Homer Hops Brewing has been slowly developing for about four years, about as long as it takes for hops, the plants that give beer much of its flavor, to mature fully. And much like the rows of hops in their fields, Homer Hops is just on the cusp of coming to fruition.
Though the nearby Finger Lakes region market has a fairly developed beer and wine industry, Cortland County is currently home to only one major brewery, Cortland Beer Company. For Homer Hops co-founder Shawn Potts, the opportunity to grow the market is wide open.
“There is a lot of breweries around, but in our little area, Cortland County, it’s pretty undersaturated,” Potts said in an interview.
Located a few miles west of Homer on NY 90, the still growing operation is a mere 3.7 miles from the nearest brewery, Summerhill. So far, according to Potts, both Summerhill and Cortland Beer Company, despite being likely future competitors, are helpful partners in learning the ropes.
“We’re very friendly with people from both breweries. Everyone kind of helps each other out, and they see it the same way. If someone’s gonna be travelling 30 miles they might not do it for one, but they might do it if there's more than one Brewery in the area,” Potts said.
As of now, Homer Hops is somewhere between its home-brew roots and a full-scale professional operation. According to co-founder Jason Christoff, their 30 gallon system can currently produce 60 gallons per day with two batches.
Before their official founding in 2015, Homer Hops was a few friends with a shared beer-making hobby. Christoff, whose 16 acre plot is now home to the operation, was the first of the team to try brewing, inspired when his wife bought him a home brew kit. Over a few months, he experimented with honey ales, cider, and a chocolate peanut butter beer that didn’t quite go as planned.
“It was disgusting,” Christoff said. “It was probably the worst home brew kit I made. I found one person in my whole group of friends who actually liked it, and I gave him cases of it for him to drink so I could get my bottles back.”
A couple years later, when plans to put in one row of hops expanded, Christoff began selling hops to Summerhill. Meanwhile, Potts, a brewing novice, was learning quickly and considering brewing from scratch.
“When I get an interest, I just get obsessed about it and read everything there is out there,” Potts said. His setup even included a homemade keg built from a converted chest freezer.
Christoff and Potts joined forces, after some deliberation on whether selling hops alone was worth the effort, Christoff and Potts ramped up their operation and drew in help from another friend, Steve Roemer, as well as several family members.
According to Christoff, the hops cultivation has been pretty smooth sailing. One unforeseen hurdle came during the recent government shutdown. The government stopped processing liquor licenses at the federal level, and the backlog prompted a letter from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) urging action, even mentioning Homer Hops specifically.
With that hiccup behind them, Homer Hops main challenge has been keeping demand for the beer they already have on the market. Of around 16 recipes, 5 have been sold and marketed in the local area. BRU 64 in Cortland put a keg of “Sweet Mama’s Java” stout on tap for the first time on May 5th. According to shift leader Johnna Gray, it lasted about two days.
“They brought in a few times in a growler. When they told us they were kegging it we were like ‘Bring it over immediately,’” Gray said. “People come in and ask for it all the time. The hype is there.”
Current selection includes a New England IPA called “Mother’s Day”, the Chocolate Coffee flavored “Sweet Mama’s Java,” a pale ale “Exit 12” named for the exit to Homer from I-81, and the official craft beer of the Cortland Crush baseball team, the summer blond ale “Summer Crush.”
Potts and Christoff tentatively expect their own taproom will be ready next spring, and they are still applying for equipment and marketing grants to upgrade their system. In the meantime they plan to keep brewing and pushing out new recipes, but of course never without tapping a keg to taste first.