Friday, September 14, 2012

Consolidating Blogging Efforts

First, I want to thank all who have read my blog posts and followed this Blogger blog.

My initial sense was that I had two efforts that required separate blogs. It seems at this point it makes the most sense to consolidate all of my Craft Beer Coach work over on my Wordpress blog now that I have a much clearer idea of what I want Craft Beer Coach to be about.

Over on the Wordpress blog I will add a Page that will still focus on covering the human spirit of craft beer events. Any events I attend and blog about will be posted on the Wordpress blog going forward. By the way, I will be at GABF in a few weeks!

The Craft You Interview Series already resides over there.

I have also started a new approach to reviewing beers, with a particular focus on providing new and casual craft beer drinkers more meaningful and quantifiable information in an easy-to-read, table format.

So, you will find all of the same great content, plus some new content over at-

Make sure you change bookmarks or re-subscribe over there.

Life learning and other musings for what ales you. Craft beer lovers living lager than life!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Life in East Beermany

So if you live in Jersey and love craft beer, you probably know about New Jersey Craft Beer. A virtual clearinghouse of all things craft beer in the Dirty Jersey, NJCB has its multiple fingers on the pulse of craft beer in the Garden State.

I am a card carrying member and I follow NJCB quite closely on Twitter. They are always tweeting about the latest craft beer devotee to join their discount club or to have a cool event. A bar here, a pub there…a chain of stores that has finally awoken to the beast that is craft beer.

All usually a minimum of 30 minutes away!

I've got to tell you, the tweets are like hearing all the great shit going on in West Beermany, that is verboten for me! It's like I am just inside the Eastern side of the wall and I can hear the descriptions of floral notes, frothy heads, and full mouthfeel amongst the clanging of beer steins while dancing around a maypole. Such is my life in East Beermany.

Each tweet is like East Beermany just slipping further and further into the past.

Mind you, I am only 35 miles Northwest of New York City. Every now and then, I travel into West Beermany to frolick among the fermented fervor but I eventually must return to East Beermany...with all of the excitement of the children in Monty Python's Meaning of Life scene where they are donated to scientific experiment. Sing along- Every beer is sacred...

I tell my fellow citizens of the flavorful craft beer out there but they just stare at me like a dog that's heard an interesting sound. They seem resigned to color changing cans, punch top cans, and bottles with less glug.

What craft beer we do have is relegated to an aisle or a few taps at a macro-focused bar or restaurant. It's like there is government control over the variety of flavorful, hop and malt-based beverages allowed to be sold to the citizens of East Beermany.

So organize a "Craftlift via the Craftwaffe" or drop some over the wall and send me the location via carrier pidgeon.

Please send help craft beer!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A New Hop Variety: Wrobel Hops

Well, not really a strain called Wrobel. Just a little word-play on "noble" hops.

But this is about the hops grown on Wrobel Farms in Bridgewater, NY, and a little history of those hops as shared by Jim and Susan Wrobel.

As Susan gave me permission to go beyond the CAUTION tape to get a few shots of the circa 1850s cobblestone hop kiln on the farm, she gave me a little history lesson on hop farming in the Central NY region.

Wood was brought into the bottom of the kiln and burned to provide the heat needed to dry the hops on the racks near the top of the kiln. When the hops were finished drying they would be walked across the bridge between the kiln and the barn to be processed further for market. The hop cones would either be loaded into long tube-like sacks to be taken to market to be pressed, or they would be pressed into burlap on site and then taken to market. As Susan explains, back then the hops were pressed into larger bricks.

At the time of the hop heyday in the region, the hop market was in Waterville, NY. According to Susan, Waterville (Madison County) holds a yearly hop festival and they also have a museum containing some of the original equipment used during New York state's run as the largest hop producer in the nation.

She believes the entire central NY region was "under hops" until about 1910. Then a disease outbreak wiped out the hop farms in NY and that is why the major hop producers are now in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington.

Editorial Comment: I am actually somewhat familiar with this part of hop history. I know that Downy Mildew had a role in the demise of Northeast hops back then. It is a disease that thrives under moist conditions, which are only exacerbated by our humid summers. The conditions out in Washington state are much cooler and dryer, which is why hops have done rather well out there. It can still be a problem for them out there though. But I believe with time, the hop varieties have been made more resistant to disease and pests so we are seeing hop farming making a comeback along the East Coast.

Fog in the Valley in Cooperstown
I wonder though if it would be better to grow hops on a mountain? Moisture tends to settle in the flat valleys. Just look at the picture I took Sunday morning of the valley behind my hotel in Cooperstown. I would love to go back to talk to Jim and Susan a bit more about hop farming. I am interested in doing my part (breweries still have trouble sourcing hops) to grow hops. I am working on a cousin-in-law that has acres of unused mountain-top land in PA. I only need one or two of those acres to get started!

