As interest in craft beverages grows, so does need for hops

OBSERVER photo by Jimmy McCarthy Pictured is a hop demonstration yard behind Cornell Cooperative Extension’s facility in the town of Portland.

Craft beverages are taking off and growing in popularity, and with it comes a demand for hops and an opportunity for interested growers.

Hop growing in New York state was a large operation in the late 1800s as 21 million pounds of dried hops were produced. However, diseases including downy mildew and powdery mildew, as well as aphids and spider mites, hindered production. The industry moved to the midwest and Pacific Northwest to flee from pest issues.

While pests still present challenges today, a concerted effort is being placed on disease and pest resistance. Locally, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County is examining different methods to control pests. Tim Weigle has provided statewide and regional leadership in integrated pest management for the commercial grape industry for over 20 years. Weigle says he’s been working in pest management for hops for seven to eight years.

“It started out when a head brewer at Flying Bison in Buffalo asked customers if they would be willing to grow hops for him to use,” Weigle said. “When he and one of his customers got in touch with me, they started growing and ran into pest problems. That was my introduction. They wanted local hops, they planted and started having problems.”

Two small research demonstration yards are located at Cornell Cooperative Extension’s facility in the town of Portland to conduct various biological control methods. Weigle said they have a project funded by the New York Farm Viability Institute to research biological control of two spotted spider mites — one of the larger pests hop growers face. Weigle said they’re also looking at different weed management practices.

“There really isn’t a whole lot labeled for weed control in hops,” he said. “We’re looking at propane, flamers, rotary hoses and using hay mulch.”

There’s no large local hop growing operation currently, but there are several smaller ones. As for craft breweries, they’re present and growing in number.

For Five and 20 Spirits and Brewing in Westfield, crafting beers has been one of its newer ventures. Mario Mazza, general manager, said they’ve been doing it for over two and half years.

As to where they get their hops, Mazza said a majority comes from local growers in Chautauqua County.

“We’re developing, and we’re still new, but we have some interesting things,” Mazza said regarding their craft beverages. “We have others where we want to tweak it and improve upon it.”

Mazza said he’d like to see a variety of hops grown locally. And he said it could be beneficial if more were in the hop growing business.

“I think that having some additional people who are truly well suited to do it and have fortitude to see it through would be good,” he said.

Weigle noted there are various hops that can be grown locally, but he believes New York state can be a leader when it comes to growing aroma. As to where hops can be grown, Weigle said they can be grown by the lake or up past the escarpment as long as the ground’s well drained.

“Hops need water, a lot of it,” he said. “They have deep roots like grapes.”

Hops grow from the ground to a height of 18-20 feet in a six-to-seven-week period. From May to June 22, Weigle said they’re growing as fast they can. Harvesting takes place between the middle of August and the middle of September.

“It’s kind of nice because it fits in with the grape growing around here,” he said. “You can be done with hops harvesting at a time when you’re getting into grape harvest.”