Hops tradition revived
Ithaca Beer Co. brews Double IPA with all New York hops
Feb 25, 2004 - For perhaps the first time in more half a century, a brewer has made a beer from hops grown entirely in New York state. Ithaca Beer Co., Pederson Farms, Cornell University agricultural researchers and the Northeast Hops Alliance worked together to revive memories of when Upstate New York was a prime hop producing region.
Hops were once a leading specialty crop in New York, but suffered from plant disease and insect pests. Prohibition in the 1930s also helped spell the crop's demise, and 50 years ago, production ceased. Now Cornell researchers are helping growers and brewers bring hops back to the state.
"New vigorous hop varieties, pest control strategies and production technologies, along with the growth of specialty beers, may yet permit a small return of commercial hop production in New York and elsewhere in the region," says Duncan Hilchey, Cornell senior extension associate in Cornell's Community, Food and Agriculture Program in the Department of Development Sociology. He helped to develop the Northeast Hops Alliance, a group of farmers and brewers trying to build a hop resurgence in the state. Hilchey estimates that the last beer made entirely from New York-grown hops was brewed in the 1950s.
Two years ago, Hilchey worked with the Northeast Hop Alliance to conduct a market survey of microbreweries, brewpubs and regional breweries to learn about potential sales of regionally grown hops in the Northeast. More than two-thirds of the brewers surveyed were interested in buying regional hops and more than 25% thought brand loyalty would be increased.
At the same time, Rick Pedersen, of Pederson Farms in Seneca Castle, N.Y., was growing test plots of hops with a $7,350 grant from the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets. Last fall, he sold his first crop of Cascade, Mount Hood and Willamette hop varieties to Ithaca Beer Co.
On Tuesday, Ithaca Beer rolled out its Double India Pale Ale. "My goal is to see what we can do over the next 50 years," said Dan Mitchell, owner of Ithaca Beer. "While the nostalgia is important, this is just a starting point of where we could be going. It is a potential new industry. We would like to see all New York-brewed beers use New York-grown hops," Mitchell said.
The Ithaca brewery used 7.5 pounds of the New York state hops per barrel in its new ale, compared with 1 pound of New York hops per barrel for its regular pale ale, and a half pound per barrel for nut brown ale.
From the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, Madison, Otsego and Oneida counties were the largest hops-growing area in the nation, according to Dot Willsey of the Madison County Historical Society.
But by the early 1950s, commercial hop growing was dead in New York, said Keith Eisaman, whose family grew five acres of hops in Madison County and was possibly the state's last to farm hops. "It was 1951. I remember it because no one would come to buy our hops they're still in the kiln. Everybody was buying them from out west," said Eisaman, now 74.
Hilchey said New York's hops failed because they were not resistant to disease like the newer varieties, nor could they produce the same yields as those being grown in Washington and Oregon. Researchers and historians have been looking at wild hops in New York to find any remaining native varieties, but Hilchey said they likely hold little promise because they will face the same disease and yield problems as before.
Pedersen began growing hops six years ago on a half acre. He tried five varieties but cut back to three after experimenting the first few years. "I like to grow different things," said Pedersen, who grows vegetables on the rest of his 1,200-acre farm.
"I also like to drink quality beer. I had an idea that I would like my own brewery some day. I've given up on that idea but I still wanted to participate in the brewing industry," he said. "We started out of the blue, and had no idea who we would sell to. But I figured if I grew it they would come."
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