Hope from hops

JOHNSTOWN – For years, Jared Goderie, a crew supervisor at Goderie’s Tree Farm, has been brewing his own beer, mostly seasonal brews, Indian pale ales or lagers, often using hops he grew himself.

“We kind of just brew whatever we’re in the mood for,” he said.

What had been a hobby could soon turn into a second business for Goderie, thanks to New York state’s Farm Brewery Law. The law creates a new kind of brewing license that allows farmers or other microbreweries in the state to produce, retail and distribute their own beer, as well as wines, produced in New York state, provided the holder of the license only sells beer made with at least 20 percent of the hops and 20 percent of the other ingredients grown in New York state.

Goderie is hoping to convert a portion of his family’s 280-acre tree farm on County Highway 106 in Johnstown into a commercial hops farm to take advantage of the new hops market created by the brewery law.

“That was a big incentive for us to get into it,” Goderie said. “Down the road, our vision is that there is going to be a high demand for New York state hops, especially with all of the microbreweries in the state.”

Hops history

Steve Miller, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s hops specialist, says New York state once boasted the No. 1 hops-producing region in the United States, producing 40,000 tons of hops in 1880, about 80 percent of all of the hops grown in the U.S. at that time. In those days, about 40,000 acres of upstate farming land was devoted to growing the small green pine cone-like flowers, which give beer much of its flavor.

Miller said all of the hops-growing regions of the world fall within the same latitude, places like Washington State and Oregon as well as the United Kingdom and Germany. This is true because hops are a very photosensitive plant that require a certain length of day to flower at the right times and with the right qualities to be used in beer production.

The Fulton County and Montgomery County region was a significant player in hops growing in the late 19th century, according to a report from the National Agriculture Statistics Service published in the Northeast Hops Alliance May newsletter.

In the 1880s Montgomery County had the fifth highest total acreage of farm land devoted to hops production in the state at 1,612 acres, which produced about 10 tons of hops annually. Fulton County’s peak of hops production occurred in the 1870s when it was producing 72,503 pounds of hops annually, but that crashed down to about 8,000 pounds in the 1880s and then 7,000 pounds in the 1890s.

Miller said several factors killed hops production in New York, including consolidation in the beer- brewing industry, breakouts of mold, insects and eventually Prohibition. He said farmers at that time would typically use only one variety of a plant, which made them more vulnerable to diseases.

“There will still be pests, but farmers today have places they can go for help, which wasn’t true back then,” Miller said.

Goderie said in July he planted about “180 hills” of hops crops from seeds he bought in Syracuse. He said hops are planted in mounds with raised beds because the plants require watering but need to have dry roots. He said he’s not sure what kind of yield to expect .

“We aren’t sure what they’re going to produce, and nobody seems to have an answer for that. Unfortunately the folks on the west coast are being pretty tight lipped about it. They don’t like the fact that New York is coming back into this market. They see it as a threat,” he said.

“We’re just going a step at a time to take it to the commercial level.”

Miller said some hops growers in the West have been reluctant to share some of their techniques with New York farmers and the rebirth of hops farming in New York state only started a few years ago, providing too small a sample for reliable yield predictions. He said in general the growing conditions for hops in New York state should be more favorable than in the Pacific Northwest, where most of them are now grown, because in the West, they have to take steps to artificially cool the plants.

Small brewery market

Cornell Cooperative Extension estimates there are about 170 small breweries in New York state, up from about 30 such breweries 10 years ago.

Johnstown entrepreneurs Adam Gurga and his partner Danny Presti are close to joining the ranks of those microbreweries with their venture called the Downtube Brewing Co. The two have set up their 3,000-square-foot brewing operation in the former Johnstown Knitting Co. building at 309 W. Montgomery St. Gurga said his college friend Presti has been home brewing for seven years and his product was so popular among his family and friends that the two decided to try to establish a brewing company and sell the beer commercially. The two hope to produce 800 to 1,000 barrels of beer in the first year, and -although they plan to use locally grown hops- they don’t think they’ll be able to meet all of the standards to be a New York Farm Brewery.

“As our production ramps up we plan to use only New York state hops and hopefully only Fulton County hops,” Gurga said. “Hops won’t be the problem for qualifying as New York Farm Brewery, which grows pretty well here, but barley and wheat are seasonal crops and the amount that you need is much more than the hops.”

Under the Farm Brewery Law, the percentage of New York state ingredients for the beer produced rises to 60 percent by 2018 and then 90 percent by 2024.

Jordan White, from Gloversville, owns a microbrewery called Wolf’s Hollow Brewing Company in Glenville, Schenectady County. White studied beer brewing at the American Brewer’s Guild. He said he plans to buy hops from farmers like Goderie. He said the demand for craft beer is enormous in this region. He only sells his beer once a week, on Thursday nights, but he sells out quickly.

“We wanted to stay small but we’re finding that our production is far under the demand for what we’re selling. We may have to expand.”