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- http://www.madisoncounty.org/plan/HeritageTrail/HopHeritageTrailforweb.pdf. 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!

2 comments:

  1. You and your readers may be interested in the Madison County Hop Fest Sept 14-16
    more at
    http://goo.gl/AoED7

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Patrick, it looks like a great event. It would be great if I could time the Saranac interviews around the festival. We shall see.

    ReplyDelete