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The Hops of Madison County: The Revival of America’s Hops Capital

Hops are on the rebound in New York’s Madison County. As local beer brewers who want to “buy local” drive greater demand, local farmers are returning to this venerable crop.

Hops, a perennial herb, are the female flowers of the hop plant, humulus lupulus.

Primarily used in beer ale production to provide both aroma and a bitter flavor, hops are usually greenish in color, resemble a small pinecone and grow on bines; these twining or interwoven stems grow rapidly and can reach 18 feet in height.

Hops may be used “wet” — within 24 hours of harvest — or dry. Dried hops are added to beer either in leaf form or, more commonly, as pellets made from crushed hops. The fortunes of hops farmers are thus closely tied to the state of the beer industry.

Located at the geographical center of New York State, Madison county is rural and sparsely populated. The county’s hops history can be traced to the early 19th century. A state historic marker sign positioned on Route 12B in Bouckville reads: “First Hop Yard - In 1808 James D. Coolidge planted the first hops field in Madison County. By 1859 NY supplied 87 percent of hops grown in the U.S.”

Historian Matthew Urtz originates the county’s brewing history in Cazenovia, where, in the 1820s, Judge Talcott Backus operated a brewery south of the village. This operation changed hands several times in subsequent years before Salem Twist assumed brewing operations in 1849.

“At their height, they produced about 2,000 barrels of beer annually,” Mr. Urtz said, citing census data from 1855 in reference to Cazenovia’s manufacturing volume. “[Twist] was brewing at a pretty good rate.” And using plenty of locally grown hops, too. Within a decade, however, this brewery had ceased operations. “[Twist] was gone by 1865 at the latest,” Mr. Urtz said. But Madison hops farmers continued to grow their crop, shipping loads via the Erie Canal to brewers in New York City.

Around the turn of the 20th century, a major blight hit Central New York hops and destroyed considerable acreage. Much of the hops growing industry moved to California and the Pacific Northwest. Mr. Urtz acknowledged, “The growing season was longer in the northwest and the weather was better.”

Prohibition resulted in slashed hops prices, further hurting the flailing industry, and what remained of commercial hops growers in Madison County. For almost a century, hops disappeared from the county’s agricultural roster. But that would change early in the third millennium.

Kate Fisher and her husband Larry own and operate Foothill Hops in Munnsville. They are Madison County’s latter-day hops “pioneers.”

“We were the first in Madison County to plant hops,” Mrs. Fisher said, meaning the first planters since the early 1900s. “We started in 2001.”

The Fishers’ interest in hops was sparked by a visit to the county’s annual Hop Fest in 2000 (This year’s Fest — a celebration of “200 years of hop heritage in Madison County,” according to the county historical society’s web page — took place in August).

“We asked ourselves ‘Why aren’t hops grown around here now?’” she explained. “So we planted a few plants and started home brewing.”

While the Fishers’ initial plan was to create an agricultural-tourism destination, Foothill Hops has become a hops supplier to several New York State brewers, including Empire Brewing Co. in Syracuse, whose Empire State Pale Ale uses pelletized hops from Foothill.

Today, 10 varieties of hops are grown at Foothill Hops and Mrs. Fisher is bullish on this year’s crop. While June’s rainy weather is cause for concern, the folks at Foothill Hops are vigilant.

“This year has been cold and damp, raising concerns with fungus and mold,” she said. “But we’re out in the fields watching and spraying with natural fungicide. Over the last couple of weeks [in early July] we’ve had growth of several inches per day. We will have a nice crop for the fall.”

Mrs. Fisher also maintains a positive outlook on the Upstate hops industry’s potential for sustainability. “The future looks phenomenal,” she said. “There’s much more demand from brewers than supply.”

Over at the Madison County branch of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Steve Miller reigns as the resident “hops specialist.” He agrees that the future for Upstate hop growers is bright as the brewery industry changes.

“One hundred years ago, the industry began consolidating into a few large breweries,” Mr. Miller said. “Now, the number of micro- and craft brewers has skyrocketed. There are now more than 110 in New York State alone; 10 years ago there were only 30 or 40.”

Today, approximately 130 acres of hops are under cultivation in New York State, up from only around 15 acres four years ago.

“We expect that to increase,” Mr. Miller said. “Consumer interest in higher quality and a wider range of beers has really taken off.”

Interested in learning more about Foothill Hops or seeing it in person? Visitors are welcomed any time of year to tour the farm and visit the Hop and Brew Shop. Visit their website for details.

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