As wine tourists drive along County Road 139 to Sheldrake Point Vineyards on Cayuga Lake, they are often tempted to top at the Wyckoff farm stand and buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Last year, however, their yen for local produce came with questions about the skyward-growing crop in a field across the way.
“That is where the hops are,” said Todd
Wyckoff, who has converted a part of his
parents’ vegetable operation into a hop
yard and sold his entire 2010 harvest to
Wagner Valley Brewing Co. at Wagner
Vineyards on Seneca Lake. “I am not
exaggerating, at least 3,000 people
stopped last year and asked what we were
growing. It is mind-boggling, the interest.”
Wyckoff is part of an emerging breed of
farmers and small-scale brewers who want
to make Finger Lakes wine country a
welcoming (and profitable) place for craft
beer microbreweries as well.
With mounting locavore sentiment, a strong
wine and culinary tourism industry already
established and a farm brewery bill in the
state’s legislative pipeline, these hop
farmers, brewing entrepreneurs and, to a
lesser extent, grain growers are tapping
into a craft beer market that is growing
nationally, including in the Finger Lakes.
A New York Wine & Grape Foundation-
commissioned study from 2008 found that
wineries pump $3.7 billion into the state
David Katleski, president of the New York
State Brewers Association and owner of
Empire Brewing Co., a Syracuse-based
craft brewery and pub that for several
years operated a brew pub in Rochester,
believes that the budding craft beer
industry in New York has the same
potential, if not more.
Two decades ago, there were only five
breweries in the state, and that included
craft breweries, Genesee Brewing Co. and
big players such as Anheuser-Busch, he
Today there are 73 craft breweries, and
30 more are in the planning stages.
“All these brewers would jump on the
grown-in-New York bandwagon if the
product is available to us,” said Katleski.
“Fortunately, the craft beer industry is
growing by leaps and bounds. It’s a good
time to grow and expand, and to be local.”
In the Finger Lakes, Theresa Hollister, co-
founder of the new Finger Lakes Beer Trail
Marketing & Tourism Associates, identifies
25 craft beer microbreweries, brew pubs
and contract brewers from Syracuse and
Rochester south to Horseheads, Chemung
County, and Corning, Steuben County.
She and her partner, Adam Smith, have
created an interactive map of these beer
destinations at fingerlakesbeertrail.com.
The region had its first wave of craft
brewing in the 1990s with the opening of
Rohrbach Brewing Co. in Rochester and
Ogden, Ithaca Beer Co. and Empire
The newest wave of microbreweries, brew
pubs and tap houses have come on board
just within the past couple years.
Some of these beers are sold only at the
tasting room or pub.
Others are on tap at regional restaurants
and bars, or are bottled and distributed to
retailers within the region, and in some
cases, out of state.
What that potential economic impact might
be in hop farming is still unclear, said Steve
Miller, the newly designated state hop
specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension
of Madison County.
“We need several hundred acres of hops to
supply the smaller craft (brewers) and
microbrewers. Hop prices vary widely,
especially in newer niche markets,” he said
in an email.
Hops currently are a nano-slice of the
powerhouse agricultural industry in New
York, but they once thrived here.
In Civil War times, New York grew most of
the country’s hops.
The lion’s share of the production was in
Madison and Oneida counties, although the
Finger Lakes contributed a respectable
In 1870, for example, Ontario County
produced 600,000 pounds of dried hops
(compared to Madison County’s 3.5 million
pounds), Miller said.
The fact that Cornell Cooperative Extension
now has a hops specialist is a good
indicator of the industry’s potential, noted
Becca Jablonski, Madison County’s
agricultural economic development
Hops are a cool-climate perennial that
grow as tall as 25 feet on trellises and yield
flowers that look like miniature green pine
Used in small quantities like spices, these
cones play a crucial role in determining
beer’s bitterness, flavors and aromas.
By the end of the 19th century, disease
and pests had ravaged New York’s bines
— the name for hop vines — and
Prohibition pounded in the final nail into the
industry’s coffin. Hops then moved to the
Pacific Northwest, where a drier climate
eliminated the disease issues and irrigation
kept fields productive.
Today, there are more than 31,000 acres
of hop yards in Idaho, Washington and
New York, by comparison, has about 50,
Eleven of those acres belong to Rick
Pedersen of Seneca Castle, Ontario County.
The longtime home brewer and vegetable
farmer planted his first hop crop in 1999.
He is now the state’s largest grower, selling
to Empire and Ithaca Beer Co., as well as
Harpoon Brewery in Boston and Victory
Brewing Co. in Downington, Pa.
“There is a lot of interest (in using local
hops) among brewers in past three or four
years,” he said. “Most of that is because
consumers demand local products.”
