Last weekend’s beer fest at the Desmond was a fabulous event. Regular, VIP and designated driver tickets all sold out and I will be sure and remind you well in advance so you aren’t disappointed in 2017. (Timing hasn’t been announced, but the event seems to happen the first Saturday in March.)
This was not a “how drunk can I get?” event but a serious tasting, with spit buckets and water refreshers on hand. The brewers ranged from the familiar—I was glad to learn Ithaca’s Flower Power is the #1 selling New York brewed IPA, as it should be—to microbreweries like Wolf Hollow, producing a quality IPA in the woods 20 miles south of my location. There was also excellent beer-matched food, my favorite maybe a deconstructed chicken pot pie and cappuccino milk stout truffle from Brown’s in Troy.
However, I was there on a mission: to hear first hand from brewers, malt houses, barley growers and hop farms (actually never did find the last one) how they are preparing for/adjusting to the 2012 New York Farm Brewery Law that allows breweries extra incentives and a “Farmstead” label so long as a specified percentage of ingredients is grown in New York. This year it’s 20%, but the percentage goes up to 50% in 2019 and then 90% in 2024. The question is: where are the raw ingredients going to come from to fuel this brewing juggernaut?
Barley used to be a big crop in New York but our climate is just too humid and production has shifted to Canada and the Midwest. Two years ago most of the New York crop was wiped out by the fusarium blight. A “six row” variety seems to be disease resistant but brewers prefer “two row” because it makes more sugar so adjuncts are not necessary. Much experimentation is going on, much of it fueled through Cornell, to identify productive, disease resistant varieties that brewers will embrace. And you then need to convince farmers to switch over from reliable, subsidized crops like corn, wheat and soy.
Hops are a separate story. Before Prohibition New York was the largest hop growing state, with 140,000 acres under cultivation. But the bittering “C’s”—Cascade, Chinook, Centennial and Columbus—popular in craft beer are almost exclusively grown in the Pacific Northwest. Will they keep their characteristics when transplanted to New York? Some of the most distinctive flavors in craft beer come from proprietary varieties like Citra and Galaxy that are not available to new growers.
Unlike barley, hops farming has a relatively low barrier to entry. Planted in good soil with a lot of sun, your bines will be sprouting like weeds in the second year and producing copious cones in the third year. But that doesn’t mean they’re market-ready.
I spoke at length with Tim Butler from Empire Brewing in Syracuse. Empire is a commercial brewer which is establishing a farmstead brewery and is even growing its own hops. (Not Northwestern varieties but a couple of local natives which somehow survived from the old glory days, one found on an abandoned farm.) While supporting the initiative, from a practical standpoint he prefers to buy from a central point that can guarantee consistency and quality. Right now he’s working with a Canadian malt house that takes 20% New York barley, blends it with 80% Canadian and midwest, and delivers a product he can count on. Whether this can sustain as it gets to 50% and 90% is an open question. As to hops, he’s frequently approached directly by entrepreneurial farmers who have hops for sale and don’t realize the difference and usefulness to brewers of fresh hops vs dried vs pelletized. (Pelletized is by far the preference of Empire and most commercial brewers, meaning the hop farmer needs to add a processing step they may not have considered.)
If the state incents farmers to grow more of a crop, and there is more of a market from the brewers and then more retail distribution, the entire product chain benefits (and so does New York State, through taxes generated on farm income and retail sales). That, Tim Butler pointed out, is the brilliance of the Farm Brewery Law. But we have to get there. Some of the players I talked to said there is “no problem” in meeting the 90% which seemed optimistic. One of the first farmstead brewers told me they’re working to amend the law to get more time, with a big argument being the flavor of the beer won’t be the same. (I don’t buy this one; they can still brew beer without the Farmstead designation and add new beers with the New York ingredients.) In the meantime, there’s a lot to discuss, and we can do it over beer.