A First Taste of New York Malts & Hops
Farm-to-table still has a long way to go. Yesterday I was at the Schenectady Greenmarket getting fixins for the last chili of the winter (regrettably, it’s also the first chili of the winter). So I got the beef and the kidney beans from Bella Terra Farm.
Their beans come in their original form, still in the dried pods. So there’s an extra step of shelling those dried beans before they can be soaked and cooked.
That’s farm to table. Who does that these days? Only crazy people.
Although Michael Lapi looked like he was doing that at the New York State Craft Brewers Festival for the Chefs’ Consortium. He made a beef and onion soup. The bone broth cooked for 18 hours, and the onions, garlic, and vodka all came from Barber’s Farm. Chef Michael predicted that attendees of the festival would benefit from this soothing soup, and he was totally right.
For the sake of full disclosure, the New York State Brewers Association invited me to Saturday’s beer festival to taste and learn about the regional craft landscape.
This was my first beer festival, and it was huge. Besides wanting to try everything there was to drink, I also wanted to talk to everyone about their craft. Once I get into a conversation, it can last a little while. So I’m sure I missed some remarkable breweries, malt houses, and hop farms. But I did visit enough to get a broad sense of the landscape.
Farm Brewery can be a bit misleading. It’s not necessarily a brewery on a farm, but rather it’s a New York State license, much like the farm distillery license. It’s based on the law which states that:
– Until the end of 2018, at least 20% of the hops and 20% of all other ingredients must be grown in New York State.
– From January 1, 2019 to December 31, 2023, no less than 60% of the hops and 60% of all other ingredients must be grown in New York State.
– From January 1, 2024, no less than 90% of the hops and 90% of all other ingredients must be grown in New York State.
Look at those numbers for a second. And let’s see if you have the same first thought that I did. And for context, this law was passed in 2012. It went into effect on January 1, 2013. Okay. Ready?
As of today, 80% of a farm brewery’s ingredients can come from out of state. And in less than three years from now, farm breweries are going to have to triple the proportion of NYS ingredients in their beer.
That’s a big jump, and it’s there on purpose. The whole point of this is to use beer as an economic engine to promote growth of New York State’s farms. Brewers use a lot of barley, and that grows well here. New York can also grow hops.
But the relationship between the brewers and the farmers is more complicated than expected.
I don’t know beans about hop growing conditions. But West Coast varieties of hops are really popular in craft beer circles. In the past I’ve tried to compare hops in beer to grapes in wine. They have each have specific varietals that impart distinctive flavors.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are popular wine grapes. They grow well in California and France. But trying to grow those in upstate New York is not going to set you up for success. We’ve got more of a Germanic growing climate, which is why our Rieslings are super delicious.
I just hope that the brewers and farmers work together to try and find hops that work for their beers and the growing conditions. I overheard one concerned brewer talking about the upcoming regulatory change with a bit more anxiety. He built his brand on a hop profile that’s not available in-state, and is hoping there will be a delay in the regulatory timeline.
For kicks, I tried a dried hop that was on display. It was grown by Rockin’ Hops out by Ballston Lake, and was of the Columbus variety. Man, that was intense. It started off floral, then became intensely peppery, and finally produced a numbing bitterness all around my mouth. The experience reminded me of when I tasted my first wormwood bud at Delaware Phoenix.
I also thought it would be interested to learn more about malts. And I did get a chance to talk with three of the producers at the festival: Subversive Malting & Brewing, 1886 Malt House, and New York Craft Malt.
Backing up a step, malt is really just a sprouted grain, which has been killed before sprouting too much. But it’s the basis for all beer and whiskey. The two row vs. six row barley problem is very interesting, but a little geeky, so I’ll save that for another time.
Forgive the pun, but with the increased projected demand for malted New York state grains, specialized malt houses like these companies seem to be sprouting up all over the place.
New York Craft Malt actually had a long display of a bunch of malts available for tasting. And like a dutiful student, I worked my way from one of the table to the other tasting them all.
Now I want a bag of his signature light Munich malt, which had the light sweetness of Grape Nuts. Seriously, I would totally snack on handfuls of that stuff. Well, I’d have to check the nutritionals to see how it worked with the new diet.
It probably works much better than beer. And I have to admit that I tried more than a few, including Crossroads, Wolf Hollow, Trout Town, Abandon Brewing, Shmaltz, Sloop, Good Nature, Mustache, and Druther’s. But I missed out on more breweries than I was able to visit.
But man, what a good time. Some of my favorite people were there. We got to hang out, drink beers, discuss the mysteries of why more Germanic hops aren’t grown in the region, and make new friends.
As far as I’m concerned, this festival is a winner. I only wish it would last for the entire weekend.