciation for the entire lifecycle of a hop plant, hop cones, harvesting and processing, and the resulting beer.”
And yes, that’s why Charland and Armstrong are rushing about in the field, sweating.
Most of what is in the yard is already sold. And what hasn’t sold most likely will when they get back in touch with breweries to find out what they need, Charland said.
The process is amazing to experience, from their level to the overall resurgence in New York, Charland said. They started with a few plants in the back yard, partly because they saw potential but also because they enjoy brewing their own beer.
“We love beer,” Charland said. “We’re big fans of beer.”