The Past, Present, and Yes, Future of the Hops Industry

Upstate Alive Magazine. (Cooperstown, NY) 1996, 1:4

by Richard Vang
Presented by the Upstate Chunk & Paradigm Company


Nearly everyone has heard of the legendary upstate New York hops industry. While many people cite "the blight" as the cause for its demise, they are unaware of other more important factors which also contributed. Lately, there has been a great deal of discussion regarding the possiblity of growing hops again in this area, with many people asking if it can be done, and if so, how? The answer to that important question is yes, but to be successful, an entirely new approach must be taken. Fortunately, there are people willing to pursue that different angle, and in doing so, they are helping to both preserve hops history and plant economic seeds for the future.

To plan for the future, we must first try to understand the past. The rise and fall of the hops industry reads like an Old Testament narrative. Hops first came to America from Europe around 1630. Small crops were produced for many years, probably to supply small breweries and taverns, and began to emerge as a major crop in New York around 1830. By mid-century, due to excellent yields and good market prices, hop production assumed feverish proportions. By 1849 New York had attained the national leadership in the production of hops, and by 1855 the region was raising well over three million pounds annually.

Hop growing predominated in the area contiguous to what is now Route 20, running from Sharon Springs to Cazenovia, with a north-south axis of this belt extending approximately 20 miles in either direction. The major producing counties were Otsego, Oneida, Madison, Schoharie, and Montgomery. In those days, good, properly brewed beer was a favorite beverage and fields all over the United States bloomed with hop-bearing vines. Even though hops from England and Germany were in great demand, the Otsego County hop was considered the best in America, and the equal of any in the world.

Almost every farm had a few acres of the vine, that yielded under ordinary circumstances an average of one thousand pounds to the acre, and by the Civil War, nearly 90 percent of the total hop crop of the United States was raised in New York and over one-third of the New York production came from Otsego County.

The Seeb kilnDuring these early decades, the face of the upstate family farm quickly changed as hop houses (or ‘barns,’ or ‘kilns’) were built. Used for drying and bleaching the hops, the earliest barns were usually low and squatty with ventilation on the ends or under the eaves. These later evolved to tall, narrow barns with a ventilation cupola situated on one end over the kiln area. As farming became more focused on hops and the crop flourished through the century, pyramid-shaped kilns were constructed which were more efficient. Often the pyramids were added on to the existing barn, and the old structure was converted for storage. With greater prosperity, double pyramid houses were built, which featured a pyramid kiln on each end of a central storage area.

Photo: Pyramidal kiln, located near Canadarago Lake in Otsego County.

Al Bullard and Dave Petri have been studying and documenting various kilns for nearly twenty years. While working independently, or with other area residents, the two men realized that we were losing our unique upstate landscape and history. They then began to collect tools, equipment, diaries, clothes, photos, and printed goods. It was slow going, checking through census records and agricultural publications, conducting personal interviews, identifying photographs, and performing field surveys, mainly on evenings, weekends, and over the telephone.

The two first came into contact about five years ago during what they call "The Raid on Otsego County." Hop growers from the Pacific Northwest came to the area in an attempt to collect local hop artifacts for a museum. With renewed vigor Bullard and Petri joined forces, and while a truckload of tools and equipment went west, their efforts ensured that at least one of everything remained here for the benefit of local history.

As a result Bullard and Petri formed "The Hop Project," the goal of which is to preserve as much of the knowledge, artifacts, and architecture of the family-farm hop industry as possible. Much of their spare time is taken up by research, and while they have amassed sizable collections, much more remains unexplored. A couple of areas still unknown are the side industries of equipment manufacturing, and hops extracting, which accompanied the agricultural boom. But the two seem to have endless enthusiasm for their hobby, and have nothing but praise for each other. While Dave is impressed by Al’s concern for local history "for someone who’s not originally from here," Al says "Dave is awesome. He’ll spend six hours on the phone just talking to people."

Lately, The Hop Project’s founders have been spending a good deal of time giving presentations and trying to educate people about the vanished industry. Current generations often have no idea of what they have sitting around the family farm, such as equipment whose original use was forgotten long ago. A nine-foot long, hand-chiseled, wooden screw beam used in early hop presses, and a rare sulfur dish used for bleaching hops, are two examples. The screw beam had been lying in a barn for nearly 75 years; the sulfur dish was being used to feed the family cats. Bullard and Petri regret that there are few people left who remember the critical agricultural work. Both remember people they talked with twenty years ago, wishing they had half an hour with those people today. Bullard laments that "It’s like a fragile piece of glass or something, it’s almost ready to break, it’s almost gone. You know, Milford, a hundred years ago, was one of the top five hop-growing towns in Otsego County. I know for sure, of three hop houses left in the township of Milford. There was one of these on every farm!"

Hop pickers

Photo: Women and children were more adept at cleaning the vines, while the men performed harder labor, such as pulling out poles and carrying them to the picking boxes.

