The future of farming
Hops provide a booming option for agricultural entrepreneurs
Excerpted from a three-part story originally published in the March/April 2014 issue of Rochester, NY’s (585) magazine.
Bluebell Hopyard’s story begins with three disparate lives: Kurt Charland, an engineer; Rob Potter, a retired schoolteacher; and Fred Armstrong, owner of a Rochester animation studio, whose mutual backyard hobby brought them together in a venture that hearkens back to the hops industry’s heyday in New York.
“We’re quite an eclectic group,” said Charland. “Rob and I have been doing beer for quite some time, and Fred dabbles in it himself.” A few years ago, each of them cultivated a miniature hopyard for personal use. Meanwhile, the craft beer industry in the state continued to grow, spurred by plans of a farm brewery license which would require brewers to use a percentage of local hops. Inspiration struck the trio: what if they did some commercial growing?
Within two weeks of that conversation, they had written a business plan, broken ground and planted poles on Armstrong’s property on the banks of Mud Creek in Farmington. With the help of family and friends, they built the hopyard from scratch. The endeavor began with about 300 plants and quickly quadrupled in size. “It was like a whirlwind,” said Charland.
It’s an age-old process. From Perle hops in Germany to Chinook in Washington, hop plants grow on a tall trellis system. At Bluebell, the trellises are locally harvested locust poles. “It basically looks like a grape vineyard on steroids,” said Charland. “Some yards use pressure treated poles; ours are just natural trees. They sometimes look goofy because they’re all kinds of crooked — but you know what? We really enjoy the character.” The plants wind their way up the poles to produce cone-shaped flowers that are harvested and added to beer.
In the beer-making process, hops are used for two main purposes: to add additional flavor and aroma and to act as a natural preservative. Some seasonal beers are brewed with fresh, wet hops picked right off the bine, but most beers require dry hops, which are harvested and quickly dehydrated for later use. Different varietals impart distinct flavors, from floral to citrus. You can find many of the heavy-hitters at Bluebell: Cascade, Chinook, and Willamette, among others. But the hops they’re most proud of are a batch of heirloom BH Clusters. “We have two varieties of hops that have been growing in the area locally since the early 1800s,” Charland said. One was growing wild in the woods near Mud Creek, and a friend discovered the other behind the Valentown Museum in Victor. (At one time, a hopyard stretched from the museum to Turk Hill Road. That’s roughly the stretch along Route 96 from Valentown to the opposite end of Eastview Mall.)
The Bluebell team have started to cultivate both wild varieties, but it will be a few years before the plants fully mature. A small yield has allowed the team to brew some experimental batches with the earthy citrussy hops, and they’re looking forward to the recipe newly opened Victor Brewing Company will produce with them. As Bluebell’s crop continues to mature, they’ve already had a steady stream of customers ranging from home brewers and brand-new breweries to Rochester mainstays. “I think a lot of it has to do with the new New York State Farm Brew law (effective January 2013),” said Charland. “Besides that, everybody wants to use a local product. You’re going to get a much better, higher quality product from a small mom and pop farmer like us, versus a commercial farm where they’re just harvesting a product to sell.”
As hops and brewing make a strong return to the greater Rochester area, Charland, Potter and Armstrong are re-pioneering an industry that was once a major life force in the area. They’re learning from other up-and-coming farmers, too. “We’ve learned by meeting with people who have started their own hopyards and by trial and error, and it’s an ongoing learning experience,” said Charland. Whether it’s determining the best methods of dealing with pests and fungus or watering and irrigation, there’s a little bit of ingenuity and a little bit of luck involved. “We’ve made a couple of mistakes,” said Charland. But they’re rewriting history — and in New York, that history is brewed with hops.