Growing up in the Finger Lakes, Ithaca College senior Josh Grazul gave some thought to eventually starting a winery. He gave it more hard consideration after taking a beverage-tasting class at Tompkins Cortland Community College. But starting a winery from scratch can be prohibitively expensive—the plantings alone can cost around $10,000 per acre, he said.
Because he was a business major who wanted to be successful, the numbers were part of the decision he made next. As a student who enjoys good beer, the choice seemed clear. Local artisanal breweries need hops to flavor their brew, and while the plants once grew plentifully here—before the Civil War, most of the hops used in America were raised in New York State—nearly a century ago, a blight, an infestation of aphids and Prohibition combined to wipe out the once-thriving industry. Using blight-resistant plants, 21st century farming resources and a lot of sweat equity, could hops once again be a viable crop?
Grazul began three years ago. He became part of a small group of hops farmers reviving this formerly significant farm crop. He started with a small plot of 12 plants in the orchard of his family’s farm in Freeville.
“It didn’t have the best soil conditions,” he said, but he was encouraged enough to order 800 more plants the next year, building to the 2,200 he harvested this year. Grown from a rhizome, “Hops are unique,” Grazul said. “It’s a completely different agriculture, almost a combination of corn and barley, then tie in apples or peaches. The plants start to pop up in late April, early May and grow through July.”
The spindly bines—they’re called that because they grow in a clockwise or helix direction, coiling around trellis and posts, unlike vines, which attach themselves with tendrils and suckers—are trained upward and tended. “At beginning of season, when bines get to be one to three feet tall, you have to choose the three best bines coming out of the plant then prune else that starts to come,” he said. Fertilizer is used minimally, to avoid imparting off-flavors. With an eye to streamlining some of these tasks - and pleasing his family, who help with the hops crop - he’s considering adding a small flock of sheep as shoot pruners, weed control and gentle fertilizers next season. “I can keep expanding, maybe I’ll be selling wool,” he muses.
When the pinecone-shaped flowers develop, at the end of July, they’re closely watched for harvest readiness. Before summer’s end, the bines are cut to ground level, the hop flowers separated from the bines and carefully dried. It’s easier to explain than accomplish – this is part of the real labor of hops growing. The flowers have to come off the plants within 24 hours after harvest, and it takes most people about half an hour to pick each plant. With the help of his father, Grazul came up with a process allowing the two men to process 35 plants an hour, raking off the flowers and winnowing them from the waste vegetation using fans. “It takes forever. That’s probably at the top of the reasons I’ll be getting a harvester sooner rather than later.” The $55,000 price tag on a hops harvester gave him serious pause for thought, but he’s factored in its usefulness and the ability to rent it to other hops farmers in season makes the purchase look increasingly attractive. Any hops not used in beer are sewn into small pillows – by Grazul’s sister – whose fragrance helps insomniacs more successfully court sleep.
Lars Mudrak, former head brewer of the Bandwagon Brewpub on Cayuga Street – Mudrak has himself returned to Cornell in pursuit of a business degree - brewed several batches of beer with Grazul’s fresh hops last year and this year. “I think there’s obvious benefits to any good local ingredient, it’s more environmentally sustainable and all that. But the coolest thing is that it gives the beer in our region something special. We talk a lot about wines having different flavors and distinctions according to where they’re grown, and once we start doing the same thing with beers you’ll see regional differences in beers.”
Mudrak said most of the hops used in brewing is west-coast grown. “Once we start getting local hops in, I’ll distinguish my beers a little more.”
Where once hops were prized for their antibacterial and preservative qualities, now people like “hoppy” beers for their flavor, Mudrak said. “With modern sanitation and refrigeration, we don’t look for hops as a preservative any more, but they do help with stability.” And the fresh hops offer a natural, earthy, sometimes grassy flavor that smooths the brew and imparts a very different flavor from dried hops. “There’s a huge demand. Anyone who grows hops is not going to have any problem selling them,” he said.
Grazul, the self-taught farmer, plans to continue to expand. “I’m really looking forward to next season,” he said. And then he remembers. “Oh, it’s winter. I have to wait.”