First, Chris Hansen established eight of the new plants, among the vegetables already growing in his garden. But he couldn’t stop there, so the following year he added a few more.
Today, the veggie garden is gone, and 1,500 plants tower sixteen feet tall during the height of summer. The plant is hops, an integral component of most beer, and the place is Climbing Bines Craft Ale Company, in Penn Yan, New York.
Like Hansen’s hopyard, the Finger Lakes beer scene just can’t help growing. About seventy-five craft breweries have sprouted in the region since 2011, and more are expected to open next year.
When Chris planted his first hops, he was home brewing with his buddies, attempting to recreate the types of brews that he enjoyed while living out west in Colorado. They brewed for their own enjoyment, but the opportunity to go big in his hometown could not be ignored.
Chris’s late grandfather had farmed almost 300 scenic acres along the west side of Seneca Lake for sixty years, since he arrived in the United States from Denmark in 1905. During that time, Chris’s father dropped out of high school to help the family farm succeed. Times change, of course, and today most of the acreage is leased to other farmers.
Just a few years ago, Chris and two high school classmates, Brian Karweck and Matt Klehamer, reconnected and re-imagined fifteen of those historic acres into something new: a brewery so dedicated to the concept of “local” that they’d grow some of the ingredients themselves.
The land, just off Route 14, now supports one and a half acres of various varieties of hops that sway in the summer breeze like shape-shifting green walls along narrow corridors. The hops bines—not vines—twist their way up giant trellises of local black locust trees. Their whole stems wrap around the supports, and this feat earns them a botanical distinction from vines that use tiny grabbing tendrils to grow upward.
The prize of these plants is camouflaged among their big leaves flapping and fluttering: small, soft, green cones. Humble, decidedly reserved flowers that hide an amazingly fragrant substance within. When plucked and split, hops flowers release sticky yellow lupulin, the coveted floral bitterness that beer drinkers love in their IPAs and other brews. A substance that has flavored and preserved beer for perhaps a thousand years.
The desire for beer, for beer with character, and beer brewed locally, is not new. Genesee Beer has been brewing in Rochester since 1878. Rohrbachs Brewing Company, specializing in craft brews, opened there in 1991. Ithaca Beer Company began in 1998. Nationally, more than 2,500 breweries are in operation, and another 1,500 are in the planning stages. Most are small craft breweries, each annually producing less than six million barrels of beer made from traditional barley malts and not cheaper corn or rice.
The regional beer stein is frothing over, so to speak, with new business ventures. What’s behind this expansion? Consumers now demand full-flavored beers. Craft brewers connect with consumers and popular culture in a way that conventional brands don’t. “Millennial” consumers reject mass-produced products. More and more people want to buy local products that support small, independent, local businesses. Industry analysts cite these factors for craft beer’s rapid growth, according to the New York State Department of Labor.
Another catalyst for the boom is on the law books: the 2013 New York State Farm Brewery Act, which eased some regulations required for new businesses licensed as “farm breweries.”
The law’s roots can be traced back in part to then-home brewer Randy Lacey of Freeville, New York. He had learned to brew with his son at about the same time he and his wife were considering their post-retirement plans. They had enjoyed visiting breweries of all sorts during their travels around the country. Why not here? Perhaps they could expand into the commercial realm?
Conventionally, breweries operating in New York operate under Liquor Authority licenses, require additional permits for serving beer or food, pay various taxes, and are restricted to land zoned for industrial uses. But Randy knew the history of the Finger Lakes wine culture: the 1976 Farm Winery Act propelled the wine industry here from just a handful of producers to the robust network of hundreds today, thanks to the unique benefits offered to grape growers. Why not create a similar opportunity for brewers? About seven years ago, Randy began playing with the language of the Farm Winery Act, replacing the word “winery” with “brewery,” and “grapes” with “grains” or “hops.” Soon, he connected with people who had envisioned a similar future for local brewing, people from the Northeast Hops Alliance, the state Brewers Association, and Cornell Cooperative Extension. Together, they revised the language of the law, found sponsors in the legislature, gained Governor Cuomo’s support, and made the law a reality.