I think the bottom line is that there is a growing desire of breweries to source local hops. Also, the influx of new craft breweries is putting quite a strain on hop availability. Multi-year contracts to secure the supply of hops is becoming the norm. The demand for local hop farms will continue to grow, and be desperately needed, in any region that can realistically support hop growth.

Pail Full of Willamette
Back to the story. Farmers tried again in the '40s to bring back hops and it lasted a few years before all but being completely terminated. Susan explains that there was a brewery out of Brooklyn that bought most of the land, including what is now Wrobel Farms, and built a large industrial hop kiln "down the road." She explains that a local couple renovated the hop kiln into an event space and their son got married in it recently.

There is another phrase that Susan uses to describe the area during its hop heyday. It is "under wire" and when I ask her to explain what that means, she reminds me of the growing structures they construct for hop growth. I don't know, it just has a certain ring to it.

I tried to find any history of this particular large kiln but I did not find anything. I did however find this gem- I'm thinking road trip!

I think we forget that right here in our own backyard, key pieces of hop growing history remains to this day. With the resurgence of hop farming in NY state, the importance of these landmarks will be rekindled (no pun intended…but man am I kilning it!). This is where it all started in the history of hop farming in the US.

Susan goes into explaining a bit about the "wild hops" that have been found and cultivated over the years in and around the farm. Over the past 30 years or so, Susan's husband Jim would take in hop plants from the area, basically collecting them as a hobby, with the plan of doing something with them some day. Susan mentions participating in some "Neha" events in the early 90s but they felt they would just never have the time to pursue a serious effort of hop farming.

Being a "green" journalist I forget to ask Susan to define "Neha" but using my intrepid internet research skills, I find the answer. Northeast Hop Alliance

Back under the big top, it's sometime after 4 PM and Jim Wrobel walks into the tent. I am picking a hop designated as "Heirloom P." He gets out attention to tell us a little about the hops some of us are picking at the moment. In 1926, his dad bought the farm to pursue potato farming. His dad was going to rip out all of the hop plants growing wild on the land. But instead, from 1926 until 1969 every time his dad found what looked to be a new variety he would dig it up and save it. In 1969, his dad got sick of them and gave them all to Jim to care for them. Jim gets a hearty laugh from the crew when he clarifies that his dad used some rather choice words about what he could do with the hop plants.

Jim has been maintaining these hops plants since 1969! He has had Cornell University come out to test the hops and take samples. Cornell University tried to cross-breed some and he thinks some of today's proprietary hop strains may have origins with his heirloom hops. Jim says he was not really worried about any proprietary concerns. He mentions a book called "Tinged with Gold" and how some of the work with his hops are mentioned in that book. I wonder if Amazon will give me a cut for providing the link? Hey! Non-income earning beer blogger and writer here. 

"That's where we are now. You are picking hops from 1850." 

How friggin' cool is that? So from American hop growing history, the Wrobel heirloom hops might be considered noble.

At one point Nick Matt (FX Matt / Saranac Brewery) came across an article about brewers growing their own hops again, passed it along to Fred Matt, who in turn sent the article to Jim.

In the words of the famous Paul Harvey, "Now you know the rest of the story."

Heirloom P Hops
Remember my post about a "Legal High?" Well when Jim mentions that hops are a cousin of marijuana a chorus of "ooohhhs" and "aaahhhs" echo through the big top. The crowd suddenly gets giddy and talkative. Someone cries out for a box of Entenmann's coffee-cake covered donuts! Well not really. But if you've ever given a listen to Mooney Suzuki's "Good Ol' Alcohol" you will understand the reference. Jim has to raise his voice to get their attention back. I told you. There is a perfectly acceptable way to achieve a "legal high." Follow these steps-

By the way, that segment of Jim's speech was prompted by a volunteer asking if the cows that were on the farm at the time ate the hops and wondering if the cows "ever came home?"

Jim ends with telling us that the wet hop beer made by Saranac with last year's hop harvest was probably the best he has ever had…"bar none."

If you feel inclined to search on "Good Ol' Alcohol", heads up that it contains MANY references to drug use, drinking alcohol, and is laced with profanity. To me, words are just words and to each his own. The old timey, jazz band sound of the tune is infectious, so you may find yourself tapping or humming along regardless of what you think of the lyrics.

