Hip Hops

Feature

Hip Hops

Growing Craft Brews

ON A SATURDAY IN JULY, 45 farmers and others from the Hudson Valley, central New York, and as far away as Maryland and Vermont gathered in Tarrytown to learn about an historic crop that their great grandfathers might well have grown here.

The workshop, Hops 101, was staged by Atlantic Hops, a Norwalk, Connecticut-based hops processor and distributor founded in 2010 with the goal of revitalizing the hops industry in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic regions. “We’re trying to reestablish the industry, but on a more regional scale, to supply the craft brew market,” says Atlantic Hops Founder and General Manager Michael Roffman. “It’s the emergence of the craft brew market that’s created an opportunity for the reemergence of the hops market.”

According to Roffman, over 99 percent of the American hops market is currently centered in the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, with a vast majority of that located within Washington’s Yacama Valley. But there are many different varieties of hops known to grow well in the Northeast, including Cascade, Brewer’s Gold, Centennial, Chinook. Mt. Hood, East Kent Golding, Newport, Sterling and Styrian Golding.

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In fact, beginning in the mid-1800s and lasting more than 50 years, the American hops industry was based in central New York. Then Mother Nature stepped in. “Hop farms in New York were being decimated by [an unidentified insect]—they called ‘the louse’—a general term for some bug that kills everything,” notes Daniel Dettmers, a process engineer for Atlantic Hops. Already weakened by this blight, the New York hops industry came to an end with the advent of Prohibition.

Nearly 100 years later, growth in the craft brew industry in the region has created an opening for the reemergence of this hearty crop. “Regional brewers, local brewers, are interested in local ingredients. Beer is no exception.” Roffman says. “We’re trying to aggregate a supply of small-scale growers throughout the region to a centralized processing facility so we can pelletize the hops, which is what brewers need. We need the hops.”

The workshop brought out farmers looking to diversify, aspiring farmers interested in this high-value niche crop, and home brewers looking to grow their own hops for their personal brews. From the history of the crop to market analysis, infrastructure, trellis design, nutrition and water requirements, harvesting and drying techniques, attendees were given a crash course in all things hops.

Many in the audience already had a passing familiarity with hops, but generally on a singular scale. “We ask people how many here grow hops— most people have their hands up,” Roffman notes, “but that’s more ‘hobby’ growing.” The workshop is designed to give the growers knowledge that could help bring their hops harvest to the next level, which is the intention of Atlantic Hops. “You could put some hops in your backyard and they would grow. But growing them commercially—there’s a significant amount of knowledge that is needed,” Roffman stresses.

Atlantic Hops organized the workshop in hopes of inspiring a new generation of hops farmers in the Northeast with whom they could forge a working relationship. “We make sure that it’s a partnership,” Dettmers explains. “If you grow for us, you ship it to us and nobody gets paid until we can finally get it all processed and tested and sent out to the brewer. But once the brewer pays, you get 60 percent, we keep 40 percent, something like that. It’s a little different for every grower.”

The company asks new hops growers to commit to planting at least an acre, enough room for about 1,200 plants. The plants, called bines, are trained to curl up a series of wires strung up in a trellis system. Each bine produces flowers, which must be dried as soon as they are picked. A single bine can produce one to two pounds of dried flowers. The dried flowers are shipped to a central processing center and pelletized for use in the brewing process.

Atlantic Hops is betting that hops could be an economically viable crop in the Hudson Valley. “The climate is good for hops,” Roffman says. “There are challenges, but we know they grow here. A lot of family farms, they’re disintegrating because you can’t make a living at it anymore, so we were looking for a high-value crop that they could put on an acre or two to make a little extra money.”

As the regional craft brewing industry grows, the demand for hops will grow right along with it. Locally grown hops would allow the local breweries to purchase local product and would give them access to a superior product. “Here you have guys that are trying to make artisan beers, trying to make something incredible, something special, and they’re getting the last of the hops crop,” Dettmer explains. “The biggest stuff is going to the biggest players and [small craft breweries are] getting what’s left over. Here’s a chance to grow a local product—so now the best is going to the local brewers. Now they can, as much as possible, use local ingredients to brew a local beer that’s consumed locally.”

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