From farm to pint

Local beer movement has huge potential, supply-side challenges

Hops on the vine (Photo provided)

There’s an old Irish toast: to long life and a merry one, a quick death and an easy one, a pretty girl and an honest one, a cold beer and another one! If you’re like me, you brought in the new year by raising a glass of frothy-delicious craft beer from a small, independent craft brewery (or homebrewer friend or relative).

According to the 46,000-plus-member American Homebrewers Association, a division of the Brewers Association — an American trade group of brewers, breweries-in-planning, suppliers, distributors, craft beer retailers and individuals concerned with the promotion of craft beer and home-brewing — more than 1.2-million Americans brew their own beer at home. And as an industry, beer is massive. BA says U.S. retail sales of beer exceeded $107.6 billion in 2016, with craft beer accounting for $23.5 billion of that total. Directly and indirectly, the beer industry employs nearly 2.23 million Americans, providing more than $103 billion in wages and benefits. In New York, 269 breweries produced 1,000,785 barrels of craft beer in 2016 (2.1 gallons for every American over the age of 21), with a retail value of $3.439 billion.

Beer has been brewed and enjoyed for thousands of years in almost every country in the world. It’s made from four essential ingredients: water, barley malt, hops and yeast. Occasionally, a recipe will call for an additional non-malt source of fermentable sugars, called an adjunct. (Yeast consumes sugar and creates alcohol and carbon dioxide as by-products to its life cycle, whether the sugar is from malted barley, rice, corn, fruit — whatever.)

The minerals in and pH of the water that’s used play a significant role in the character of the finished product, affecting how the beers’ flavors are expressed to the palate.

Hops are associated with bitterness. The “alpha” acids in the hop flowers or “cones” are released during the boiling stage of brewing, bittering and balancing the sweetness of the malt. Three varieties of wild hops are native to North America. Cultivated barley is not. It was first introduced by early-settlement English, Dutch and French traders. Newer cultivars, called triploids, provide the superior characteristics of preferred hop varieties, along with improved vigor and yield.

Malt refers to the grain, in this case barley, after it has gone through the malting process, which converts the starches into sugars. Malt also provides color, and influences the flavor and texture of the beer.

The production of beer and cultivation of barley and hops has long been part of New York’s agricultural history. For more than a century, New York farmers outpaced every other state in the country in hop production.

Brewing played an important role in supporting local agriculture, too, as brewers worked directly with local farmers to source hops and barley as well as adjuncts (specialty ingredients for seasonal brews).

Cornell University and Cooperative Extension specialists and researchers believe it should be that way again. They’re well aware of the emerging market opportunities and agricultural economic development potential represented by the craft beer industry. They realize that using local ingredients supports entrepreneurship, creates local jobs and builds a strong socio-economic framework within the state. They appreciate the interest of consumers and farm-to-table restaurateurs in local ingredients and recognize the marketing potential there. And they value the fact that using ingredients grown closer to home lessens environmental impact by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions associated with transportation. They’re working diligently to connect start-up brewers with local hops and malting barley growers. Among other efforts, a team of Cornell Small Grains program researchers have been conducting trials to catalog malting barley varieties best suited to a diversity of New York microclimates, thereby assist growers with producing market-grade malting barley.

In January 2013, New York adopted a farm brewery license that eases some regulations and provides tax and fee cuts for start-up farm brewers. The law requires that farm brewers use no less than 20 percent New York-grown ingredients. That directive increases to 60 percent in 2019, 90 percent in 2024.

But expanding the supply chain remains challenging. Craft brewing has seen such explosive growth recently that the farm brewery industry is struggling to keep pace with demand.

According to state extension hops specialist Steve Miller, hops were grown on only 19 acres of New York farmland in 2012. More than 300 acres were in production in 2016. And future growth is projected to be 75 to 100 acres per year.

According to state Liquor Authority Chairman Vincent Bradley, New York farmers planted more than 2,000 acres of malting barley in 2016, up from just 335 in 2013. And in November, a large-scale barley malting facility opened in Central New York, expected to produce more than 2,000 tons of superior-quality malted barley annually — enough to brew more than 1.6 million gallons of beer.

Learn more. Contact Cornell Cooperative Extension.