Got plans for the coming weekend?
Maybe you’re in need of a quick getaway from any of the countless metropolitan areas within three hours of the I-90 corridor that runs between Syracuse and Albany. Perhaps you’re a student at one of the many colleges and universities in central and upstate New York and are already yearning for a break from the shock of the new semester. Or maybe you’re a craft beer enthusiast who hasn’t yet had a chance to taste the excellent beer flowing forth from New York State these days. Whatever the case may be, if you’re interested in the heritage of hop production in New York State and in drinking the fruit of the bine, head out to Madison County’s Hop Fest in Oneida, NY, this weekend (September 12-13, 2014) and celebrate the bounty of the year’s hop harvest.
While you’re partaking of the Paired Beer Dinner on September 12, or sampling the elixirs brewed by local and regional breweries using not West Coast but New York State hops on September 13, raise a glass to the history of hop bags, burlap, kiln cloth, brimstone, and hop kilns in central New York.
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Madison, Otsego, and Oneida Counties once serviced over eighty percent of North America’s hop needs. That was before the combined impact of crop disease and Prohibition dealt a near-fatal blow to the industry. Hop farming had all but disappeared from the New York landscape by the 1950s, but a few intrepid farmers and craft beer brewers have since breathed new life into the hops of New York State.
Organized by the good people at the Madison County Historical Society, the Hop Fest is now in its nineteenth year. Given the rich history of hop cultivation in New York, though, it should come as no surprise if we hear the echoes of harvest festivals of times past at the Madison County Hop Fest.
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Carl M. recalls that the annual “big day” inaugurated in 1878 at Oneida’s Sylvan Beach was “an institution.” So renowned was the Hop Growers’ Picnic that tourists arrived on special excursions from as far away as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York City on the Ontario & Western Railway. At its zenith, the Hop Growers’ Picnic attracted several thousand people: “the greatest crowds in the horse-and-buggy, toot, and toot-toot ages of transportation [that] ever attended picnics, carnivals, or call ’em what you will.” Some of the best bands and drum corps of the day kept the visitors dancing, and Cottman’s Carousel, reputedly one of the best merry-go-rounds in central New York, ran from early morning till the daylight hours dwindled.
Of course, our nineteenth-century prototypes of the contemporary craft beer festival denizen arriving from far-flung places were not the only people in attendance. In the days before mechanized farming, hop production was nothing if not labour-intensive. Recounts Carl M.: “Hired men who worked the summer-long at tasks more or less pleasurable and arduous, with seldom a ‘day off’ from steady work, often engaged upon a summer’s work––usually from April to the last of October––with the ‘understanding’ that for ‘The Hop Growers’ they wantd [sic] a ‘vacation’ for the whole day––with no loss of wages.”
The hop yard owners, too, brought their entire family to the picnic site resplendent with tables bedecked with cookies, jams, and jellies. “Mothers provided the dainties not usually on the family table, including fried chicken as only [m]others of the era knew how to fry ’em.”
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The latter-day versions of this annual tradition might not feature a merry-go-round, and mothers likely won’t be called upon to provide the dainties, but the contemporary Madison County Hop Fest will be well-provisioned with delicious local beer and food. So point your wagons and buggies in the direction of Oneida, NY, and do what people have been doing there intermittently since the 1800s: celebrating the hop harvest and participating in cultural history in the making.
With the exception of Friday’s Paired Dinner, all events will take place on the grounds of the Madison County Historical Society.
Address: 435 Main St., Oneida, NY, 13421
Paired Dinner at Kenwood and Vine. 6:00pm. Tickets: $55. Reservation deadline has passed, but worth checking to see if they still have tickets.
Taste of Hops: A Food and Beer Pairing. 12:00-2:00pm. Tickets: $20 in advance/$25 at the door. Participating eateries from the region include: Hamilton Inn; Colgate Inn; Cakes and Other Goodies; Kenwood and Vine; The Ridge; No.10 Tavern; Madison Bistro; and Ye Olde Landmark Tavern.
Beer Sampling. 2:30-5:30pm. $25 advance/$30 door. Around twenty-five breweries will be on hand to pour beer. Local/NYS breweries include: Good Nature; Empire; Cortland Brewing Company; Erie Canal Brewing Company; Henneberg; Ommegang; Sackets Harbor; Southern Tier; Middle Ages; Binghamton Brewing; Saranac; and Brooklyn Brewery.
Presentations/Exhibitors. 11:30am-5:30pm. Free Entry. Speakers include Steve Miller (Cornell Cooperative Extension, Madison County), Dan Cazentre (Syracuse Post Standard), and Al Bullard (collector, consultant, and 2005 Madison County “Hop King”). Representatives from the North East Hop Alliance, Foothill Hops, and Clark Hollow Hops will also be on hand.
Carl M., “The ‘Hop Growers’’,” Business and Industry File––Hops––Growing and Curing Hops, Madison County Historical Society, undated.
Hop cone: F.D. Hofer
MCHS logo and building: mchs1900.org
Hop kiln near Hamilton, NY: F.D. Hofer
For more information, see the Madison County Hop Fest website.
To learn more about the important work done by local historical associations like the Madison County Historical Society, see the MCHS website. You might also consider donating to them while you’re at Hop Fest so they can continue to staff their institution and stock their archive.
© 2014 Franz D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.