By 2013, the NYS Farm Brewery Law was enacted. The same year, Randy opened Hopshire Farm and Brewery with his family, just northeast of Ithaca on Route 13, growing hops, brewing beer on Sundays for visitor enjoyment, and dreaming up new recipes, like Beehave, a blonde ale made with local honey. Each year, Hopshire hosts a CoHOPeration event, where about thirty people bring their fresh homegrown hops to be combined into a community fresh hop ale. This year’s ale was released on September 20, and the contributors returned to enjoy it.
The Farm Brewery Act passed at the right moment for Garry Sperrick, who recently opened Abandon Brewing Company in Penn Yan. Some of the land was previously classified as “abandoned acres,” says Garry, and thus was the inspiration for the name. He had grown grapes and apples for years, and he wanted to take advantage of his beautiful location overlooking Keuka Lake. But he didn’t want to be “winery number eighty” in Yates County. Perhaps a brewery would work, he thought. With a taste for beer but no background in brewing, he hired an experienced brewer who had interned in Belgium and worked for a bigger beer company. Now, he’s created a variety of beers, from a traditionally light German wheat beer, to a hefty Belgian Quad that rings in at 9.2 percent alcohol, to a Double IPA brewed with Cascade, Chinook, Columbus, and Centennial hops. Garry put his professional engineering and automation experience to work in designing a geothermal system for heating and cooling, and also to hook up the brewing system itself. The guts of the brewing operate below the wide, worn floorboards of the red restored early 1800s barn. Beer made here is now available in seventy regional locations.
Randy, of Hopshire Farms, says the new law helps “Farm Breweries” like Hopshire, Abandon Brewing, and Climbing Bines because it allows them to sell beer by the glass, offer their products at events like farmers markets, operate on land zoned for farming, and exempts them from paying certain fees.
In exchange for these benefits and others, brewers must use at least 20 percent New York State-grown hops and other ingredients, a percentage that ratchets up to 90 percent by the year 2024. Meeting these requirements is not easy, according to Randy, and he’s not necessarily convinced that consumers will seek out breweries that specifically use local ingredients. Local hops cost about three times as much as those from the Pacific Northwest, and local grains about twice as much as conventional grain.
Climbing Bines Brews
A bevy of brews at Climbing Bines.
Back in 1879, central New York produced twenty million pounds of hops annually, and dried them in special barn-like, cupola-topped hop houses to cure, package, and store the fragrant flowers, which are related to marijuana. Special picking outings were even a summer highlight for young people hoping to meet someone special at a “hop.”
But by 1900, the hops heyday was over. The plant grew more easily in the wet Pacific Northwest, while insects and molds plagued crops here. Then, prohibition whacked the final whisper of the hops crop off its roots.
For decades, hops were history—until 1999. That year, Pedersen Farms in Seneca Castle resurrected the local hops tradition, growing fourteen varieties, including a rare local heirloom variety from the 1800s. The Ithaca Beer Company bought the first batch, and in 2004 created a beer with 100 percent New York State hops. Today, Pedersen Farms sells to brewers across the Northeast and Pennsylvania.
Pedersen Farms is just one of 125 growers in the state that tend about 250 acres of hops today, increasing at a rate of about seventy-five acres per year. But growing hops is not a simple operation, according to Steve Miller, Cornell Cooperative Extension hops expert. To start a hopyard, $12,000 to $15,000 is required per acre. A full harvest of 900-1,000 pounds cannot be expected for two or three years. Most people starting out today are already farming fruits or vegetables, and have some of the tractors and sprayers required. New York State growers have invested an estimated $2 million in hops production in the state over the last two years.
“It’s just like any crop,” says Steve. “Pests, disease, insects, and weeds can all cause problems.” Mowing, spraying, and irrigation are needed for optimal growth, and coolers are needed to preserve the flowers after picking. “It’s not for everyone,” he says.