But you have been forwarned!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Saranac Hop Harvest: A Legal High

A Hop Harvest Volunteer…in a hoppy T-shirt
If you did not know it yet, hops are related to cannabis. It's fact. I would link to proof but you can imagine what comes up when you search "hops related to cannabis."

There is no need to promote those search results when a legal high is attainable. Here's how-
1. Attend a hop harvest
2. Pick hops (that releases the intoxicating aroma that soon fills the tent)
3. Have a beer or two while picking
4. Meet and talk to a bunch of like-minded beer fans

You become so elated that any worries you had in the days leading up to the harvest simply melt away.

Jen in Her Hop Bonnet
Disclaimer: Jen did not pick these hops
You start making hop bine wreaths (see left: I deemed them Hop Bonnets) and running around with them on your head. It seems very liberating.

You don't wash your grimy hands before you leave because you want to drive all the way home smelling the hops.

You make a pit stop on the way home and walk into a public place. You giggle to yourself as the people stare and wonder. You still have "the high" plastered across your face in the form of a big goofy smile. To the unfamiliar, hops can smell a bit like their cousin.

Everyone you meet becomes a new friend.

As I tweeted on the way home, I now feel like I am on a higher plain with craft beer having had the hop harvest experience. It was transcendental. I was at the origin of crafting a great beer.

New designation- you cannot claim to be a true hop head until you have volunteered to pick hops.

Let's Meet a Hop and Brewing Buff
I take up residence next to Patrick. He's got a pail and I don't. I forgot to bring one. If you saw the "process" post, I brought everything I actually did not need but forgot the one thing that would've made me more helpful. Luckily Patrick is willing to have some help filling his pail. We are picking Willamette hops. For the record, I spelled it wrong in my tweets. I always see it in my mind as Williamette.

Hop Picker Print
Patrick is a hop harvest veteran, having been to the harvest last year. By the way, last year's harvest was held during Hurricane Irene in a barn on the property of Wrobel Farms. He is a bit of a beer historian buff, thus the reason he joined the harvest last year. He did some research on beer brewing and had a few gigs teaching brewing at various museums. He taught brewing at the Daniel Boone Homestead in PA, the Ford Museum in MI, and some museums in upstate NY.

You can tell he is passionate about teaching those who love beer but don't know how it's made. He describes a bit about how people are fascinated by hops and he brought along a historical print about hop pickers to share with us. He made me a hop wreath which now hangs on my garage. No one has ever made me a hop wreath before. Man, did I ever pick a great person to start off my first ever hop harvest with!

I've Finally Met My Matts
Susan Matt talking with Rich Michaels
I head over to the barn where the specialty hops are being picked and after a few pictures I end up next to a lady who says she is only here because she has to be here. I think, "Hey, interesting angle to capturing why people join a hop harvest."She is picking some Cascade SD hops and putting them into a nice little pile on the table. Psst! Looks like she forgot to bring a pail too.

As I begin to record why she is here, it becomes clear rather quickly. She is Susan Matt, Nick Matt's wife. Nick is Chairman and CEO of FX Mattt / Saranac Brewery. OK, perhaps she is allowed to be pail-less. While she is somewhat obligated to be here, she finds it fun and enjoys being involved with reviving New York state as a hop growing state.

Before leaving the barn, I speak to a husband and wife team of hop pickers also working the Cascade SD table. Ken and Debbie are from a suburb of Utica. Debbie immediately shares how involved the Matt family is with the community and that she loves coming out to return the favor as a volunteer. I mention how there seems to be a lot of craft beer involvement in local communities and Ken agrees saying, "There's a relationship between the consumers and the companies that is really pretty good."

Debbie asks me if I have ever been to the Saranac Brewery. Unfortunately I haven't. Ken and Debbie highly recommend a visit. This message, along with the message that the Matt family does so much to support the community, is echoed a few more times in conversations throughout the day.

Saranac H2 and Cascade SD Hops
Susan takes a moment to give me a history lesson on FX Matt / Saranac. I've read some of it but it's so much better to get the lesson in person. As Susan explains, "At 124 years old, it is the United State's second oldest brewery. It survived Prohibition without closing its doors and has remained a family-owned business throughout its existence, when so many other American breweries are no longer American owned."

She's a bit amazed that she can even say that about FX Matt / Saranac in this day and age.

Fred Matt
Susan escorts me back to the main tent to introduce me to Nick, Fred Matt, Jim Kuhr, and Rich Michaels. I hope to secure an interview or two via Skype but I soon find myself invited to come up to the brewery and conduct interviews with all of them in person.