So what happened? During the "Golden Age" of the hops industry, market prices soared, and many farmers, eager for sudden wealth, plowed up every available piece of land. While they depended on other income from dairy, potatoes, grain, or lumber, they also planned on saving whatever profit there was from their hops. Unfortunately, West Coast farmers had the same idea. Achieving greater yields and utilizing mechanized picking, they manipulated the market, so that in 1882 the price peaked at an unheard of price of over $1.25 per pound, and plunged considerably the following year. These violent price fluctuations made profits more uncertain. Local growers grew skeptical of these risks, and began to cut the size of their hop yards in favor of the more stable occupations of dairying and the raising of corn, grain and potatoes.

Then, a series of disasters conspired to destroy the local growers. In 1909, the crop was hit with the downey mildew sphaerotheca humuli, often referred to erroneously as ‘blight’ or ‘blue mold.’ Efforts to defeat the disease were in vain, after two dismal years put the family farmer nearly out of business. Then, in 1914, an extreme attack of hop aphids broke out that further added to their demise. But by this time the picture in upstate New York was one of disaster, and farmers no longer could afford to make further attempts at growing hops. The final blow came as Prohibition eliminated virtually all needs for hops. Eventually, hop yards were plowed up, other crops were planted, and the barns and equipment were converted to other uses or left to rot. There were only a few attempts to grow hops following the repeal of Prohibition, and small crops were reported as late as 1953 in Schoharie County.

So is it possible to grow hops again in our area? Dr. Leonard Perry, head of the University of Vermont’s Plant and Soil Science Department, has been condcuting hop-growing research for several years. According to Dr. Perry, "There are no adverse climactic or soil conditions which would absolutely prevent the growth of hops in any locale, so that the reasons for the presence or absence of hop growing in any region are largely economic or reflect the cultural heritage of the agriculturalists." It is not doubted that hops can grow here, but direct economic competition with the west coast growers is doubtful.

However, with an entirely different marketing approach, that factor might be overcome to make hop growing feasible again. Such an approach requires two things. First, we must realize that hops cannot be grown in a vacuum, and to think that way is hypocritical. With hops we make beer, and Americans love beer. Second, we must understand recent brewing trends in America, and become more educated about the types of hops and how they are used in the brewing process.

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So, what exactly are hops, and how are they used? Hops (humulus lupulus) are cultivated flowers primarily used for preservative and flavoring characteristics in beer. These perennial vines can grow in almost any climate given enough food, water and sunlight. It is important early on to train them to poles, wire, or string, but while growing, the plants are fairly maintenance free. This relative of the cannabis plant can grow up to two feet per week, often reaching heights of 40 feet.

Photo: The Hop Yard at The Farmers' Museum, Cooperstown.  "Old School" at its best!

The seedless hop cone, usually produced in clusters on female plants, is the item of interest on the hops plant. They grow to a length of about two inches long, with papery green scales turning yellowish when ripe, at the base of which are small yellow lupulin glands that contain the essential oils and acids which give each type of hops its characteristic bittering or flavoring properties. After picking, the flowers are usually dried before use. When brewing beer, the bitterness of the hop is used to balance the sweetness of the malt, and the essential oils add a flavor and/or aroma which cannot be achieved by using any other plant.

Dr. Perry’s tests, as well as other experimental fields througout the East Coast, have proven that hops can still be grown in our climate. While pest and mildew problems still exist, they can be controlled. This was shown to be the case as early as 1915, when testing was conducted on yards in Milford, which involved spraying sulfur powder on the plants. It proved to be a very effective deterrent, and could be performed at a low cost. In recent years, other more environmentally safe methods have been tested, many with favorable results.

Currently, harvesting is probably the biggest limitation to large-scale commercial production. Today the chief hop-growing areas in the US are in California, Oregon, and the famous Yakima Valley of Washington. As in the 1880’s, greater yields per acre (2000 pounds) and drier climates less conducive to plant diseases still remain major reasons for the area’s success, and can justify the expense of quarter-of-a-million dollar facilities used to mechanically harvest the hops. While smaller units can be purchased for around $70,000, that is still out of reach of most budgets. For this reason alone there will probably never again be the large scale production we once had in the East, nor will production be able to compete with the West for sales to the large brewers.

However, historically hops have been picked by hand, and alternative markets for hand-picked hops can be sought. For the past twenty years, America has played host to a craft-brewing renaissance. With the increasing interest in home brewing, brew pubs, and microbreweries, there is related interest in producing a range of top quality varieties of hops (there at least 40 different varieties) on a small scale for these markets. Dr. Perry’s trials reveal that about 24 person hours of picking can yield about 5 pounds of dried cones. This is just about enough for a year’s worth of weekly homebrewing, and points out the clear market potential of small scale commercial production. A recent industry poll of craft-brewers in the Carolinas revealed that the majority would be willing to buy 50-100% of their hops from local growers. As New York’s grassroots brewing industry slowly emerges, a "gourmet" market, if you will, might be established based on the reputation of the upstate New York hop alone.

