Hops Crops

Fresh hops growing on a fence

Inspired by the recent blossoming of Long Island microbreweries, a new crop has sprouted on the East End this season: hops, the ingredient in beer that provides its aromas and bitterness.

On an acre of his family’s farm in Wading River, John Condzella (opposite page) has installed 65 pine posts (provided by a friend in the lumber business in Maine), from which he will suspend wires to support the bines (like vines) that the hop flowers, or “cones,” grow from. The plants can reach more than 20 feet high.

Justin Wesnofske (shown above, far right, with brewery founders John Liegey, far left, and Rich Vandenburgh, middle) supervises 300 plants, comprised of three hops varietals, on his family’s Peconic farm. He also works for Greenport Harbor Brewing Company, which plans to buy the hops, fresh, for small batches of beer. Wesnofske has erected 20-plus-foot-high poles connected by wire strung with rope, so the plants can grow skyward.
In Riverhead, Juan Micieli-Martinez, winemaker and general manager of Martha Clara Vineyards, has a test field of 30 plants to see if hops will grow on grapevine trellises. Micieli-Martinez’s previous life includes working as the assistant brewmaster at the Publick House in Southampton.

The benefit of having hops grown close to home is that most beer is made using dried and pelletized hops. Once fresh hops are introduced to a ferment, they can introduce a whole new range of flavors, from fresh, resiny notes to more pungent, bitter tastes. But the perishable buds must be used the same day they are picked.

In contrast, dry hopping, when dry hops are added after fermentation, produces more intense aromas. Dried hops can be stored and used year-round. Central New York was once the largest hop producer in the states.

The industry, killed off by blight, prohibition and competition from the now dominant producers in Washington and Oregon, remains small (less than 100 acres are planted in the state compared with 29,000 acres on the West Coast), but it’s growing rapidly to supply the steadily multiplying local brewpubs. (Cornell Cooperative Extension of Madison County, New York, just hired the state’s first hops specialist.)

All three East End farmers plan to harvest by hand, but Micieli- Martinez, who also has hop plants at home that he uses to home brew, says the best harvest is usually after year three—not unlike grapevines—when the rhizomes have established strong roots.

In the meantime, just like any forerunner, the farmers are figuring it out as they go along, fashioning their own equipment and thinking of the future. Condzella is working on a trellis wagon to aid in picking the cones, and all three are trying different varieties to see which thrive on Long Island. “I’m focusing on producing something higher quality than what’s available commercially,” says Condzella. “And I like beer.”