Hops Conference Reflects Brewing Interest in NY State

12/8/2012 7:00 AM
By Amy Halloran New York Correspondent

MORRISVILLE, N.Y. — A capacity crowd of 280 filledce  the auditorium at Morrisville State College and more than 20 names sat on a wait list when the Northeast Hops Alliance held its 11th conference Saturday, Dec. 1.

The size of the crowd reflects the growth of interest in the craft brewing industry and also the New York State Farm Brewery Law, which goes into effect mid-January.

The state passed a farm winery law in 1976 and laws to promote farm distilleries in 2002. These licensing programs are designed to stimulate agriculture, manufacturing and tourism.

A trade show drew New York's first malthouse, Farmhouse Malt, which is still putting together its malting facility. Suppliers of hops and hops equipment also provided information to attendees. Randy Flores of US Hops Source came from Colorado to meet hops growers and craft brewers who might be interested in his services; across the country he connects farm fresh hops directly to craft brewers.

The conference covered two tracks, the farm brewery law and growing hops. About two-thirds of the attendees were interested in learning how to grow hops, and just over a 100 listened to experts discuss the farm brewery licensing.

Heather Darby and other staff from University of Vermont Extension detailed the basics of hops production, and Tim Weigle, an IPM specialist from Cornell's Lake Erie Lab, focused on pests specific to hops.

"Normally speaking we have a three-tier system and there's supposed to be a wall between all of them," Thomas Donohue of the State Liquor Authority (SLA) said of the state's usual constraints on manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing alcohol. "Farm brewery, you as a licensee can dabble in all three."

The license is not free reign, however, and Donohue and Bob Somers of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets tried to outline some of the details and limits on farm brewery operations.

A hotline is being established to help people navigate state requirements and streamline the application process. By early January, a single state employee will handle questions on farm breweries. The phone number will be listed on the SLA's website.

"A farm winery has to be on a farm, but a farm brewer and farm distiller do not have to be on a farm," Donohue said. "It can just be a factory and you're buying product from someplace else."

What is purchased, however is regulated with the goal of boosting state production. From the start, farm brewers have to use 20 percent New York state products — from grains to honey to hops — in each batch. By 2018, 60 percent of the ingredients used will have to be from the state. If production in 2017 cannot meet the demand, however, the state can revisit the issue and lower the percentage.

While the reality of the law may seem less farm friendly than its name, such big-picture thinking on behalf of the state stimulates industry and agriculture from the ground up.

For instance, a couple listening to this information drove 14 hours from St. Louis, Mo., just for the conference.

Karen Clodfelter and John Shepherd are home brewers and gardeners who initially wanted to farm and brew in the Pacific Northwest. A quick peek at land prices made them look elsewhere. When they found, via the Internet, that hops are being revitalized in New York state, they organized a brewery trip that included a meeting with hops specialist Steve Miller, who works with Cornell Cooperative Extension at Morrisville. A day and a half into their self-guided tour the beginning of September, they decided to move to New York. They're hoping to settle in Madison County.

"We're following our bliss and this is the bliss," Shepherd said. "The culture of craft beer is one that lends itself to getting into it, and this place is really getting into it."

The combination of state support, people's enthusiasm and relatively inexpensive land is enough to make this couple put their house on the market in the spring.

Another part of the state involved in the farm brewery process is the farmland protection program, which is managed by Somers. The agricultural districts law protects ag operations from zoning regulations, and will go to bat for farms that face difficulties from towns as they try to establish farm breweries actually located on the farm.

"We have yet to work with brewers," Somers said. "Being a farm brewery under SLA doesn't mean you're a brewer under Ag & Markets."

Zoning is key, he said, and all farmers must comply with all local zoning operations. However, if local zoning interferes with a farm's agricultural functions, his department can, and will, work on a farm's behalf, he said.

The keynote address came from Tony Weathers, a fourth-generation hops farmer from Oregon's Willamette Valley who described hops farming on a scale that won't likely be reached in New York state. (The largest hops grower in New York is Rick Pedersen of Pedersen Farms, who grows 10 acres.)

Weathers and his brother farm 500 acres of 12 different hop varieties and have sold to major breweries as well as craft brewers. The farm also grows grass seed, and wheat in rotation, as well as filberts.

Despite the size of his operation, much of his large equipment is handmade.

"Everything is kind of make it yourself. It's not like you're growing corn and soybeans," he said, where companies throw a lot of money into design.

Their harvester is a retooled John Deere combine, and they've made a hilling machine to help mound dirt around the base of plants.

The hopyard employs four people full time in the field, and up to 100 in the spring. Harvesting is a round-the-clock endeavor. The drying facility is 80 feet long and has six dryer floors, each floor 32 feet square and 34 inches deep. After the dried hops are cooled, they are baled and wrapped in food-grade plastic.

Weathers covered the basics in hopyard plant management, and suggested that hops growers should contact their state brewers guild to build relationships with buyers.

"We do a big fresh hop festival with the brewers guild," Weathers said. "They purchase the hops from us to do the fresh hop beers, go to four cities and do these hop festivals."

The conference also included the annual meeting of the Northeast Hops Alliance, where each chapter reported on the year's field days and other activities. Representatives from Vermont spoke about the New England chapter, and Tom Barse from Maryland spoke of activities in his state, and surrounding areas that piggyback into the chapter.

The day closed with several presenters gathered at the front of the large auditorium, taking questions from the audience. Growers wanted to know what brewers wanted, and how to predict what they might be able to offer brewers when they've never grown hops. Established growers answered questions about drying and packaging hops.

"I think this is something that could take off," said Robert Timberman of Rock Stream Farm in the Finger Lakes region, where the farm winery industry has exploded.

The dairyman just sold his milking herd of 60, and has 100 heifers left to sell. He's not sure what type of farming he's going to do next. "When the cows were there, I didn't have time to think."

Timberman is considering growing hops and, possibly, starting a farm brewery. "It seems like a lot more fun," he said. Comparing it to dairying, he added, "Something that a lot more people could be interested in."

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