New farm, new crop: It's the hops
TORREY—One of the more unusual sights along Route 14 in the town of Torrey is a tidy patch of tall posts on a plot of land overlooking Seneca Lake.
Nearby are additional posts covered with greenery which are the initial plantings at Yates County’s new hops farm; 11 Lakes Hops Farm. Hops are essential in making beer; giving the brew it’s bitterness, aroma and flavor. They are also a preservative. The growing popularity in microbreweries as well as their individual interest in brewing led three friends to establish the farm.
On July 19, the three business owners spent time talking about their new enterprise. Chris Hansen, Brian Karweck and Jeremiah Sprague are friends who began to plant hops at the site four years ago, adding new crops each year.
Hansen said they have eight varieties of hops, each with its own unique character. Sprague said brewers traditionally use a mix of hops and are always after hops with special characteristics for special brews. He said “Our conditions will make a unique hop. The soil will be playing a big factor. We want to give people an opportunity to make a New York beer.”
The bines, as they are called, are covered with dark green leaves, dotted with the hops which have an appearance somewhat similar to tiny green pine cones. Between four and six bines are on each post, and climb up twine to the top.
Hansen picked one of the hops and opened it, revealing a yellow substance called lupuline, which is the material brewers are after. When the hops are mature they are dried, vacuum sealed, and then refrigerated. Karweck said if the hops are not dried properly they are susceptible to molding. Some beers are brewed using green hops, producing a beverage known as wet hop or harvest ale.
Turning to the plant itself, Karweck said the crown is perennial and can go 15 feet deep in the soil. The bine dies back each year. The Ontario Loam the plants are growing in is good soil, but the addition of a large amount of compost is essential for success. Sprague commented, “Hops have the same problems as grapes.”
Hansen said the trio has been working with Cornell Cooperative Extension to grow the best crops and has received a lot of help from local farmers as well as Finger Lakes Economic Development Center. He said “Ryan (Hallings) and Steve (Griffin) pushed us and got us going.”
Sprague said, “None of us are from an ag. background. We’re putting in the work and time.”
Looking to the future, Hansen said, “Our dream is that we would like to have our own little tasting room and microbrewery. We’ve all been home brewing for six years. We hope to take the next step in a year or two.” Hansen said there are about 50 microbreweries in New York State now.
Sprague said, “We want to create a destination spot.” Karweck said, Specialty beers are really popular. They don’t have to be strong. It’s kind of a goal to really share our interest.”
Next year at harvest time they hope to have a lot of hops and plan to work with brewers and home brewers. The plants are huge and each vine could bear nearly one pound of hops per plant. They have about 1,400 to 1,500 vines now.
Sprague said, “We could have a couple of thousand pounds of hops to get rid of. Adding the number of microbreweries in operation in the state as well as home brewers, the venture should find a ready market. There are just a few hop farms in the state and this one may be the fourth largest in the state right now.”
Hops have an interesting history in the state. Before prohibition in the early 1900s, it was the number one crop in New York. Sprague said, “They have a rich history around here.”
Karweck added, “Disease, then Prohibition, then irrigation came to the West.” All three issues impacted the number of hop farms in the state.
Sprague said, “there isn’t any reason why it’s can’t be a viable specialty crop.” Asked why the current farm size is one and a half acres, Karweck answered, “Because that’s what we can handle. We take a lot of pride in what we’re offering.”
Sprague added, “We hand harvest and take pride in our crops. Chris has the real history on this property. There has been farming here for 100 years.” Barley, another key element in beer making may also be planted at the farm in the future.
Beer takes about three weeks to a month to make. It can be brewed in a day, then it needs to ferment for about 10 days. Clarifying and conditioning follow. Karweck said, “You can make some really good beer in a month. Some take longer to mature and some have many flavor characteristics.”