The new microbrewers

Farm Brewery License ushers in an era of homegrown hops and malthouses

Originally published in the March/April 2014 issue of Rochester, NY’s (585) magazine.

A new breed of breweries is cropping up all over the state — with hopyards and malthouses sprouting alongside them. Modeled after the New York Farm Winery act of 1976 that launched the Finger Lakes wine region into a bona fide agritourism destination, the newly minted Farm Brewery license aims to encourage the growth of not only beer tourism in the state but also the agricultural endeavors of hops growing and malting.

The legislation, which went into effect in January 2013, offers license holders opportunities like holding beer tastings and selling brewing equipment, souvenirs, and beer by the pint. Currently, farm breweries must use at least twenty percent hops and twenty percent other ingredients grown and produced in New York State. By 2023, the percentage will increase to no less than 60 percent, and after 2024, no less than 90 percent.

Such hefty requirements, among other factors, have spurred a rapid increase in the local hops industry. It may seem novel, but Cornell Cooperative Extension’s hops expert Steve Miller explained that during much of the 19th century, New York State was the biggest hops producer in the country. Due in part to the industry moving west, insect and disease problems, and eventually Prohibition, the industry in New York died out. “Hops is pretty labor-intensive, so people just pulled them out and went into other types of agriculture,” he said.

Recently, the crop started making a comeback. In the past year, 140 acres of hops were planted statewide — double that of last year. However, Miller says the resurgence in the hops industry isn’t just due to the farm brewery legislation. “The brewers in New York really have a strong interest in using local hops,” he said. “Their flavor is different than the hops you buy of the same varieties from different places.”

The other local ingredient farm breweries need is malt. The barely that is sprouted, dried and kilned to make malt must be grown in New York State. Miller says because brewers use a lot more malt by weight than hops, supply will need to catch up with demand. So far, Miller counts a half dozen malt houses that are open or will be opening. “It’s like the start of a new industry,” he said.

One of the trailblazers is Ted Hawley, owner of NY Craft Malt in Batavia, Genesee County. So far, the need isn’t outstanding—but as more farm breweries open for business and other established breweries clamber for local ingredients, “there would be a problem for sure,” Hawley said. His operation has already grown exponentially. Last year, they grew 500 acres of barley, and this year increased to 2,500 acres. Within the year, they hope to increase their operation and double in size.

And Hawey’s goals don’t stop there. With a governor’s committee of distillers, maltsters and brewers, he’s trying to blaze a path for barley. “Our region is really new to malt-grade barley,” said Hawley. Much of the barley grown in the region is feed-grade (meant for livestock), and farmers are still trying to figure out the best varieties for malt. “There’s a lot of education and research that needs to be done to sustain the direction we’re going in now,” he said.

And then there are the farm breweries themselves. So far, there are twenty-one across the state, including Abandon Brewing in Penn Yan, which joined the ranks this November. The idea to open a microbrewery had been brewing in owner Garry Sperrick’s mind, but as the legislation loomed, “we shifted gears,” he said. He, Master Brewer Jeff Hillebrandt, and Assistant Brewer Jeff Fairbrother started planning the business as the legislation went through. That swayed a lot of what the trio did—including planting their own hops. For now, they’re procuring hops from a handful of local growers, but growing their own was an essential step. “Right now, there’s really not enough New York State hops, and definitely not enough barley to go around,” he said. “Short term, it’s going to be a challenge. Long term, I actually think it’s pretty good,” he said. He sees parallels to the way the Finger Lakes wine industry has blossomed and thinks the region’s nascent beer industry can capitalize on the same spirit of camaraderie. Abandon Brewing, situated on Keuka Lake, attracts many visitors in the midst of wine trail tours. “We’re already being integrated,” he said.

Integration is key all the way down the line. Whether collaborating with hops farmers and maltsters, comparing notes on pesticide management, or stopping by a neighboring brewery for a pint, there’s a veritable sense of brotherhood in the burgeoning brew industry. “That’s what the wineries have done, and that’s what we’re doing as well,” said Sperrick.