Hop to It
MOST BREWERS USE HOPS as a chef might use a spice, adding and combining it to create a distinct flavor profile in a particular dish; different hops present different profiles. Daniel Reyman, assistant brewer at Mill House Brewing Company in Poughkeepsie, describes hops succinctly. They are, he says, “the condiment to the beer.”
It was not always this way. Though beer making is said to be 9,000 years old, hops were not introduced into the recipe until the ninth century. Their initial appeal was as a preservative, and their acidic properties helped to balance the sweetness of the malted grain, creating a variety of aromas and flavors in the process. It’s precisely those aromas and flavors that helped launch the “hoppy” beer style now in vogue.
The current enthusiasm for hoppy beer dates back to just 1980, when Sierra Nevada introduced its hop-forward Pale Ale, the beer widely credited for changing the direction of (and, in some ways, spawning) the craft beer movement in this country. Brewery founder Ken Grossman not only used a large quantity of hops, he used a then-new hop variety called Cascade that delivered both bitter flavors and an aromatic profile. While Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was considered a hoppy beer when introduced, today’s hop-seeking consumers gravitate to the more intense India Pale Ales (IPAs) and double IPAs.
Hops were introduced to U.S. soil by the late 1600s and, prior to Prohibition, New York had a booming hop industry ready to help quench the local and national thirst for beer. In 1880, the state produced more than 20 million pounds of hops on some 40,000 acres. Most of the hop production was upstate (Otsego County, just west of the Hudson Valley, produced one-third of the total), but the Hudson Valley was also involved, with at least one hop house in Dutchess County supplying M. Vassar and Co., Matthew Vassar’s highly successful brewery in Poughkeepsie. Nonetheless, competition from the West, disease and, finally, Prohibition, all but doomed hop production in New York.
Justin Riccobono, a trained horticulturalist, began contemplating where hops are grown as he sipped a craft beer at a local spot back in 2011. “They had these old vintage hop farm pictures. I was extremely interested—I was never exposed to the hop plant at all,” he admits. Searching local farms yielded nothing, but a call from his friend Carmine Istvan, who was in the process of acquiring Eastern View Nursery, in Lagrangeville, sparked a flame. “We talked about how can we be different—Justin mentioned hops,” Istvan recalls. His interest piqued, Istvan put his team to work intensively studying all the aspects of hop production. New York’s Farm Brewery Bill of 2012 incentivized the use of local ingredients by local breweries, so in 2013, with Riccobono working as farm director, Istvan planted the first hills (bines, in hop jargon) at Dutchess Hops. In 2014, they sold hops from three of the four acres they had planted, becoming the first commercial hopyard in New York in decades.
A Hop Vocabulary
The female flowers of the hop plant used to flavor and as a preservative in beer.
One of two types of acids found in beer hops, desire for the bitterness they bring beer.
The second of two types of acids found in hops, known for contributing aromatics to beer.
Can refer to specific hops known for their bitterness, but also to hop additions made early in the boiling process to extract more bitterness.
Can refer to specific hops known for their aromatic properties, but also to hop additions made late in the boiling process to preserve more of the aroma.
International Bittering Units, a measure of the bitter elements in beer (the higher the number the more bitterness present).
The area in which hops grow, like a vineyard.
The individual stems or shoots of the hop plant that are trained nearly 20 feet in the air.
The practice of adding fresh, undried hops (wet hops) during the brewing process to add distinctive aromas and flavors.
The practice of adding dried hops later in the brewing process to emphasize their aromatic properties rather than their bitterness.
A building in which freshly harvested hops are dried, also called a hop kiln.
Dutchess Hops was the first step toward the revitalization of this once-prosperous industry. The recent proliferation of breweries in the region only amplifies the local demand—a modest craft brewery could easily use 4,000 pounds of hops per year (in 2014, Dutchess Hops harvested a scant 100 pounds). “We probably need 250 acres in order to satisfy 50 percent of the usage in the Hudson Valley alone, not to mention the 50 breweries in New York City,” Riccobono notes. The arithmetic spurred him to establish Hudson Valley Hops, a one-stop shop for growers that offers everything from consultation, procurement and management, to connecting farms with breweries and, eventually, processing. “We had a lot of farmers come up to us very excited about getting into the business,” Riccobono says. “Hudson Valley Hops was created to bring everybody together.”