The owners of Climbing Bines have accepted the challenge. “We’re in the business of making hops happen,” says Brian. “We know that’s what will separate us from everyone else around.” Even when the going gets tough, and bines show brown stress, Brian says they’d rather salvage the imperfect but still usable flowers than use more chemicals. “The lake is right there. Our kids play here. We’re not spraying aggressively.”
The path from plant to pint is not straightforward. “Wet hop” brews made from green flowers just hours after picking are unique and seasonal, like the community ale at Hopshire. But for most brewing, processed flowers are best for ease and consistency.
During harvest at Climbing Bines, the entire perennial plant is lopped off near the base, leaving just a small portion to regrow the following year. Handpicking the flowers is not financially feasible, since a half acre might have 450 plants, requiring 450 person-hours to pluck each one bare.
Instead, the plants are loaded up and trucked to Pedersen Farms where a stationary harvester strips the bines and then separates the flowers from the leaves and other material with a system of belts and blowers. There, the hops are dried, crushed, and pelletized before they are vacuum-sealed for long-term storage. Just two or three companies in the state have such equipment.
Climbing Bines has experimented with a small operation in their pole barn to do these steps on a small scale. Dry hops released out of a bag dangling from the ceiling fall into a machine that pulverizes the flowers into flakes. Then, a retrofitted wood pelletizer melds the resinous substance into hard bits. But this system won’t stay in place for long. The three owners are starting up Finger Lakes Hops Processing, a separate company. A commercial harvester is already ordered and en route from Poland. “The realities of being a farm and a brewery hit us,” says Brian. Now, people are calling Climbing Bines for advice on growing hops and brewing beer. “But there’s only so much you can learn before you have to just do it,” he says.
Not all beers require hops—but hops are seriously hyped these days. It’s perhaps the ingredient in beer that sets craft brews apart from mass-produced commercial varieties. Some say that hops offer a chance for brewing creativity. Fresh, dried whole leaf, or pellets? How much? Which varieties?
But the main ingredient in beer is grain, whether it’s barley, spelt, or rye (or even corn or rice in some national brands) that’s been malted, or allowed to germinate. While a pound or two of hops per barrel of beer is added at the fermenting stage, the whole brew begins with perhaps fifty or seventy-five pounds of grain.
The regional supply of malted barley and other grains is not keeping up with demand, according to local experts. Even so, Chris, Brian, and Matt at Climbing Bines are attempting to take “local” to a new level with their “four mile brews.”
Some Climbing Bines creations are made with 100 percent estate-grown hops and grains from Martens Farm and Lakeview Organic Grain, literally four miles down the road. Brian says he prefers to buy grain direct from farmers, and then send it to a malter, where the grain germinates before it is dried. Local grains tend to have less sugar than Midwest commercial sources, which affects brewing. “Some brewers complain about it, but I think as a brewer you just make a beer that fits with it,” says Brian, who hopes to experiment with buckwheat grain in the future.
The brewing happens in the back of the main building, which is split between brewery and tasting room. Before the operation opened, the building was an old, decrepit tractor shed. Now, Chris jokes that the brewing equipment is just a “glorified three-barrel home brew set-up.” And, it’s operated between Chris’s full time job teaching middle school math and Matt’s work in landscaping, while assistants fill in the gaps.
In the tight quarters, a semi-automated system keeps everything on track. First, malted grains are soaked in hot water and stirred in a caldron with a hand-carved mash paddle, to release sugars. The liquid, known as sweet wort, moves into a brew kettle for boiling before it’s transferred into one of the seven barrel fermenters, along with hops and yeast, which eat up the sugars, release carbon dioxide, and make alcohol. Fermenting temperatures are tightly controlled here, unlike a home brew system, where fluctuations can cause headaches. Brewers adjust temperatures depending on their desires for fuller or lighter body, or high or low alcohol.
“To be a good brewer, you have to either be an artist with engineering tendencies or an engineer with artistic tendencies,” says Brian. The fermenter is where the fun, mystical essence of beer emerges. Simple ingredients become something amazing. And yet, he says, “it’s just beer.” They are continually experimenting and taking notes. The point is not to create the same beer again and again. The goal is variety and serendipity, like when a near miss in one batch became a tasty and popular seasonal Spicy Apple Pie.
