JOHNSONVILLE, N.Y. -- Hops began to surface in 1830 as a major crop in the state of New York, the national leader in hops production for decades. Hops crops underwent a "blight" in the 1980s and most of the production moved to western states. Hops production has returned with an increase in the state since the early 21st century.
Hop Ridge Farms of Johnsonville is one of many hops producers that has recently come into a small-time startup. Two families, the Gardners and the Weingolds, started their operation in 2012 out of personal passions for horticulture and beer.
Since the New York farm brewery law went into effect in January 2013, the partners of Hop Ridge farms said the agricultural production of hops in the state cannot keep up with the demand.
"The demand for New York state grown hops is incredible," said HopRidge partner William Gardner. "There's been numerous farm breweries popping up in the area, and they have to use New York state grown products to brew their beer."
Since the inception of the farm brewery law, roughly 100 licenses have been given to small-time brewery startups in the state. It has streamlined the permitting process for opening a brewery: It cut down the fees for a brewing license from thousands of dollars to $300. Those breweries are required under the law to use locally-grown hops and grains, which has heightened the demand on producers like HopRidge.
"It's been quite successful: Obviously we're doing it," Gardner said. "There is a farm down the road that is going to start growing barley. It's one of those laws that everyone was kind of skeptical about at first, but we are starting to see it pay off."
Hop Ridge partner Steve Weingold started brewing beer in 1990 on a small scale for leisure. Gardner is an avid home brewer and has contributed to creations at Madison Brewing Company in Bennington. When Weingold and his wife, Denise Richards, were introduced to the Gardners through their sons, they found that they had a mutual passion.
"That's really how we joined forces, until (the Gardners) approached us one day and proposed we grow hops here at home: We have the field here and the land. It was a no brainer," Weingold said. "We thought this was the best opportunity to do something with our land: Something we love."
Gardner's wife, Trish Gardner, said she always had a dream to own a plant nursery. She has a level one certificate in horticulture from the Berkshire Botanical Gardens.
"I really wanted to open a flower nursery, but this area is so saturated that I really didn't know what to do," Trish Gardner said. "William and I chatted for a while and we came up with the idea of growing hops because he had already started growing them in the back yard."
After asking the Weingolds if they could lease the land, the Gardners went on board with the plans. After three years, "the plan this year was to fortify what plants we have going. In the future, (plans) are to expand to the road and double the size we are right now," William Gardner said.
Hops mature around their third year, with up to 70 percent of optimal production, so Hop Ridge will finally start to see a significant yield. The families now grow seven varieties of hops: Willamette, Saaz, Chinook, Cascade, Mount Hood, Centennial and Nugget.
"Depending on the variety, there is definitely a difference in the amount of acids that are produced by the hop in terms of bittering and the amount of aroma that is produced," Weingold said. "(The concentration of acids and oils) produces the bitterness or the flavor. Some are very citrusy and some are very floral."
After the hops buds are cut at the end of the season, the cones are warm-air dried in an oast. In 2013, HopRidge produced and sold nine pounds of dried hops. Since the plants were not mature last year, the farm partners anticipate a much higher yield this year. Depending on the beer that is being made, it can take as much as four pounds of dried hops to produce a barrel.
"Everything we do here is very small scale and hands-on The only time we really need extra help is when it comes to harvest," said Trish Gardner. "It's a lot of fun during harvest time, we take down all the vines, bring them into the house and sit in a big circle to take off the buds."
The families built a ladder and platform on an old hay wagon pulled by a tractor, which they call the "hopmobile," to reach the top of the vines and cut them down as needed.
"With growing hops, there really isn't a lot of commercial equipment out there," Weingold said. "As you can see you are working with some pretty tall structures. Whatever you need, you really have to figure it out and make it yourself."
Weingold and Richards raise llamas, whose waste is the only fertilizer used for the hops plants. The farm is not licensed organic, but are all natural: Meaning they don't use pesticides.
"It's kind of a weird thing in the beer world," William Gardner said. "You can actually brew and market an organic beer without using organic hops, which we think is kind of foolish. It doesn't really give us any kind of incentives to get fully certified organically, which is a three- to four-year process where they come out and test your soil each year."
Hop Ridge sells the majority of its yield to Abandon Brewing Company in Penn Yann, N.Y. The partners said they hope to distribute to more breweries and set up an online store for home brewers as they increase their operation size.
You can find contact information, or learn more about the farm on its website at http://www.hopridgefarms.com/. See this article online for a pertinent video.
Contact Tom Momberg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomMomberg