Cultural Archeology, Hopshire Style: The Revival of Hop Cultivation in New York

By the 1990s, the craft beer renaissance was in full bloom, and North Americans were developing a taste for Pacific Northwest hops redolent of pine, citrus, and tropical fruit. On the other side of the continent, where the last beer produced with New York State hops rolled off the bottling line in 1953, the memory of hop production had all but fallen into oblivion.

There was a time, though, when New York State supplied the hop needs of the nineteenth-century industrial brewing behemoths of Milwaukee, St. Louis, New York City, and Chicago. New York State played host to the United States’ first commercial hop operation in 1808; by 1849, New York was at the national pinnacle of hop cultivation. Centered around Otsego, Oneida, Madison, Schoharie, and Montgomery Counties, the state churned out nearly ninety percent of the United States’ total hop crop before the industry was laid low by the double blow of downy mildew outbreaks and the onset of Prohibition.

Until that time came, hop cultivation transformed the pastoral landscape of upstate New York as family farms rushed to build hop kiln additions to their barns. Even as Prohibition and the eventual demise of upstate hop production spelled the end of the functional hop barn, many a material trace of these pyramid-shaped structures dotted the rolling hills and valley floors. These were vestiges forgotten by many, but discernible to the preservationists and hop enthusiasts of the 1990s who rekindled an interest in the New York State hop industry.

Hop Kiln in Otsego County (Photo by Richard Vang)

Hop Kiln in Otsego County (Photo by Richard Vang)

These early forays into preservation provided the impetus for the Northeast Hop Alliance (NEHA), founded in 2001 and incorporated as a non-profit business alliance in 2010. Fueled by the combined efforts of NEHA and the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Madison County, hop production has soared from a mere fifteen acres three years ago to close to one-hundred-and-fifty acres today.

The NEHA also spearheaded the initiative that led to the New York farm brewery law of 2013 (which I’ve touched upon here and here.) One of the driving forces behind this piece of legislation is NEHA board member, Randy Lacey – also head brewer and co-owner of the family-run Hopshire Farm & Brewery, which opened in May of this year.

Hopshire - Logo

What sets Hopshire apart from other farm breweries is its homage to the pre-Prohibition hop farms. Its hop kiln, poised to dry the eventual bounty of Hopshire’s four-acre hop yard, is a prominent architectural feature of the newly-constructed brewery and tasting room. The brewhouse, too, bears witness to the material history of agriculture and brewing in New York State: Lacey procured the brew kettle from nearby Horseheads Brewing Company, and has repurposed several vessels from the dairy industry in the construction of his seven-barrel system.

The Hopshire Brewhouse (Photo by author)

The Hopshire Brewhouse (Photo by author)

Lacey got his start as a homebrewer at the instigation of his son, Sam. From there, he spent several years creating innovative brews for appreciative members of the Ithaca Practitioners of Alemaking homebrew club, and gathering ideas during road trips to  brewpubs and breweries far and wide in the company of his wife, Diane Gerhart. Together with Gerhart, their two sons, and their daughter-in-law, Lacey and family assure that a steady stream of sought-after brews keeps the tasting room crowd coming back to the recently-opened brewery.

Unsurprisingly for someone who had a hand in drafting what eventually became the farm brewery law, Lacey sees to it that all of his beers showcase local ingredients like honey, cherries, maple syrup, and, of course, hops and malt. Lacey sources the ginger for Hopshire’s Zingabeer from a farm in nearby Trumansburg, and even uses hops grown by Ithaca homebrewer, Clair Haus. Hopshire’s Beehave, a honey blonde ale, and Blossom, a delicately scented cherry wheat ale, are both crafted from one-hundred percent New York State ingredients.

Hopshire's autumn coHOPeration event

Hopshire’s autumn coHOPeration event

Hopshire’s line-up of perennials and seasonals fall into “mellow,” “middling,” and “mighty” categories. Odds favour the Daddy-O English Pale Ale and the Shire Scottish Ale to keep the looming upstate winter at bay; both blend appealing dark fruit aromatics (plum, dark cherries) with complex, layered expressions of malt flavours. Beehave and Blossom find their niche in more humid seasons.

Hopshire has recently added Hop Onyx, a bracing black IPA featuring Falconer’s Flight, a hop blend starring the so-called “Seven Cs” of Pacific Northwest hop fame – Cascade, Chinook, Centennial, Citra, Cluster, Columbus, and Crystal. New to the seasonal hearth is ’Round Yon Virgil, a spiced brown ale with a warming blend of brown sugar, fresh ginger root, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and allspice. (The reference is not to the Aeneid, but  rather to a nearby hamlet.)

Winter is at the gates, but Hopshire will continue to serve guests in the taproom and sell growlers to weary travelers at their farm and brewery located at 1771 Dryden Road (State Route 13), Freeville, NY. Opening hours are Wednesday to Friday, 4-8pm; Saturday, 11am-6pm; and Sunday, 1-6pm.

The Hop Kiln at Sunset (Photo Courtesy of Hopshire)

The Hop Kiln at Sunset (Photo courtesy of Hopshire)

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For discussions of the history and revival of the New York State hop industry, see:

Amanda Garris, “Hop yard takes root in Geneva,” Cornell Chronicle, July 8, 2013 (Link here.)

Blaine Friedlander, “For first time in more than half a century, a brewer makes beer entirely with New York-grown hops, with help from Cornell,” Cornell Chronicle, February 19, 2004. (Link here.)

Lucas Willard, “In New York, More Local Ingredients Make More Local Beer,” WAMC Northeast Public Radio, November 27, 2013. (Link here.)

Richard Vang, “The Past, Present, and Yes, Future of the Hops Industry,” Upstate Alive Magazine 1:4, 1996. (Link here.)

If you find yourself in the upstate area wanting to learn more about the history of hops in New York, stop in at The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY. Among other family-friendly activities, visitors can help plant, cultivate, and harvest the hop crop on the Lippitt Farmstead.

4 thoughts on “Cultural Archeology, Hopshire Style: The Revival of Hop Cultivation in New York

  1. Bryan

    Being away from the Finger Lakes, it’s been strange to imagine the wine region becoming so fond of beer, but it’s a change I surely welcome! It’s been fun getting glimpses into what’s going on, so thanks for this.

    (All this also gives me a very long “to-do” list of places to visit when I go home in the summer)

    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Bryan,
      You’re a lucky man if you call the region home. The wines keep getting better, and the Finger Lakes Beer Trail has gotten much longer. If you like wine as well, a handful of wineries have added a brewery. Wagner is probably one of the more prominent in this regard.
      Cheers!

  2. Tim Dorward

    Wonderful article! Thanks for writing it!

    I’m proud to be part of this wonderfu heritage of New York. My maternal grandfather worked in hop yards in Madison county “back in the day”. It’s refreshing to see the resugence of hops cultivation in the state. All of the craft breweries that I know are also excited to be able to get fresh, locally grown, hops for their fine brews. Beginning in January, 2014, these breweries will now have the option to further their retail capabilities of fine craft beers by putting their beer in cans. A new mobile canning service, similar to the mobile bottling service for the wineries, will be cruising the highways of New York and visiting breweries far and wide. Together, they will “help rebuild the New York economy … one can at a time”.

    Cheers and Beers!
    Tim
    MobileCanMan, Inc.

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