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Hops Spring Eternal

Farming for beer in the Hudson Valley.

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Justin Riccobono with Cascade Hops. - ROY GUMPEL
  • roy Gumpel
  • Justin Riccobono with Cascade Hops.

"Sushi-Grade Hops"

Local brewers are snapping up Hudson Valley hops. From the Ground Brewery, a new business that rents space in a building on Migliorelli Farm in Tivoli (which grows barley but not hops), has agreed to buy all the hops produced by Germantown Beer Farm's one-acre hop yard. In Wappingers Falls, North River Hops and Brewing, which celebrated its grand opening last month, recently bought 40 pounds of Obercreek Farm's wet hops. North River will use it to create a double IPA for Dutchess Hops' Hoptember Harvestfest. Jamie Bishop, brewmaster at Mill House Brewing Company in Poughkeepsie, plans to use Dutchess Hops' AlphAroma in a wet-hop ale. "It's like a sushi-grade hops," says Bishop. "The day they pick it is hopefully the day it goes into my kettle."

In line with the Valley's emphasis on healthy eating and farming, most hop growers here are using organic methods. "My philosophy is a healthy hop plant can fight off diseases and pests," says Dennis Nesel, co-owner of Germantown Beer Farm with his wife, Jeanette. "Also, I don't know anything about sprays or chemicals, and I don't want any of that stuff in my beer."

Nesel, a Merrill Lynch financial adviser who farms his acre of hops on weekends and days off, keeps two horses on his 17-acre spread and swears by manure as fertilizer. He prunes his hop plants regularly to maximize air circulation and ward off fungus, and uses grass clipping to control weeds. Nesel got his plants from the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, which supplies farmers with disease-free plants. Today's hop plants are much more resistant to disease than those of a century ago, and pest-management techniques are much more sophisticated.

The Actual Farming

Since hops flourished in the state at one time, it's clear that conditions here are conducive for a comeback. "I get dozens and dozens of phone calls and emails on a daily basis from growers and perspective growers," says Steve Miller, hop specialist for the Cornell Cooperative Extension. Miller holds workshops in farmers' fields every summer that draw at least 100 attendees, while Cornell's hop conference last December hosted 350.

Hop crops take three or four years to fully mature, but farmers say it's worth the wait because the potential for return on investment is so strong. At a minimum of $12,000 an acre, the upfront investment is also substantial. Hop plants grow up to 20 feet high and need to be strung on trellises secured to tall poles for proper aeration. "They start shooting up in April, and by harvest time, they're 18 feet high," says Nagle. They also need a consistent water supply, regular pruning, and monitoring for pests. Fortunately, they are perennials, with a life span of up to 20 years.

Each hop plant produces hundreds of cones, and handpicking takes roughly an hour per plant. Yet mechanical harvesters start at about $10,000, and hop pelletizers run even higher. Big breweries prefer pelletized hops, which has a longer shelf life than dried hops and is stored in a more compact form. Even the kilns used to dry hops, called oasts, cost around $2,500.

Equipment-sharing arrangements are emerging. The Northeast Hop Alliance, a growers association, and the nonprofit Center for Agricultural Development and Entrepreneurship (CADE) both have a harvester available for farmers to rent, and CADE helped six farmers get grants to buy oasts. Riccobono rents a small, mobile harvester from the University of Vermont and plans to offer a similar service through his cooperative, Hudson Valley Hops. Steve Pennings recently bought a harvester that he plans to rent to other farmers in the area.

For now, most Hudson Valley hop farmers are harvesting by hand and hoping all that effort will pay off. "All you have to do is pick them by hand for two hours, and you're definitely wishing you had a harvester," says Nesel, who enlisted his wife, his daughter, his son, and his nephew to help with the picking.

Despite the leeway in the farm brewery law, Plan Bee Farm Brewery in Fishkill already uses 100 percent New York State ingredients in its beer, including the fruits from its quarter acre of hops. From the Ground Brewery plans to source its ingredients from an even tighter circle of suppliers and will get a boost once Germantown Beer Farm opens its new malting facility.

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