The best hops grow just down the road

by Mark Tichenor

New York State used to be the epicenter of hop cultivation. Of course, like all the other awesome things New York used to be, that was long ago, the trellised fields were laid to waste long ago by agricultural disease and prohibition. Nowadays, even New York’s small brewers need to look westward to find their hops.

Fortunately a resurgence is taking place, at least on a small scale. It turns out some brewers are every bit as obsessed with the local-sourcing movement as restauranteurs, and the quest to include hops from local farms is shocking the long-dormant industry back to life.

 Over the last few years, farmers statewide went from plating basically zero acres’ worth of hops to over 200 acres. It’s still a drop in the bucket compared to most crops, but increasing demand from small breweries, as well as incentives from the recently signed Farm Brewery Law, mean new acreage sprouting up every year.

The Finger Lakes Region is proving particularly adaptable to hop growth, supporting a mix of longtime growers, such as Pedersen Farms, where they’ve cultivated hops for 20 years, and new entrants like Victor, NY’s Bluebell Hopyard, in its second season of cultivation.

Hops are not the cheapest crop to farm. The plants are climbing vines so farmers need to install huge trellis frames for support. Up to three years will go by before the hop vines start flowering to their full potential. Oh, and it takes pricey specialized equipment, or many MANY man-hours to harvest the flowers when ready. But it’s a labor of love that is steadily becoming more profitable for area growers.

Dave Schlosser, owner of The Naked Dove Brewing Company in Canandaigua New York, loves the resurgence of local hops, and  the fact that the hops grown here have unique qualities of flavor and aroma–what the wine set calls terroir.

Terroir in this context refers to the effect a region’s climate has on the character of hops; how much sun the vines receive, how much rain, the acidity and composition of the soil. “It’s partially why when they tried to grow German Hallertau hops in the Pacific Northwest, it tasted nothing like the German Hallertau,” Schlosser explains.

Fortunately the Centennial and Cascade hop varieties he harvests from Pedersen Farms, eight miles up the road from his brewery, play very well into Schlosser’s overall approach to making Hopulus Localus, Naked Dove’s fall seasonal.

Hopulus Localus is wet-hopped, meaning the fresh hop flowers are added to the nearly-finished beer prior to fermentation. “We empty out the mash tun, fill it with hops, and then pump the wort in on top of it after the boil, so it’s very much a late addition,” Schlosser says. “The mash tun becomes a giant hopback.

Wet-hopping means big hop flavor, and Hopulus Localus bears the characteristic grassiness that signifies the use of this time-honored method. But there’s a subtle, soft, almost English undertone to this beer. Its voluminous aroma suggests a big, palate-wrecking flavor but the New York hops demonstrate restraint. A bold citrus essence gives way to a mild earthy evergreen quality that gently fades away. It is absolutely intriguing.

This is the third year of Hopulus Localus production, and the fall seasonal is already kegged and/or on draft at pubs across the region. Each year, the beer is a little different, and that’s really the point of a beer this local: the changing conditions of the region alter the character of the hops differently each year, and those subtle variations factor heavily into creating a beer that is new and unique– a beer that perfectly captures the essence of its region.

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to beercraft@rochester.rr.com.

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Roll out the barrel, of Oktoberfest beer

by Mark Tichenor

Oktoberfest season is here again! Time for the biggest, baddest, and best party in the world, at least, if you’re in Munich. Sure, plenty of local Oktoberfests spring up, but it’s just not the same. Ah well, at least we all get to enjoy Oktoberfest beer. It’s through a confluence of a few hey events that this delicious brew came to be.

The stated impetus for Oktoberfest seems kind of frivolous: just another Royal wedding amid a bloated aristocracy of kings, countesses, archdukes and the like. But the festival thrown to commemorate the matrimony of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese Von Saxe-Hildburghausen would go on to become the largest annual festival in the world, even bigger than Burning Man.

The brewers of Munich really needed those drinkers to come out in force, since Mother Nature had them locked into an ironclad brewing cycle. Even the best brewmasters of the time had a pretty hazy understanding of microbiology, but what they did know was that beer brewed and fermented during the winter months, and lagered in colder temperatures, tasted a heck of a lot better than the sour nasty summer-brewed beers. Lager yeast needs cold temperatures to do its job, and impart that classic clean lager finish.

The brewers would release this early spring-brewed beer (called ‘Märzen because it was often produced in March) over the next few months, but it definitely benefitted from a little aging, growing more mellow and delicious and peaking right around the middle of September. Naturally, the September release became something drinkers really looked forward to. But storing all that beer put a strain on the Munich breweries’ cooperage resources–they needed those dang barrels back for the next batch–so a giant beer celebration seemed the perfect way to empty a lot of kegs all at once. Pretty much any reason would probably have sufficed.

So, although it’s a raucous party, Oktoberfest was really a practical move by a stereotypically practical people (who, incidentally can hang with anyone in the world when it comes to enjoying a ludicrously oversized vessel of beer). And this remains true today, both at the actual Oktoberfest and the thousands of smaller festivals that spring up all over the world.

For the classic experience, you really should go with Oktoberfest beer from the big six Munich breweries: Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Augustiner, Hofbräu, Paulaner and Löwenbrau. This is one of those things where tradition and experience  matter, and while the beer halls of Munich doubtlessly rage with impassioned argument over which one is the best, they’re all masterful brews, lightly sweet from the malt with a barely perceptible cut of Hallertau and Tettnang hops cleaning things up.

That’s not to say American brewers don’t make tasty Oktoberfest-style beers, they most certainly do, but many are prone to that same craft brewer’s mindset of making everything hoppier, or sweeter, or more badass, and that’s not necessarily appropriate for a beer meant to be consumed all night, and intended as much to be swayed and sloshed in the air as to be poured into the gullet. Victory Festbier is a good bet for an American alternative, as is The Boston Beer Company’s Sam Adams Oktoberfest.

Even if you can’t get to Munich, do yourself a favor and head out to your nearest Oktoberfest. Even in a small city halfway around the world, there’s something about sitting at those long tables under the big tent, making friends with your neighbors, listening to the oompah band and hoisting a Mass glass of Oktoberfest beer that will always define what the Bavarians call Gemütlichkeit.

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to beercraft@rochester.rr.com.