I am very pleased about the prospect of an FX Matt / Saranac-focused interview collection for my Craft You Interview Series. I cannot thank Susan Matt enough for the great conversation and making the introductions. Ladies and gentleman, we are about to find out a bit more about the passion and motivation behind the second oldest family owned brewery in America. Stay tuned.

A Wrobel History Lesson in Hops
Circa 1850s Hop Kiln on Wrobel Farms
Susan introduces me to Susan Wrobel, who is managing the specialty hop picking operations in the barn. I am intent on dipping under the CAUTION tape to get a better angle on the circa 1850s cobblestone hop kiln still standing on the property. Susan gives me the green light while sharing stories about the hop kiln, the heirloom hops that have survived since the hop growing heydays, and the general history of hop growing in the region.

I think this information is worthy of providing a little more detail so I will create a separate post about the personal history Susan shared.

Link to the history of the Wrobels and hops.

Get Back to Picking
While enjoying an Oktoberfest and another hot dog, a couple joins me at the table. They too have that look of the legal high I spoke about up top. They are speaking very glowingly of the event and the community focus of the Matt family. They tell me about the Boilermaker Road Race and Saranac Thursdays, and how the Matt family does so much for the community and for charity. They also share how much they've learned today about the history of hops through the experience Wrobel Farms and FX Matt / Saranac provided today.

Note: Being a "participative journalist", and relatively green behind the ears at journalism-ing, I only managed to get the name of the husband, Gary. So if any readers know Gary and ? at the hop harvest I will update the post and thank you profusely. 

Heirloom "P" Hops
I make my way back to the tent and join them at the Mt. Hood table. I meet a new couple, Steve and 'Bert (short for Alberta). Now Steve and 'Bert are an older couple by age, but by mind and attitude they seem many years younger than most of us under the big top. They are full of spunk and energy. Gary professes his love for the spunk of his new friend 'Bert but Mt. Hood hops he does not love so much. He feels they are rather resistant to picking.

Steve and Gary are teaming up on one pail and 'Bert and I on the other. For the record, 'Bert and I are flying. We kept running out of hops to pick. And that's even after Gary demonstrated his "Hop Claw" approach to picking.

At one point we get hopknapped by Fred Matt. After we remind him that hops are not allowed to cross rows, we let it slide because Fred was there the whole time picking hops with the volunteers. Nick and Susan too while Rich and Jim Kuhr managed the weigh station. Honestly, how often do you see the "roll up my sleeves and jump in" attitude from company management?

I venture off to another table where they are picking some of the heirloom hops. Soon Jim Wrobel enters the tent to explain the history of the heirloom hops we are now picking. It's a pretty amazing story. I will add this detail to the history post I spoke of earlier and link it here when published.

'Bert in her Hop Bonnet
I am walking around saying my goodbyes to the people I met when I run into 'Bert and Steve once again. They are off to a regularly scheduled Sunday date to one of their favorite beer bars. It's confirmed that they have that legal high I speak of. Just look at that picture of 'Bert.

Walking out to my car, I felt like I was walking on air. I recently had knee surgery but I don't feel an ounce of soreness after being on my feet for hours. I am a bit bummed to leave but I am bouyed by the knowledge that I will be back up to the brewery to interview the Saranac gang and to enjoy the beer that Saranac brews with the hops we picked that day.

On the ride home I was feeling so inspired I had to pull over a few times to record my thoughts about the day and how it raised me to a new level of appreciation for craft beer. I am still "buzzed."

Rich Michaels and Jim Kuhr Weigh In

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Saranac Hop Harvest: The Process, The Pails, and The Picking

Why We Volunteer
I arrived at Wrobel Farms to find dozens of hop picking volunteers already picking away at cut bines. As a member of Club Saranac I was invited to join Saranac Brewery in their 2012 hop harvest. I jumped at the chance to attend. Not only to experience hop harvesting first-hand, but also to share the experience with others who have never attended one.

In this post I will blog about the process and in a follow-up post I will blog about the people and the experience I had. There is simply too much information for one post.

I should note that Saranac is doing its part to support the local agricultural community through a partnership with Wrobel Farms.

So Hoppy to be Here
Come on. You had to know some happy/hoppy wordplay would be involved. Well, I got it out of the way early.

With the scariest part out of the way, driving my car directly off the highway into an undulating field of grass, I round the trees to enter the field of play. If you decide to attend in the future, don't drive anything with a stock low clearance and definitely not dropped…but I don't know too many craft beer / hop fans that put the drop on their rides.

The Hop Field
Along the far left edge of the field is the growing apparatus upon which the bines climb. The setup always reminds me of a cross between a telephone pole farm and an outdoor gymnast training facility. I did not measure (forgot my super-long and sturdy tape measure) but there were 4-5 linear rows of a half dozen or so poles every 20 ft. The poles were...say, 20 ft. high, with a single cable running the length near the top. Twine was tied from the plant to the cable. It seems like a pretty simple setup once you get past burying and securing the poles.