Using plants from Hudson Valley Hops and working closely with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Dennis Nesel, of Germantown Beer Farm, took the plunge and established a hopyard. “We planted a small area—not quite one acre,” Nesel explains. Initially focused on Cascade hops, Nesel decided to grow other organic grains as well, and established the first commercial beer malt house in Dutchess County. “In the past, grains had to be sent to Massachusetts to be malted, and then [shipped] back,” he stresses.
So far, the fruits of Nesel’s efforts have been positive—he and other growers are surprised at the robustness of his plants, as well as the distinct character of his hops. “Cascade [hops] are grown in the Pacific Northwest,” Nesel remarks, “but when you taste Hudson Valley Cascade, you taste our ground, our water. It’s very different.”
Hop plants need at least four years to reach maturity, producing cones that possess the punchy bitterness desired by hopheads. With just a few years in the ground, local hops are still developing their distinctive “character.” Brewers notice differences as well, and they choose specific hops for use in specific types of beer.
North River Hops and Brewing, in Wappingers Falls, is among the area breweries that purchased local hops last year. Tucked into a shopping plaza, the taproom offers a rotating selection of seven to 10 beers. Brandin and Nicki Stabell opened the brewery last fall, the culmination of a process initiated in 2012 by Brandin and his father-in-law. (The brewery, owned by the Stabells and Nicki’s parents, Kevin and Felicia Fischetti, takes its name from an old term for the Hudson River.) “ ’Local’ is important to us,” Nicki says, noting that the brewery works closely with many Hudson Valley vendors to produce unique brews: a tea beer (using leaves from Harney & Sons); a cider beer (with fruit from Migliorelli Farm); and a coffee beer (with beans from Tas Kafé).
After purchasing 40 pounds of Cascade hops from Obercreek Farm, Nicki says they found the hop’s alpha acids, which create bitterness, on the low side, so North River used them as a “finishing” hop, focusing squarely on their aromatic properties and allowing for a distinct expression. “You can taste the freshness,” she says, adding “It’s a lot of fun to show the hop variance to the public.” In the works is an all-New York State beer for the fall, as well as one or two “wet-hopped” beers. (Typically, hops are dried, packaged, stored and shipped at specific low temperatures, which helps preserve some of the freshness even after drying. Hops may be pelletized, creating an even longer shelf life. As the name implies, the hops used in wet-hopped beers are still fresh, not dried or processed, and their flavors are more delicate and vibrant. But these nuanced aromas and flavors are fleeting, so wet-hopped beers are seasonal offerings that require a quick turnaround from harvest to brewing—ideally less than 24 hours—to truly highlight the character of the fresh hops.)
Back at Mill House Brewing Company, brewmasters Jamie Bishop and Larry Stock found immediate success with their beers, which range from a light German-style pilsner to dark, malty stouts. Bishop and Stock also use local hops in their wet-hopped or “harvest” brews. “It’s as if you took a hop cone and just smelled it. That’s what you’re getting in the beer—that raw hop flavor and aroma,” Bishop notes. “And that’s what hopheads want.”
Some local growers are planning to develop drying facilities (called oast houses) and processing techniques that will enable them to take the next step with local brewers. “If they had [processed hops], they wouldn’t be able to grow enough of them,” Bishop says. “They won’t have a problem selling [hops] once they start drying it properly, packaging, and getting it to the brewer. I’d like to see these guys get out of that comfort zone and get into some breeding with Cornell—which they’re doing—so that we have a Dutchess signature hop, a New York State hop, that really identifies this area and becomes our flagship hop. Not only will people want it here, but people from the West Coast will say, ‘You gotta get this Dutchess hop.’ That’s the pinnacle.”
In the meantime, the rewards are evident in the glasses and the taps, and the future is promising. “It puts a smile on my face every day,” Dutchess Hops’ Istvan says, “because when we put this together it was something new, but it was something old. It’s this ‘farm-to-pint’ experience—it’s something fresh, something local. It just doesn't get any better than that.”