ALBANY - Walk into most bars, and you will be handed not only a food menu, but one for beer, too.
The phenomenon is a remarkable shift from the days of simply deciding between a bottle of Budweiser or Miller Light.
And the ripple effects have been extraordinary in New York — which, in the late 1800s, produced as much as 90 percent of the hops used to make beer around the country. That production was all but eliminated by Prohibition in the 1920s, and hasn't made a comeback until the past half decade or so.
Aided by state incentives and a demand for locally grown ingredients, upstate farms are once again turning to hops, barley and wheat production to buttress the extraordinary growth of breweries over the last five years in New York.
"It was a business that we gave up, that we basically brought back — where it’s almost self-sustaining within the state," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in an interview with the USA Today Network's Albany Bureau.
Farm to bar
Spurred by new laws, especially the Farm Brewery Law, the number of farm breweries in New York leaped from 45 in 2014 to 168 this year. And the overall number of breweries — which includes farm brewers, micro brewers and restaurant brewers — more than doubled to 350 since 2014.
"It is just amazing what is going on," said Dennis Nesel, the owner of Hudson Valley Malt, a beer malting business just over the Dutchess County border in Columbia County.
“It is a risk, it’s a gamble,” Ted Hawley, co-owner of Batavia's New York Craft Malts, said of farms growing the beer ingredients.
“To keep the farmers interested, we need to pay them a premium to keep them going. Then we also have to come up with a quality secondary market. Consumers have to be educated about what goes into their local beer.”
That means more variety for craft beer fans and more options in places where you wouldn't expect a brewery.
The legislation, for example, has led to brewery openings in Livingston and Ontario counties.
"The legislation has allowed many breweries to thrive and grow because there are incentives in place," said Paul Leone, executive director of the state Brewers Association.
The demand for state-produced ingredients will only get bigger: A farm brewery is currently defined as a brewery that uses at least 20 percent of its hops and 20 percent of its other ingredients from New York. In 2019, New York is requiring breweries with a farm brewery license to use at least 60 percent local ingredients (not including water) and the requirement jumps to 90 percent by 2024.
State officials said they are meeting the current demand, but are investing in research and development to meet the need for more barley, hops and wheat for beer in the coming years.
"We currently have enough acres of hops to meet the demand," said Richard Ball, the commissioner of state Department of Agriculture and Markets.
"We’re having wonderful growing pains," said Richard Ball, the commissioner of state Department of Agriculture and Markets.
The number of malting barley acres in New York nearly tripled between 2013 and 2015 to almost 900 acres, while the acres of hops soared from 175 to 325, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.
The crop production correlates with the spike in New York breweries: They want to use locally grown products because of freshness, the ability to market local ingredients and the enticement of the farm brewery license that lets them sell their products more widely.
"New York state is on the path of becoming the Napa Valley of beer, which we were in the 1800s," U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer told reporters last month as he pushed for greater federal protections for growers.
In exchange for using at least 20 percent of New York-grown ingredients, including hops and grains, the Farm Brewery Law that took effect in 2013 allows brewers to hold tastings, sell beer by the pint in their tasting rooms, offer more state-produced products (such as wine, cider, and spirits) and serve their beer at any restaurants they own.
The law is among a menu of tax breaks, lower fees and other incentives New York has added in recent years to promote state-produced alcohol — whether it is beer, wine or liquor.
Beer production goes like this: The crops are grown; the grain is then turned into malt at a malt house and then the malt goes to a brewery to make the beer.
The requirement of needing 60 percent local ingredients in 2019 is creating both excitement and anxiety for a New York industry still in its infancy. Five years ago, the state had just a few small farms that supplied brewers.
And what's remarkable is that with hops, at least, it was still growing in plain sight: As a perennial plant, it still grows throughout the upstate New York landscape — remnants of its place in history a century ago.
Cuomo said the goal of the incentives has been to capitalize on the increase in breweries through state incentives that encourage them to buy local ingredients.
He equated it to New York's success with Greek yogurt production: New York already had the dairy market, so Greek yogurt production, which includes the Chobani and Fage brands, was a natural fit.
"It’s a very sophisticated economic development strategy where you literally start developing derivative markets to support your industry," Cuomo said. "And that’s happening with the wine, breweries and distilleries."
Meeting the demand
Over the past several years, the state has been contracting with Cornell University and the Agricultural Experimental Station in Geneva, Ontario County, to research and develop new types of malting barley and hops for New York growers.
There are at least five different nursery trials underway for different variations of barley and hops.
"I think there is a huge potential for finding some varieties that have both disease resistance and some unique flavors that will be available for growers in New York, and in turn available for brewers," said Steve Miller, a senior resource educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension who is studying New York hops.