I would have to think some kind of powered lift had to be used to tie the twine to the cable at the beginning of the season.

Jim Cutting down Cascade
I think they were 20 ft. high because Jim Wrobel, being at least 6 ft., was able to cut them down with a long pole saw / clipper tool. I have one of these and it extends approximately 12 ft. or so.

It was inspiring to see so many bines full of hops.

Note about the telephone pole farm description: I don't know if this actually a thing but in Chester NJ there was a field supposedly owned by AT&T full of upright telephone poles. I believe they tested poles there? We called it a telephone pole farm but enough about that, let's get back to the hops.

Reporting for Duty

Boots on…check, hat…check, gloves…check, sunscreen…check. Turns out I did not really need any of that because Wrobel Farms had constructed a circus-sized tent in the middle of the field for the pickers.

After checking in I reported directly to Jim Wrobel, Chief Hop Picking Instructor (unofficial title) and co-owner of the farm. The other owner is his wife Susan, who is also providing support and instruction. As a married man on my own passion mission, I know full-well that much is not possible for a man to accomplish without a supportive and patient wife.

Pails and Pickers
Inside the tent were rows and rows of tables, each probably 40-50 ft in length. Each row was labeled with the hop variety to be picked in that row. All picking had to move in a linear fashion down to the end of the row where pickers would dump pails into a larger trash can. Saranac was very careful not have hop varieties cross from the row in which they were picked. The labeled large cans would then be taken to a weigh station to be weighed and put into large mesh bags.

Jim was also adamant (for obvious reason) that the whole cone be picked, even to err on the side of throwing some leaf and stem into your pail if that is what it would take to make sure you got the whole cone. Some cones seemed harder than others to pick. Mt. Hood seemed to provide the most resistance.

An experience time-out here: Can I just tell you how intoxicating the hop aroma was under that tent? Incredible! I did not wash my hands before I left so I could enjoy the aroma all along my 4 hour ride home.

A Stretcher full of Cascade 69
Bines were cut from the growing area and escorted onto the tent tables via stretcher-like carriers.

By the way, I asked Nick Matt about the choice between manual picking and using a machine. He mentioned how great it was to use the manual picking as a way to bring the community together to share the experience.

It wasn't too long into picking that I felt the same way. More on that here- (post about the people and the experience)

Break Time
In the back right corner of the field, Saranac had a tent providing food and drink. By the way, it was beautiful to look out beyond the hop harvest at the wide expanse of rolling mountains and farmland behind Wrobel Farms. On tap Saranac provided H2 (a Hefeweizen hopped up with last year's pickings), Lager, Oktoberfest, and Pumpkin Ale. Saranac also provided their line of sodas, along with water, hot dogs, and chips. I don't think the dogs were your regular store-bought dogs. They were sausage shaped and had a great snap to the skin when you bit into them.

I grabbed an H2 and a dog then headed over to a barn where Susan Wrobel was starting a group off with picking some specialty hops.

Pickin' in the Barn
Brewer's Gold in the Barn
In the barn, volunteer pickers from all walks of life were picking Crystal, Brewers Gold, and Cascade SD. I believe there was also an Heirloom variety being picked in the barn. As Susan Wrobel described it, some hops from the time when New York state was the top hop growing state in the union were found to be growing wild on and around the farm.

Through disease and pest outbreaks, and a ban during Prohibition, the hops have survived and have been propagated down through the generations of farm owners. They call these their Heirloom varietal as they have not been able to determine exactly what hop variety they are.

To note, Wrobel Farms evidently grows some very in demand garlic that gets sold to some top restaurants in New York City.

All in all, the hop harvest ran like a well-oiled machine. Nicely laid out, well planned, and instructed.

The great thing is that we will get a chance to experience the fruits of our labor. Saranac will brew a beer with the hops and invite the Club Saranac pickers to a party to celebrate yet another successful harvest.

I was hopping that would happen. Ha! Snuck in another one.

The End
To read more about the Wrobel's history with hops, click here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Craft You Interview with Jeremy Cowan

Just a quick heads up that it's posted.

I know Friday evening is not good for analytics but I could not sit on this one until Monday. I'm calling it a soft posting.

So if you are heading to the beach, the mountains, or just hanging around the house with nothing new to read, I think this interview will keep you entertained for a spell.

I think the title says it all.

Here's the link- Jeremy Cowan Arrives at His Bittersweet Sixteenth