Beer Trees

HOST INTRO: Now, we have a story about supply and demand. And…beer. Upstate New York was once the biggest grower of a little crop called hops–the ingredient that gives beer its flavor.

 

Recently, the state has been trying to revitalize this century old industry by encouraging craft brewers to buy from local farmers. The effect has been a huge increase in the acres of hops grown in NY. But convincing local brewers to use them – that’s proving problematic. Katherine Sullivan takes us from the farm to the pint.

 

SULLIVAN: First, let’s talk supply side. 

 

I’m walking with Chuck Rhoades on his hop farm in Willet, a town in Central NY – population one thousand.

CHUCK SOUND

 

He bought this farm a few years ago.

 

RHOADES: I drove up through here, and pictured it, pretty much exactly like this. So I don’t know if you call that a bad dream or a vision, I’m not sure.

 

SULLIVAN: We’ll go with vision – or at least it’s something to behold. This field has rows and rows of tall poles, like telephone poles–17 acres of them. They’ll grow vertically, on strings tied to wires between the poles. In just a few months, hop bines will grow nearly 20 ft up the strings, creating thick walls of green. But for now, it’s a field of bare poles–beautifully geometric, and…a little confusing.  

 

RHOADES: People would stop and they would ask, what’re you doing? We said we were planting beer trees.

 

SULLIVAN: and beer trees – or hops – are a fussy crop. This morning, a small team of workers is tying the more than 30-thousand strings the hops will grow on.  After that, each plant will have to be wrapped by hand, on to the strings.

 

RHOADES: There’s just so many, so many little things. And I know we’re just beginning to understand what we don’t know yet. Like I like to say, anyone that knew anything about hops, died, in New York, 100 years ago.  

 

SULLIVAN:  A century ago, New York was the largest producer of hops in the country. Until they were wiped out by a mold. And then prohibition hit. And soon, Oregon, Washington and Idaho were growing all the hops – on farms 20 – 50 times bigger than Chuck’s.

 

RHOADES: The Hop Cartel, if you will, in the Pacific northwest, controls the propagation of those plants, so we can’t get them.

 

SULLIVAN: They really can’t get them–some of the most popular hop varieties are proprietary, owned by farms out west. Despite this, four years ago, New York State started giving incentives to brewers who source at least 20% of hops from local farms.  Which brings us to the demand side of this beer story.

 

There are more than a hundred breweries represented at the TAP-NY craft beer festival. It’s at the foot of a muddy ski slope in the Catskill mountains.

(screams)

LYONS: Having fun is essential to having a brewery.

 

SULLIVAN: Kristen Lyons owns Binghamton Brewing Company – she’s also the chair of the New York State Brewers’ Association. She grew up in a rural upstate town and loves supporting local farms. She even buys most of her hops from Chuck Rhoades. But, she says, taste gets in the way of buying all local.  

 

LYONS: It’s tough because you wanna do it all New York, but the really fancy ones, the ones with the flavors everybody wants, they’re just not quite here yet.

 

SULLIVAN: For microbrewers the beer – the one that’s gonna make your name – is often an IPA – which requires a lot of hops to make. West coast hops are favorites in IPAs–they have tropical, fruity flavors consumers want. New York hops taste different. That’s a problem for brewers who want to take advantage of the incentives New York has set up for homegrown hops. To be considered a “farm brewer”, the minimum amount of New York State hops brewers must use jumps from 20% to 60% by the end of next year – and 90% by 2024.

 

PEDLEY 1: They’re trying to create a market for things that’s not there yet in NYS. It could be there, but right now, I just couldn’t sign up my brewery to be handcuffed like that.

 

SULLIVAN: Zach Pedley owns North Brewery in Endicott. He says he’s going to use the best ingredients, no matter where they come from.

 

PEDLEY 2 : There are a lot of people in NYS who are stuck in this mentality that well, if you buy it from NYS, it’s gotta be good. That’s not true. There is a lot of bad beer in New York State. 

 

SULLIVAN:  Over on the other side of the TAP-NY festival, Otto Berkes at Strong Rope Brewery disagrees.

 

BERKES: We wanna make a New York beer. And in order to do that, we think it’s important to use ingredients that are from here.

 

SULLIVAN: That means Strong Rope sources ALL their hops and grains sourced in-state. He invites me to come see them make the beer at their brewery in Brooklyn.

 

SOUNDS: This is the boiler kettle. Don’t get too close because it’s really hot…..

 

SULLIVAN: Jason Sahler is the owner of Strong Rope. He’s breaking up chunks of hops to pour into a cauldron of boiling green liquid that Otto is stirring with a ladle. The whole room smells earthy and savory.  

They’re making a double IPA. Jason rejects the idea that you can’t make a good IPA with New York hops.

 

SAHLER: I mean, I can give you a taste of my IPAs. I think that’s a cop out. You can make an IPA. You can make some good IPAs. You just have to be willing to look and find the hops that work.

 

SULLIVAN: Jason takes me over to a freezer, and shows me the variety of hops he’s bought from NY farmers. They’re dried and in pellets. He even has some from Chuck Rhoades.

 

SAHLER: He’s one of our larger suppliers. He’s got some good stuff.

 

SULLIVAN: Jason pours me a glass of his double IPA, and it’s great. He’s figured out how to make a beer he believes in.

 

SAHLER: We should know our food systems and where things come from and what goes into our beers and what goes into our food and all of this stuff.

 

PAUSE – FARM AMBI

SULLIVAN: Back on supply side, up in Willet, Chuck Rhoades is hoping more brewers will start to think like Jason at Strong Rope. For now, he still has hops from last year that he hasn’t sold. Too much supply, not enough demand. I ask him when he expects his farm to be profitable.

 

RHOADES: (laughing) I don’t know if anyone knows in NY yet how long that is. I could tell you on paper i thought it was going to be three years. And I can tell you now, it’s not gunna be. It’s gunna be a lot longer than that.

 

SULLIVAN: Still, Chuck has plans to continue to expand his hop fields. And he’ll soon have a very direct market connection–His son is opening a brewery of his own. The name? Beer Tree.

 

Katherine Sullivan, Columbia Radio News.

 

One thought on “Beer Trees

  1. I would love to see more stories like this, maybe even an entire podcast devoted to the idea floated by Mr. Sahler that, “”We should know our food systems and where things come from and what goes into our beers and what goes into our food and all of this stuff.” Broadly speaking, in the same way that certain subdivisions of culture have become shorthand for understanding the zeitgeist of particular eras — think music in the 60s. or entrepreneurism in the 80s — I believe that culinary culture will in retrospect provide similar insight into the spirit of the age in early 21st America. The great conservationist Aldo Leopold once said, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.’ Among young Americans of the currently ascendant generation there is a growing awareness of this danger, though perhaps it would be better to say that a hunger is growing — a hunger to know the land intimately, and to reconnect with the knowledge that allows us to sustain (and if we’re being honest, occasionally intoxicate) ourselves. Thanks for a great story that explores the noble pursuit of this reconnection in such a relatable way.
    Cheers,
    A fan of public radio

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