Once the beer is ready, visitors can enjoy it in the tasting room, where Brian’s carpentry craftsmanship emerges in the details. Fire-singed beams support the bar, beams that remained after Chris’s grandfather’s house burned on the property. Stones in the base of the wall were collected from the surrounding fields. Original wood-burned designs adorn the beer taps. Eight or so beers are available for tasting, but don’t expect to see the same beers every time you visit. One day you might find an Imperial IPA, another day might feature a Raspberry Hefe, or Ivan’s Red, a malty tribute to Chris’s grandfather. “We’re a different kind of brewery,” says Brian. “Newness is what people are after.”
And newness—with at least twelve new breweries expected to open in 2015—is what the Finger Lakes beer scene offers.
Many small brewers don’t bottle. For a taste, you’ve got to go to the source. Here’s how:
The first annual Finger Lakes Beer Festival is at Watkins Glen International on Oct 25, 2014: http:// fingerlakesbeertrail.com/content/finger-lakes-beer-festival
For a Beer Trail map: http://fingerlakesbeertrail.com
Abandon Brewing Company
2994 Merritt Hill Road
Penn Yan, NY 14527
Bacchus Brewing Company
15 Ellis Drive
Dryden, NY 13053
Birdland Brewing Company
1015 Kendall Street
Horseheads, NY 14845
Bottomless Brewing (Opening Soon)
3543 East Lake Road
Geneva, NY 14456
CB Craft Brewers
300 Village Square Boulevard
Honeoye Falls, NY 14472
Climbing Bines Craft Ale Co.
511 Hansen Point
Penn Yan, NY 14527
Cortland Beer Company
16 Court Street
Cortland, NY 13045
Crafty Ales & Lagers
2 Exchange Street
Phelps, NY 14532
Eastwood Brewing Company (formerly Fairport Brewing Company)
99 South Main Street
Fairport, NY 14450
Finger Lakes Beer Company
8462 State Route 54
Hammondsport, NY 14840
GAEL Brewing Company (Opening Soon)
4180 State Route 14
Geneva, NY 14456
Glass Factory Brew House at White Springs Winery
4200 Route 14
Geneva, NY 14456
Griffen Hill Farm Brewery (Opening Soon)
3949 Griffin Road
Onondaga, NY 13215
Grist Iron Brewing Company (Opening Soon)
4874 Route 414
Burdett, NY 14818
Heavily Brewing Company (Opening Soon)
2471 Hayes Road
Montour Falls, NY 14865
Hopshire Farm and Brewery
1771 Dryden Road
Freeville, NY 13068
Horseheads Brewing, Inc.
250 Old Ithaca Road
Horseheads, NY 14845
Iron Flamingo Brewery (Opening Soon)
196 Baker Street
Corning, NY 14830
Ithaca Beer Company
122 Ithaca Beer Drive
Ithaca, NY 14850
Keuka Brewing Company
8572 Briglin Road
Hammondsport, NY 14840
Knucklehead Craft Brewing (Opening Soon)
426 Ridge Road
Webster, NY 14580
Lake Drum Brewing (Opening Soon)
16 East Castle Street
Geneva, NY 14456
Lima Brewing (In Planning)
2850 McCoy Road
Lima, NY 14485
Naked Dove Brewing Company
4048 State Route 5 and 20
Canandaigua, NY 14424
Railhead Brewing Company
40 Park Drive
Hornell, NY 14843
Rock Stream Brewery
162 Fir Tree Point Road
Rock Stream, NY 14878
The VB Brewery
6606 State Route 96
Victor, NY 14564
Twisted Rail Brewing Company
20 Pleasant Street
Canandaigua, NY 14424
Upstate Brewing Company
3028 Lake Road
Elmira, NY 14903
Wagner Valley Brewing Company
9322 State Route 414
Lodi, NY 14860
War Horse Brewing Company
623 Lerch Road
Geneva, NY 14456