Local growers cultivating key ingredient in beer brewing process

08/17/2012 2:30 PM |

GIANNA VOLPE PHOTO | While weeding, Jaclyn Van Bourgondien and fiancé Andrew Tralka examine the leaves of one of their hops plants.

Between Greenport Harbor Brewing Company in Greenport Village and Long Ireland Beer Company in Riverhead, the North Fork has its brewery bases pretty much covered.

But new to the area are hops growers interested in serving Long Island’s burgeoning craft beer market.

John Condzella of Wading River recently harvested hops for special batches of ales that can only be produced from fresh, wet hops, as opposed to dried hops.

“We just harvested for Long Ireland this morning,” Mr. Condzella said Tuesday of the some 25 pounds of hops he sold to the Pulaski Street-based brewing company. “One guy was getting the brew ready while we were picking the hops. It went really well. They rushed them over to the brewery to get them into the kettle to make a special batch of wet-hopped pale ale. A limited edition type of thing.”

The farm also recently worked with the Port Jefferson Brewing Company and Captain Lawrence Brewing Company in Westchester for a similar purpose.

One huge goal for farmers and brewers alike is to create a truly local beer.

Until recently, fresh hops weren’t being grown on Long Island’s East End, making wet-hopped ales difficult to brew, and a local ale impossible. But a truly local product is still impossible without local production of malted barley, which usually comes from Massachusetts.

Mr. Condzella believes North Fork malted barley is something that’s just on the horizon.

“We have a few friends involved in [barley],” he said. “We might work on malting a small batch this winter in order to make a true Long Island beer. That’s definitely on our agenda.”

Until a completely local beer becomes possible, Long Ireland Brewing Company co-owner Greg Martin said he’ll be happy with a partially local product.

“The fact that we’re local gives us the unique opportunity to brew a beer with fresh-picked hops,” Mr. Martin said. “It’s awesome.”

To the east, Southold couple Andrew Tralka and Jaclyn Van Bourgondien are growing an acre of bines — which is what hops vines are called — in Peconic. Unlike at Condzella’s Farm’s acre, which was planted last year, the couple only planted its acre this year after an incubating period in a greenhouse.

“It’s always been a part of Andrew’s dream to grow hops,” Ms. Van Bourgondien said. “We’ve gotten a lot of support from our families and the community. We’re hoping to get a yield this year, and as Andrew likes to say, ‘We’re just a couple of thirsty farmers looking to cultivate the local craft beer movement from the ground up.’ ”

The acre, which includes five different varieties of bines, sits beside a brown and white sign that reads “Farm to Pint,” something Ms. Van Bourgondien described as an homage to “Farm to Table,” a local produce marketing slogan.

The couple has been in talks with Greenport Harbor Brewing Company and has been approached by several home brewers, she said. The acre might be able to supply as many as five local companies with a batch each this year, depending on how much the acre produces, if anything.

At peak production, an acre could produce about 3,000 pounds of hops, the growers say.

“It takes three years to get to full production,” said Justin Wesnofske, Greenport Harbor’s account manager, who himself planted two-tenths of an acre of hops last spring — centennial, nugget and santium hops to be precise.

In two weeks, he expects to harvest 30 to 50 pounds to use in a batch of wet-hopped ale, he said. A typical batch of “hoppy” beer requires about 60 to 100 pounds of hops for one batch in a seven-barrel system, brewers say. Mr. Wesnofske said he would likely add his small crop of hops to supplement other hops.

Dale Moyer, director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension agricultural program in Riverhead, said that vegetable specialist Sandy Menasha received a grant this year to evaluate the different hops varieties. Mr. Moyer believes the crop has potential as a niche market locally, though he doesn’t think it will expand past that point.

Ms. Menasha said the evaluation has been going well.

“We’re looking at disease and insect resistance,” she said. “Which varieties hold up better against, say, downy or powdery mildews and which are less attractive to insects.”

Initial findings show that one variety, called chinook, seems to be more susceptible to downy mildew than are other varieties.

She added that aside from some people who may be growing some hops in their backyards, Pat McBride of Cutchogue is growing about three quarters of an acre and John Zilnicki of Riverhead about a quarter of an acre.

Asked if hops could be the next big thing in East End agriculture, Joseph Gergela, executive director of Long Island Farm Bureau, said it’s possible.

“Over the last 25 years, there’s been a few people who have tried it, but certainly the micro-brewery movement has not only been happening here, but across New York State,” he said. “Is it doable? Yes. But I think it might prove a difficult crop to grow with Long Island weather, what with fungus and mildews.”

Mr. Gergela added that historically, hops had been a New York State crop, particularly in the Finger Lakes region.

Ms. Van Bourgondien provided a bit of history.

“In the late 1800s and early 1900s, New York was the biggest producer of hops, but through Prohibition and two huge outbreaks of mildews, the business collapsed and moved to the West and Pacific Northwest,” she said. “It’s starting to come back around out here and it’s literally been a growing experience for us to be able to provide a truly local ingredient to local breweries.”

gvolpe@timesreview.com