JOHNSONVILLE, N.Y. (AP) -- Once the center of hop production for America's breweries, New York state is seeing a small-scale renaissance of hop farming to satisfy a growing demand for locally grown ingredients to make regional craft beers and homemade brews.
Hop-farming was highly profitable in New York state in the 19th century, with 90 percent of all American hops coming from Otsego, Madison, and Schoharie counties in central New York.
The business collapsed as a result of outbreaks of blue mold and aphids, followed by Prohibition. The industry relocated to the Northwest, where the climate kept plants more resistant to disease outbreaks.
About 10 years ago, a handful of central New York growers got together with the Cornell Cooperative Extension and formed the Northeast Hop Alliance to foster a rebirth of the industry here. This spring, the organization got a grant from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets to hire a hop specialist, Steve Miller, to lead a statewide effort to expand production.
"My role is to put together information that will help the industry grow a quality product and make money on it," said Miller, who has worked with hundreds of growers in the horticulture and vegetable industries in New York over the past 30 years.
Hops grow on 20-foot-long plants called bines that climb a trellis of twine and wire strung from tall poles. The plants produce cone-like flowers that are picked at the end of summer and dried in an oast -- a kiln-heated barn that traditionally had pointed turrets with air vents on top.
Some brewers use the dried flowers as is, while others prefer hops that are ground and compressed into pellets that resemble commercial rabbit food.
Hops shape a brew's character, infusing it with bitterness and aromas ranging from citrus to spicy or floral.
While the Northeast Hop Alliance started in central New York, it now has quite a few members in Vermont and other New England states and has formed chapters in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The interest in using hops from local growers rather than the big producers on the West Coast reflects the fact that many craft brewers are committed to supporting local farmers, keeping jobs in the state, and reducing their carbon footprint by avoiding long-distance shipping, Miller said.
The other main ingredient of beer, malted barley, is grown mainly in Canada and the Dakotas. Most of the barley grown in the Northeast is too high in protein, which makes the beer cloudy.
Garrett Brown established 700 hop plants on two acres of his property in Hoosick about four years ago to supply his brewery, Brown's Brewing, in Troy.
"We've been wanting to grow hops ever since we got into the beer business," Brown said.
His wife, Kelly, said they had an added incentive when West Coast hop prices shot up from $5 a pound to $30-$50 a pound five years ago. "Growers were switching from hops to corn for ethanol, which caused a market panic," she said. Prices have since come down and stabilized, she said, but the experience inspired the Browns to take the first step toward growing their own.
"We use our hops to produce our Harvest IPA using fresh hops," Garry Brown said.
While most beer and ale is made using dried hops, harvest ales are made from fresh-picked hops and are available only in the fall. Brown serves it only on tap, and it's gone in about a month.
Mike Roffman of Larchmont established Atlantic Hops just over a year ago to process locally grown hops into pellets for craft brewers. "We have a lot of interest on the brewer side for sourcing local ingredients," Roffman said. "Now we're really working hard to encourage people to grow."
Hops are of interest to vegetable and dairy farmers who want to diversify as well as landowners who want to get into small-scale farming on the side, Roffman said.
"It's something you can do part-time on small acreage and make some money," he said.
Roffman tells potential growers that it costs about $10,000 to $12,000 per acre in materials and labor to get started and takes about three years to get up to full yield of 1,000 to 2,000 pounds per acre. He expects to sell pelleted hops for $12 to $18 per pound, with 60 percent of that going to the grower.
According to the Brewers Association, which represents small, independent American brewers, the craft brewing industry grew 11 percent by volume and 12 percent by dollars in 2010 compared to 2009, while U.S. beer sales overall were down an estimated 1 percent by volume in 2010.
There were 1,753 craft breweries in operation in 2010, the highest total since the late-1800s.
"Right now the industry is at a point where there's a lot of demand for local hops but not a lot of supply," Roffman said. "Anyone who's interested in growing hops, we'd like to hear from them. We need hops."