The farm brewery license "created the timetable, so to speak, but not the phenomenon" as breweries seek more locally grown products, said Gary Bergstrom, a professor at Cornell's School of Integrative Plant Science who is researching the crop development.
Paul Leone, executive director of the New York State Brewers Association, said the state’s farm breweries are well positioned to adapt to the new demands of the farm brewery license in 2019.
“Based on all the information we have, there are more than enough hops being grown in New York state to go to 60 percent,” Leone said. “We could go to 100 percent if we needed to.”
“Barley is a bit more of a challenge,” he added. “It’s a little bit harder to grow here. But that industry is coming around really quickly.”
Leone said the opening of the 1886 Malt House in Fulton, Oswego County, will ease much of the demand. 1886 is housed in a former Miller Brewing building and will be operated by Sunoco oil company. The new malting operation will be one of the biggest on the East Coast.
“Across New York state we are seeing explosive growth in craft brewing and distilling production," said Erin Tones, a company spokeswoman.
"The 1886 Malt House is entering this industry at a very exciting time, and we are thrilled to be sourcing the grain for our facility exclusively from New York farmers.”
More breweries, more need
Farm breweries, though high in numbers, are much smaller on average.
They usually feature smaller brewing systems (generally under 10 barrels) and produce in much smaller batches. Farm breweries only made 50,000 barrels in 2015, while independent craft breweries in New York state produced 1.1 million barrels in 2015, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association.
Kristen Lyons, co-owner of Binghamton Brewing and chairwoman of the New York State Brewers Association's farm brewery committee, said that four years ago, said there weren’t any breweries within a 60-mile radius of Binghamton.
Since the implementation of the Farm Brewery Act, there are five breweries within a 20-mile radius of Binghamton, including four in Broome County. “That initial boost when we opened really propelled us forward,” Lyons said.
Lyons said her committee recently sent out an anonymous survey to all New York state farm breweries. She said the results of the survey should be shared early next year.
“We’re requesting specific data about how they use the license,” she said. The New York State Brewers Association could use that data to figure out if state lawmakers need to revise the farm brewery license in any way.
“There’s been some conjecture about the amount of hops available, the amount of malt, but we want to know how breweries are using the license What’s the actual usage? We want to be able to say for sure, ‘Hey, this is what is going in.’”
Kurt Charland and Fred Armstrong are co-owners of Bluebell Hopyard in Farmington, Ontario County, which occupies just under two acres and features seven different hop varietals, most of which are sold to two Rochester-area farm breweries: Swiftwater and VB.
The farm brewery license “created the incentive” for Bluebell to open, Armstrong said.
And while hops from the Pacific Northwest are significantly cheaper per pound, Charland and Armstrong said they’ve developed strong ties to the local brewing community. When breweries are able to say that they purchased hops from a farm 20 minutes away, it adds to the authenticity that a lot of craft beer nerds value.
“Breweries like working with us,” Armstrong said. “They like our product.”
Finding the ingredients
Breweries still need to supplement locally grown hops with hops from different markets, because a lot of hops are proprietary (only licensed to grow at certain farms). And many of the trendier hop varietals (such as Citra, Galaxy, and Mosaic) are owned by much larger farms in places like Australia and the Pacific Northwest.
West Coast farms grow many of the same varietals as New York state farms and they most often do so at a cheaper price because of the volume produced, Charland said. The license requires farm breweries to purchase some of the higher-priced crops.
Proprietary hops are featured in many of the new school India pale ales that show off big tropical fruit flavors and less perceived bitterness than many of the traditional hops that grow well in New York. But of course, there is no guarantee that the proprietary varietals would grow well in New York state soil, Charland said.
More and more, breweries are finding strong products in their home state.
"The whole hop and malting industry in New York is making big advancements," said Michael Lamothe, the head brewer at Broken Bow Brewery in Tuckahoe, Westchester County.
"It helps with our message that we are local, and that we want to support other local businesses," he added.
Hawley, co-owner of New York Craft Malts in Batavia, Genesee County, has experienced much of the same growth as local hop growers. New York Craft Malts houses a production facility to germinate and then dry the grains used as the backbone of beer.
Hawley and his wife, Patricia, opened the facility on a family farm in 2012. Ted’s great grandfather purchased the farm in 1909. They produced their first craft malts in 2014. “We’ve reinvited ourselves in the past few years,” Hawley said.
New York Craft Malts works with over 50 New York state breweries, across every region of the state, offering both base malts and specialty grains.
“If the main goal is price, then it’s probably going to fail," he said. "But if people want terroir, they want local, then there shouldn’t be so much pressure on the price. The quality does have to be there as well. We’re getting better. We’ve come a long way."
"We’re having more success getting a quality product out of the field, with farming practices and varieties, but we still have Mother Nature to contend with.”
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