This new hops growing and breeding program could revolutionize New York craft beer

Will Cleveland
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Like it has done with grapes, apples, barley, and other agricultural products, a new Cornell University program wants to change the way New Yorkers enjoy beer with a new hops breeding program at its Ontario County facility.

The university announced a $300,000 investment from the state that will allow for the creation of a program to test, grow, and develop New York hops varieties. 

“I think craft beverages are most successful and consumers are most engaged when there is a unique sense of place expressed,” said Chris Gerling, senior extension associate at the Cornell Craft Beverage Institute. “We’ve gained the most traction with products that suit New York as opposed to imitations of what works in other places.”

The pilot program is already up and running at Cornell's AgriTech campus in Geneva, where Larry Smart, a horticulture professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has planted an acre or two with test crops. Smart and his team will monitor the hops for high yield, preferred flavors and disease resistance.

One variety of hops growing at Bluebell Hopyard in Farmington in this 2017 file photo.

"It’s a little like the wine industry. The wine industry is right at about $7 billion into the state economy, maybe even more than that, because it has these tremendous multiplier effects," said Jan Nyrop, the associate Dean and Goichman Family Director of Cornell AgriTech. "So what is it that consumers are really after? They want that local essence, both in terms of flavor and where the product is grown, a connection and an experience of terroir.

"If this is what consumers want, you need to be able to grow plants in New York that will then lead to a product. While we do have hops being produced in New York, we do not have any hops that have been bred for New York conditions. That is a major limitation."

The program has humble roots, but the hope is that within a few years, hops growers across New York will be able to plant and harvest disease-resistant varieties. The goal is to ultimately return New York to a place of prominence. Prior to the 1920s, the state led the country in hops production. Disease and Prohibition wiped that out.

But the New York farm brewery law, enacted in 2013, has sped up the growth of the craft beer industry here. The state is fast approaching 500 craft breweries and many hold the farm brewery license. Of the 484 breweries in the state, more than half (275) hold a farm brewing license, according to the New York State Brewers Association.

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Under the law, the licensing process is simplified and breweries must use at least 60% of ingredients (hops and grains) grown in the state for their beers. (That threshold was originally 20% and grew to 60% in 2019. It'll rise again to 90% in 2024, but there are rumblings the law could be revised between now and then.)

Craft beer is a big business in New York as it accounts for $3.4 billion in annual impact to the state economy and supports 20,000 full-time jobs, according to the NYSBA.

Why is this program necessary?

Simply put, craft beer drinkers typically crave variety. And for the past decade, unfiltered hazy India pale ales (and more recently hard seltzers) have dominated the craft beer world. And those IPAs utilize hops that feature citrus and tropical fruit flavors. 

But the type of hops used in New England-style IPAs aren't grown in New York. At least, not yet. Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Willamette, Mt. Hood, Fuggle, Liberty, Perle, Nugget and Newport are currently among the varietals that thrive in New York. Those hops, which often have roots on the West Coast, can sometimes feature earthy and oniony characteristics. Other hops grown in the state, including Comet, Mackinac, and Michigan Copper, can exhibit tropical fruit characteristics. But none of those were developed specifically to be grown in New York state. 

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Desired hops like Citra, Simcoe, Amarillo, Strata, and Mosaic come from the Pacific Northwest, while others like Galaxy, Nelson, and Vic Secret are grown in Australia and New Zealand. Since those hops are proprietary they cannot be grown in New York.

According to Paul Leone, executive director of the New York State Brewers Association, the farm brewery license has been instrumental in both the growth of the beer industry and also the resurgence of hops production in the state. But more variety is needed. He said this breeding program is a potential "game-changer for the hops industry in New York state."

Hops growing on bines at Bluebell Hopyard in Farmington in this 2017 file photo.

"Not only would New York state breweries want this new variety, but now you're talking breweries all around the country and the world that could be potential customers," Leone said.

So if producers with the state's farm brewery license want to hazy IPAs with the flavors consumers are clamoring for, it is very difficult. Some maintain dual licenses to do so. While other breweries, such as Steuben Brewing in the Finger Lakes, produce New England-style IPAs with state-grown hops. (Many breweries in New York maintain multiple brewing licenses to allow access to a greater range of ingredients. But that can be expensive.)

Like it did with barley in the last few years, Cornell worked to determine what varietals would grow best in New York. And because of the technology, techniques and expertise at Cornell, researchers determined what grew best here and then licensed it to New York farmers.

The goal is to do the same with hops — identify desired flavor profiles and develop ideal varieties for New York growers. The hope is to increase the varieties available to New York state breweries.

Rick Pederson, owner of Pedersen Farms in Seneca Castle, Ontario County, said "consumers want 'new and different.'" In 1999, Pedersen Farms became the first farm in New York to plan commercially grown hops since Prohibition.

“Quirky hop varieties are all the rage to today’s craft beer consumer,” Pedersen said.

What does it hope to accomplish?

The money provided by the state allows the university to finance the hops breeding program, Nyrop said. Cornell already has the faculty "with the scientific expertise to do this work," he added. But the money, simply put, allows them to "do the science and the breeding."

That included installing the infrastructure to maintain a hopyard and paying for sequencing studies. Nyrop reminds that this won't be a short-term endeavor. It'll take years to yield any useable results. But with the expertise and know-how at Cornell and backing from the state, he said there is little doubt they'll succeed.

Smart is an expert plant breeder, Nyrop noted. The team also includes pathologists, experts in hops growing, and faculty from the Cornell Craft Beverage Institute. 

Hops growing on bines at Bluebell Hopyard in Farmington in this 2017 file photo.

The Geneva campus, formerly called the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, is now home to hopyard among its over 900 acres of fields. Initially, the plan is to evaluate existing hops varieties. Smart is beginning to cultivate germplasm, which is living tissue from which new plants can be grown, Nyrop said. The germplasm exhibits "some desirable traits," Nyrop said. 

Smart has also planted wild, uncultivated hops that have been collected from around the state.

"He is in the process of developing a site where he can evaluate existing varieties, as well as growing in the field what you might consider to be a library," Nyrop said.

The initial goal is to ascertain how existing varietals grow in New York and then determine the answer to three key questions:

  • How susceptible are the varietals to disease?;
  • How well they grow in our climate?;
  • What flavor profiles they impart?

Nyrop noted that where hops are grown also influences those taste profiles. Then the work can begin to develop new varieties. This type of work has already been done, and continues, with barley, berries, tomatoes, and apples. Work also continues with hemp.

So a few years down the road, craft beer enthusiasts could be enjoying an IPA with a signature New York flavor.  Maybe New York will be known for a varietal that will feature a huge heaping of citrusy flavors. 

"The pandemic has actually put this consideration on steroids, but there has been, and there continues to be, a desire for locally produced products," Nyrop said. "What the pandemic has shown us is that we need to add resilience to our food system, which also means looking at increased local supplies of products. The starting point for all of that is varieties that will grow well under our conditions."

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