A local example of this brewing revolution is the Cooperstown Brewing Company, located in Milford. Founded in 1994, the microbrewery began brewing in the Spring of 1995, and bottling later that year. The business is truly a family operation with Stan Hall as President, Hank Schecher as Vice President, Brian Hall (Stan’s son) as Head Brewer, Henry Schecher (Hank’s father) as Plant Manager, Jule Hall (Stan’s wife) as Secretary/Treasurer, and Sandra Hall Barry (Stan’s daughter) as Art Designer.

Brian Hall admits that the hardest obstacle to acheiving his dream was overcoming people’s lack of education about properly brewed beer. "For a long time in this country, there was no choice of beers to drink. Now, with the rise of microbreweries, many people are rediscovering what beer truly can be. The new beers are healthier, more natural. People no longer have to settle for anything less."

For his Old Slugger Pale Ale, he uses Fuggles, Cascade, and Mt. Hood hops, all from Yakima Valley, WA. He uses approximately 2,100 pounds per year, at a cost of approximately sixty cents per pound, which includes transportation. When asked if he would use hops grown locally if they were available, he replied, "Certainly. But it’s important for people to know that a brewer can’t use just any hops to brew with. It depends on the style and characteristics of the beer to be made."

Another craft brewery, planned by Don and Wendy Feinberg, will be the nation’s first Belgian-style farm brewery. They plan to break ground along the River Road in Middlefield in the Spring, and begin brewing by the Fall. During the second year, the potentially self-sufficient operation will feature its own wheat and barley fields, and eventually, hops. Such increasingly organic, family-run breweries are scattered across Belgium, often regarded as the premier beer brewing region in the world. While they plan to bring their Brewmaster from Belgium to ensure a quality product, the remainder of the labor and employees, from the architects to the field hands, will come from the local area.

As owners of Vanberg & Dewulf, the only importers to specialize in Belgian beers, the couple has seen the rise of craft breweries in America as a positive trend. They too have encountered many misconceptions regarding their products and their homestead brewery. Don and Wendy argue that Belgian beers are gastronomic beers, which are to be enjoyed with food much the same as wine is. The higher alcohol content (and higher prices) mean that they are not to be drunk in large quantities, but are meant to be savored instead.

Their homestead, self-sufficient, farm operation fits in nicely with the environmentally sound interrelationship among dairy cows, hops, and the brewing process. Hop plants are enormous feeders. A dairy farm produces enough raw manure to fertilize an acre or two of hops. In turn, hops spent in the brewing process are often returned to the local farmers as feed for other farm animals, such as hogs. Such a symbiotic relationship is lost on large-scale breweries or breweries which brew only with hop extracts.

In Belgium, such cooperation among farmers and brewers creates a strong community spirit and lasting traditions. They are excited to have Cooperstown Brewing Company just down the road in Milford, and they plan to create such relationships with the brewery. Don says, "What business can be more community and family oriented than a man, who’s father grew hops, starting a brewery with his son? And I challenge you to find one that been more successful." Together, the two breweries will bring more interest to the area, adding to the tourist trade with their Old World style and craft-brewing.

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Petri and Bullard have another idea. "We should have a museum, a hop museum, in upstate New York somewhere." Currently, their collections are housed at their homes, and at the Hartwick Library, which has donated space for a temporary future exhibit. The search is on to find an original barn which can be restored to museum condition, if not actual working condition. I asked Bullard about a possible candidate. "The Osborne Kiln [outside of Burlington Flats]. It is the greatest single pyramidal in Otsego Cunty now. If we get a winter like the one we had two years ago, it’s dead. This is a piece of architecture, that if the state of New York loses, we’re all gonna be poorer for it."

Photo: The Osborne kiln, now gone, a victim of the harsh upstate winters.

The Hop Project has been offered the kiln for preservation, and has been given an estimate for disassembly, removal, and restoration. But research, lectures, and their regular occupations leave little time for fundraising. Much of the collection assembled by Bullard and Petri has either been purchased out-of-pocket, as part of a labor of love, or has been been given to them under various agreements. Petri says that "People have been so cooperative, and we didn’t expect it. I feel bad that a lot has been given to us with the stipulation of finding a home for it."

Such a home could be put together with their collections, and turned into a working museum. It could possibly be a branch of The Farmers' Museum, or could be sponsored privately by the Matt brewing family of Utica, or the Busch family, whose local hop yards helped make Budweiser the biggest selling beer in America. With enough hops to pick between museums and small farms, an annual hop-picking festival could take place, boosting tourism, while providing needed extra income for local farmers.

So, it seems that in a related way, hops are slowly returning to our area, thanks to some dedicated local historians, and craft-brewing entrepreneurs. With a better understanding of our unique past, together with a grasp of future trends, we might once again see the days in upstate New York "when the hop was king."

[Editor's Note: Since the time this article was written, The Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown (NY) has presented a full-scale exhibition on the history of hop farming in upstate New York, along with a hop yard and restored kiln.  The exhibition is scheduled to run through the Fall of 2001.]



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©1996, Richard Vang and Upstate Chunk & Paradigm Company.