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 firstname.lastname@example.org.