By Marcello Iaia
ALBANY COUNTY — A squeeze between thumb and forefinger of a hop cone ready for harvest can release the potent aroma often found in the complex craft beers demanded by a new generation of drinkers and brewers.
State legislation passed last year, which opened licensing requirements and tax exemptions for small farm breweries, and loosened State Liquor Authority restrictions, is aimed at reviving a beer industry that was thriving in New York in the 1800s and establishing the brew as a product of local land and culture.
Hops, which supply the bitter and aromatic qualities of many beers, were grown primarily in New York soils for the American market into the turn of the 20th Century, with “city pickers” traveling to upstate farms and hop yards full of the heady perfume to harvest a cash crop that was found growing wild by Dutch settlers.
“It’s a complete renaissance,” said Dietrich Gehring, sitting in his New Scotland home situated in the middle of the land where he is growing barley and hops for small-scale, local breweries.
Gehring is drafting a business plan for an “Indian Ladder Farmstead Brewery Co.,” licensed under the new legislation, which requires “farm breweries” producing fewer than 60,000 barrels a year to have 20 percent each of hops and other ingredients to be grown within the state, increasing to 60 percent in 2019, and 90 percent by 2024.
The 15-barrel brewery could cost nearly $1 million in total, Gehring said, to be built on land he and his wife, Laurie Ten Eyck, have across Route 156 from Indian Ladder Farms. Gehring planted two acres of winter barley last October and has grown four different varieties of hops for years.
Beginning with a college job at Beacon Hill Wine and Spirits, Gehring spent years in his twenties as a beer salesman in Boston and the Capital Region. He has experimented with home brewing since, but it’s only now, at age 50, that he is planning to make a living from it.
The process is ages old. Malted barley is mashed and soaked in hot water, then filtered and boiled with hops and other flavoring ingredients. Yeast bacteria are added to ferment sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Gehring was one in an audience of nearly one-hundred beer-industry novices and veterans convened at the Carey Center for Global Good in Rensselaerville on Saturday.
“We’re poised at a threshold in a very large change in the way that beer’s going to be made in New York, driven by the farm brewery legislation, in part, but also by a lot of consumer demand,” said Scott Collins, state director for United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development, during a panel discussion on Saturday. “People want local product, period, and we’re seeing this all over the place.”
Rebecca Platel, program specialist at the Carey Center, said brewing workshops have been held before at the center, with more scheduled for March, and plans for an on-site brewery have
been submitted in a funding proposal to the Albany County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
Brewers, farmers, and maltsters traded business cards on Saturday in between sessions on how to grow and malt barley, the ideal package of sugars, enzymes, and protein for brewing and fermentation of America’s preferred alcoholic beverage.
Growing barley for malting, which involves germination and roasting the grain and requires more starch than protein, is expensive. But winter-growing varieties exist, farmed in New York mainly in the Finger Lakes
region where small grains are grown.
“I would say, if you’re looking for a sure thing, this isn’t it,” said Andrea Stanley, speaking at the conference about growing and malting barley with her husband, Christian, in Hadley, Mass.
The Stanleys began Valley Malt in 2010, claiming to be the first Northeast maltsters in 100 years. They now advise others starting out in the region, like Marty and Natalie Mattrazzo of FarmHouse Malt, one of five maltsters Marty Mattrazzo estimates are opening in the state.
“If all five of us opened this year, and all five of us were at capacity, it would be about 2 percent of all the malt needed in New York State,” said Mattrazzo, speaking on a panel Saturday.
Following Mattrazzo was Ryan Demler, who estimated there are around 130 breweries in the state, and the C.H. Evans Brewery Co., where he is a brewer, plans to use over 100,000 pounds of malted barley a year.
Alexander Gordon, a Knox beef farmer considering a barley crop, told the Albany County executive, Daniel McCoy, after he spoke to the crowd, that barley growers in the region face the same bottleneck that meat producers have in the past, without a nearby processing facility.
“With the potential of the Albany County renewable energy power authority coming on board, we can take energy that’s produced here within the county,” said Gordon.
McCoy said he wanted a malting facility in Albany County and plans to form a committee.
“I’ll also assure you that I’ll get you through the Al Tech fund to get some funding for this stuff, too…and I can assure you, if we do that, this can be done by next year,” said McCoy. The Al Tech trust fund, administered by the Albany County Business Development Corporation, finances business loans within the county.
Congressman Paul Tonko, from the 20th District, spoke at the Saturday conference.
“This is an awesome opportunity for us to insert the language and the concepts of which you will be speaking,” said Tonko, referring to the renewing of the U.S. Farm Bill, which expired in October. “Like, if it’s infrastructure improvement, let’s do it. Let’s provide for those opportunities. If it’s crop specialties that have to be listed for a region, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
In addition to malting facilities, machines to harvest hops and process them into pellet form are needed to bring the regional infrastructure of the industry together.
In the boom years of the 19th Century, every county in the state had hops growing, producing 80 percent of the hops in the nation. Two of three current harvester machines in the state are in Madison County, where Steve Miller was hired in 2011 as a hops specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension. The third harvester is in Seneca County.
“I’m currently working with a manufacturer over in Lyons [Wayne County] who is going to be building some hop harvesters, and those will be mobile,” said Miller. “They will be on a trailer and can be moved from farm to farm.”
Miller is currently updating a map of hop growers in the state, to be ready before the August harvest.
Three years ago, there were three commercial growers mapped in the state. Now, there are well over 60, concentrated from the Finger Lakes to Cooperstown, the Capital Region, and the Hudson Valley.
Hops grown for major beer companies, like Anheuser-Busch, throughout the 20th Century come from hundreds of acres in the Pacific Northwest. The big companies run malting facilities and plant-breeding programs to boost yields, disease resistance, and flavors.
Miller said such a costly program at Cornell is unlikely, but varieties can be tested for their viability in the area.
“I think what’s great now is there are so many brewers and so many people experimenting and coming up with new types of beer and new flavors,” said Miller. “It’s like going on a winery tour. You could go to seven different places and have supposedly the same kind of beer and they’re all going to taste somewhat different.”
Gehring is now developing recipes for the six kinds of beer and two varieties of cider he’ll brew just a few hundred feet from his house. Some of his ideas include a milk stout, a Belgian-style ale, and flavoring with blueberries.
“Because beer can be so varied, I can make something that will taste like nobody else,” he said.
Separate from his other hop plants, Gehring is growing a variety he calls “Helderberg hops.” They produced a small crop in the first year instead of the typical third or fourth.
Knox resident Daniel Driscoll gave Gehring cuttings of his heirloom plant. The same was done for him by a retired egg producer in Berne, Earl Williamson, who Driscoll said he’d heard worked with the plants on the neighboring Shultes farm.
Driscoll sent the Helderberg hops to be tested by Alpha Analytics for a chemical analysis. It reported the variety to be the oldest grown in the United States.
One of the largest hop farms in Albany County was on the Beebe farm in Knox, south of Middle Road.
Gehring’s father, Charles Gehring, directs the New Netherland Research Center at the state museum, studying and translating 17th-Century Dutch Colonial documents.
“They were here when the Dutch came. They’re native,” said Gehring of hop plants. “I have yet to find any native ones. I’d like to, just to see what they look like. When the Dutch came, that was one of the things they wrote back about, was that, ‘We’ll be able to make beer because hops are already growing here. We’ll be able to bring our cultivated stuff here. We know it’ll grow here.’”