John Harris, a first-time Finger Lakes
tourist from Houston and a longtime home
brewer and beer connoisseur, said a taste
of regional beer far exceeded his
After trying a cream ale at Two Goats
Brewing in Hector, Schuyler County, he gave
it a double thumbs up.
The buy-local strategy is also a proactive
response to the great hops shortage of
2008, in which breweries large and small
had to find alternative sources and pay a
premium because of worldwide crop
failures and price fluctuations.
Pedersen entertained the idea of starting
an estate brewery and even grew malting
barley for a while.
However, his 1,400-acre vegetable and
field-crops operation outpaced his brewing
ambitions, so now he focuses solely on
hops, growing 15 kinds, including a New
York heirloom variety.
Small-scale hop farming (an acre or less) is
popping up throughout the state, but the
most concentrated region seems to be the F
inger Lakes, noted Miller, who knows of at
least half-dozen new growers in the region.
Some of them are counting on the farm
brewery bill to enable them to open their
If passed, the bill would allow brewers and
growers to make and sell beer on-site, as
long as they used a certain percentage of
New York-grown ingredients.
The craft brewing community is
overwhelmingly in favor of the legislation
(just look at what the 1976 farm winery law
did to build the wine industry in the region
— before its passage in 1976 there were
only 19 wineries in New York, and now
there are more than 300).
Yet many, including Miller and Empire’s
Katleski, are concerned that the supply for
local ingredients is not adequate to meet
the current demand.
More hop growers are needed, as are
more growers to provide malting grain.
Moreover, processing facilities for both
grains and hops are needed.
Katleski wants the state to lower the
required percentage of New York
ingredients and see the production limit of
15,000 barrels a year raised to 60,000,
which is the current state limit for
Revisions to do just that are under way,
said Assemblyman Bill Magee, D-Nelson,
Madison County, a co-sponsor of the bill.
He expects a vote next year.
Congress also is peddling a bill that would
slash excise taxes in half for small
breweries, another boost to craft beer
Capitalizing on homegrown ingredients is
also a popular niche for the East Coast’s
craft beer market, which enjoyed an 11
percent growth spurt last year, while the
overall beer market slumped one percent,
according to the Brewers Association. East
Coast microbrewers want to differentiate
themselves from the more established West
Coast microbrewers, and grow their own
hops — even if the varieties are from the
Pacific Northwest — is an easy way to do
that, noted Madison County’s Jablonski.
Homegrown is precisely how the three 30-
something founders of Climbing Bines Hop
Farm in Torrey, Yates County, plan to
market their beers. They are now growing
hops using organic methods (official
certification is in the works) and in the
coming months will break ground on a farm
brewery overlooking Seneca Lake.
“Our goal is to focus on locality more so
than organic,” said co-owner Chris Hansen.
He and his brewing buddies and business
partners, Brian Karweck and Jeremiah
Sprague, will sell this year’s hop crop to
other microbreweries and home brewers in
the area. Next year, their hops will be used
for their own beers.
Over near Cayuga Lake in Freeville,
Tompkins County, Randy Lacey is
cultivating hops with the same strategy and
timeline in mind for Hopshire Farm and
Being in a farming region defined by
grapes and other fruits, Lacey sees lots of
opportunities for mutually beneficial
overlap, such as aging beer in old wine
barrels or using fruit and maple syrup as
part of the fermentables.
Mike Alcorn, founder and president of
Custom Brewcrafters, a contract brewer in
Honeoye Falls that makes beer for some of
the Finger Lakes microbreweries and
wineries, experimented with local hops for
the first time last year. He wants to use
more of them, provided the quality is
consistent and the price is not prohibitive.
Rohrbach Brewing Co. grows hops on the
patio at its Ogden brew pub, and also buys
some from a Southern Tier grower, said
president and founder John Urlaub, who
also sits on the board of the New York
State Brewers Association. “The breweries
are really into buying local, but the demand
far exceeds the supply.”
And as this new generation of craft beer
professionals looks for ways to grow it at
home, they anticipate a whole new way to
enjoy the taste of home, said Andrea
Stanley, who runs Valley Malt, a malt house
in Massachusetts that supplies Empire
Brewing Co. and other New York
“Everyone is excited by the terroir (the
flavor and aroma profile shaped by the
soils where ingredients are grown) that will
come through with malt grown in a
particular field. Hops as well.”
At that point, the work of groups like
Hollister’s Finger Lakes Beer Trail
Marketing & Tourism Associates, similar to
wine tourism groups, become even more
important to the equation.
“We are looking for a way to support small
businesses. We want to improve the
prosperity of our region,” Hollister said.