Harvesting Heritage Hops
Updated: Mar 20, 2019
From our backyard to Brooklyn, turning heirloom hops into delicious craft beer with artisanal brewer Ben Clayton of Freethought Beer.
My partner Paul is a fifth generation Cooperstown, NY resident. He comes from a family of farmers, and with his siblings has inherited the family farm in Index, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it crossroads just south of Cooperstown. Historically, King Farm grew hay and raised dairy cattle. But it was also part of a little-known piece of agrarian heritage in central New York. This farm, and the many like it in Otsego County, grew nearly 90% of the hops that once supplied the commercial beer industry across the United States. Cooperstown’s Farmers Museum features an exhibition detailing how seasonal workers from New York City would come upstate for the summer to provide the manual labor necessary for the intense work of the hops harvest. Apparently even though the labor was backbreaking, the fresh air and social opportunities the harvest provided were attractive.
Sadly, the hops industry in New York collapsed from the dual blows of Prohibition and blight in the early 20th century. By the time Prohibition was repealed, hops cultivation had moved to the more amenable drier climate of Oregon and Washington. But today there is somewhat of a resurgence in New York-grown hops, in part due to the requirements of farm brewing in NY State, in which a large percentage of the agricultural inputs in on-farm brewed beer must be grown in state. Given this trend, Paul and I wondered if King Farm hops could be resurrected.
We started with the most basic question: are our hops any good? While the farm itself has long lay fallow, Paul’s mom, Susan King, had transplanted some of the old hops from the farm to our house in Cooperstown over a decade ago, and they were growing feral in the backyard. Fortuitously, they benefited from a sort of natural scaffolding provided by the proliferation of invasive Japanese knotweed growing in the backyard. Commercial hops grow on tall trellises, something we plan to put in this year to bring some order to the botanical riot out back.
One hot day last August, together with a friend, we carefully unwound each of the hops bines from the knotweed, then picked off all the cones. These we placed on window screens in the sun porch for a few days, and set up fans to help dry them out. Drying is essential so the cones don’t mold, and in a commercial setting this would be done with a kiln. I thought we did it correctly, but the kind people at the Cornell University Brewing Extension Lab, who tested the oil profile of our hops, let us know that we had twice the desired moisture content in our sample. Lesson learned for next time.
An oil profile, consisting of alpha and beta acids, tells a brewer something about the qualities of the hops – how bitter they are (alpha acids) and how aromatic they are (beta acids). Which in turn tells the brewer something about how the beer will taste. Today’s IPAs are heavy on very bitter hops, but I prefer something more floral and aromatic. We hoped that our hops, which we suspect are generations old and probably from Europe, where Paul’s ancestors come from, would be a bit more “old school” than the extremely bitter types used in so much triple-IPA brewing these days.
The only way to really know is to brew the hops into beer and taste it. So I started looking for a craft brewer willing to brew what’s called a single-hop batch of beer and was extremely lucky to be introduced to Ben Clayton. Ben leads the cocktail program at one of New York City’s most delicious farm to table restaurants and is an expert craft brewer on the side. Like us, Ben is interested in sourcing local ingredients to create unique beers that taste of their agricultural roots. The match was perfect.
Several weeks after drying and freezing our hops (just in the kitchen freezer; commercial hops are usually pelletized and freeze-dried so that they look like green rabbit food pellets), I met Ben in the kitchen of his Brooklyn apartment, Ziploc bags of hops in hand. In my next blog post, I’ll write about what we brewed up. Stay tuned!