Harvesters Turn County Into Hops Farming Hub

Harvesters Turn County Into Hops Farming Hub

By JIM KEVLIN

Two flatbeds from Harbor Freight Transport, Port Newark, N.J., arrived at the Cooperstown Brewing Co. here shortly before noon Monday, June 23, with the final pieces of the foundation needed to revive the crop that created Otsego County’s greatest period of prosperity.

Hops, that is.

The final pieces are two refurbished Wolf Harvesters, purchased in April and imported from Poland for Hager’s Hops, owned by Anheuser-Busch heir Lou Hager Jr. of Cooperstown and affiliated with his Oneonta distributorship, Northern Eagle Beverage.

“This is exactly what farmers here have to have,”  said George Allen, Northern Eagle president, who was at the scene and has been Hager’s point man, not just with the recent acquisition of Cooperstown Brewing, but in the development of a 200-plant hops farm in Pierstown.

The harvesters complete the circle – from hops growing, to harvesting, to pelletizing, to brewing.

Farmers have started growing hops in earnest again since the state’s Farm Brewery Act of 2012, among other things, required that 90 percent of ingredients used in local microbreweries must be grown in-state by 2022. Today, 20 percent of the ingredients must come from New York; in 2018, that rises to 60 percent.

Hops, however, are time consuming to harvest. The Wolf Harvesters, available on a contract basis, can harvest 170 “binds” – strings of hops – per hour, and the harvested seed cones can then be pelletized at Northern Eagle’s current plant on Railroad Avenue in Oneonta, Allen said. That’s 10 pounds of “wet hops” per bind, which dry to 2.5 pounds.
Northern Eagle is breaking ground on a new distributorship and plant in West Oneonta in the next few weeks, the executive said, where additional space will be set aside for processing hops.

Pelletizing preserves the hops so they can be stored and used by breweries as needed; otherwise, the fresh hops must be immediately used in beer’s manufacture, impractical for breweries.

“Last week has been a big turning point for hops growing in New York State,” said Allen. In addition to the two Milford harvesters, two others were installed: at Climbing Bines near Penn Yan and Mosher Farms, Bouckville. Until now, there have only been two contract harvesters – one at Madison County Cooperative Extension in Morrisville, the other on Long Island.

Steve “Mr. Hops” Miller, the Madison County extension agent who assisted Hager in obtaining the harvesters, said that, for optimal results, the hops vines should be at the harvester within 45 minutes, so “we’re nowhere near flooding the market.” There are companies in New York State that are developing mobile harvesters, he added.
George Allen said he has contacted 20 hops farms as far away as Long Island and Buffalo, lining up business for the Milford harvesters.

The Farm Brewery Act, Miller noted, only applies to microbreweries, defined as producing 60,000 barrels a year. “Ommegang is at the upper end,” he said. Anheuser-Busch, which brews near Syracuse, plus the Genesee Brewing Co., Rochester, and Matt’s Brewing, Utica, are thus exempt.

NeHA, the Northeast Hops Alliance, is collaborating with Hager Hops, planning an open house at the Pierstown hops yard on Aug. 2.