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Local Beer Arrives

April 19, 2016

Beer is one of those things I won’t be able to enjoy next week. Passover is coming, and you’ll hear endless complaining on the subject in due time. But while I’m still able to drink delicious fermented barley beverages, let’s talk a little bit about the suds.

Yes, I know it’s only Tuesday, but this has as much to do with farming as drinking. I promise. And not only that, but it also has to do with the future of a burgeoning New York State industry. So perhaps you can indulge me just a little.

Especially since today I’m going to making some broad assumptions and speak on a topic I know precious little about. That said, I think my read of the current situation is on target. So New York State now has farm breweries. Right? And that’s good. Kind of. But it’s also a little bit misleading.

It was only recently that I first encountered someone from a farm brewery. So my first question was, “Where’s your farm?” And that’s when I was told that there was no farm. The deal with the farm brewery license is that brewers need to buy a fraction of their ingredients from New York farms.

And that’s great. Truly great. Anything that encourages the production and profits of New York farmland is absolutely fantastic. The farmers always get screwed. Farmland is important. And farming must be profitable.

It was a similar set of goals which drove the farm distilling licenses. However, what’s interesting is that the distilleries which operate under the New York farm distillery law don’t go around calling themselves “Farm Distilleries” to consumers. So this is a marketing conundrum that I’m laying at the feet of a few breweries. Shame on them for farm-washing.

But there are a few other unexpected consequences of the farm brewery law.

Let’s put aside the whole notion of two-row vs. six-row barley and the lack of malt houses in New York. That’s geeky beer stuff, and it’s really a nonissue. Two-row barley is the kind that’s preferred by brewers. And you can absolutely grow it here. Yes, it’s riskier. But it grows, dammit. And malt houses, even large ones, are opening up to fill the demand. That’s the good news.

What I’m most concerned about are hops, especially when I look at what happened to the New York wine industry. Yep. Here I go again comparing beer to wine.

Growers have a tendency to chase profits, and it’s hard to blame them. If consumers are drinking a shit ton of merlot, and wine makers are looking for as much merlot juice as they can ferment, it’s probably a good bet to plant merlot. The problem is that most of New York is an awful climate to grow merlot.

New York’s wine industry is finally coming into its own on the back of those far less popular Germanic grapes that grow so well in our climate. But it’s taken decades to overcome the perception that New York makes crappy wine. While we do have a growing number of wineries that make really good stuff, there are plenty who still shil swill. Really, many of our wineries should be brandy distilleries, but that’s an entirely separate post.

So back to beer. You know what hops are popular these days and bringing in the big bucks? A lot of West Coast varietals. So guess what local farms are planting?

I tell you what they aren’t planting. It’s those Germanic hops with impossible to pronounce names. Consumers aren’t demanding them. So brewers aren’t asking for them.

But there are two kinds of markets. Push and pull. Producers have a choice.

They can either keep trying to chase the tail of consumer demand, and most of them are. You can tell, based on how much juicy, tropical fruit, and grapefruit-flavored liquid is on the market these days. Whether it’s IPAs, DIPAs, or APAs, there is such a uniformity of flavor it’s almost infuriating.

Alternatively, producers can make something truly special and push that out into the marketplace. And really, that’s what I would love to see. And part of me feels like that should be the purpose of the New York farm brewery law – the birth of great New York beer.

Someone recently told me that beer didn’t have terroir. That’s a fancy French word that loosely translates into “a taste of place.” And it’s hard to argue against that position. We’ve got an incredible international marketplace of malts and hops, so brewers can use the best of the best from all over the world.

But that’s a modern phenomenon. Before international trade, brewers relied on local ingredients.

There is no reason why beer can’t have terroir. And today with more breweries than we’ve ever had in America, I’d love to see more regional differences in the character of beer. When you start making beer from the wild yeast around the brewery, with the varieties of hops that grow best in your climate, and using malted grains from within a day’s drive, you’re going to end up with a beer that has a flavor profile unique to its geography.

What I don’t know is if it will be any good. Presumably, some places will be able to grow better beer than others. And that’s okay. Our climate in upstate New York might be better suited for Germanic lagers. The West Coast might be best for IPAs.

What I do know is that Indian Ladder Farmstead Brewery and Cidery is opening up its tap room at the farm on May 1. And they are making beer using their grains and their hops. And instead of just faking its way through the process, the farm collaborated with Three’s Brewing in Brooklyn.

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I got to try a taste of The Dan Driscoll at Hudson Valley Hops this past weekend, and really really enjoyed it. This is the New York farm brewery that I’ve been waiting for, and I can’t wait to taste what they come up with next.

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