The popularity of craft breweries is on the rise across the state, and legislators are looking to help it grow more by starting at the source — the hops crop.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law Aug. 26 two bills that will assist hops farmers with growing the crop and encourage development of new farm distilleries. On a sunny afternoon, the owners and operators of the Kinderhook Creek Hops Yard are hard at work harvesting this year’s crop.
“We have been harvesting for about two to three weeks,” owner and operator Michelle Handy said. “From late August to September is when we harvest.”
The team consists of David and Michelle Handy, using a $70,000 1971 Wolf 220 Harvester from Germany to collect the hops flower from the vines. The enterprise started with a home brew kit that turned from a hobby into a career for the Handy family.
Cuomo’s hop-farm assistance law consists of two bills. The first will assist orchards and vineyards that grow hops to qualify for a property tax exemption without meeting the $10,000 sales requirement. Farms can qualify for the tax benefit if they are in the first, second, third or fourth year of production. It also provides limited tax exemptions for farmers who are replanting or expanding their production for the first six years.
The second bill allows businesses with a farm distillery license to enter into a private contract with a member of the public to produce custom liquor for the individual’s consumption.
The benefit comes from a property assessment that values the land at a lower price than what the property is worth. This gives the farmer a tax break from the $10,000 gross sales minimum set in place.
The Handys were intrigued, but unaware of the new legislation.
“We could use some help financially and laborwise,” Michelle said.
The hops-farming lifestyle keeps the couple busy. The hops grown by the Handys are sold to local brewers and local buyers.
“We sell to places like Chatham Brewery, Home Brew Emporium,” Michelle said. “Even some brewers will just come here and buy a couple bags.”
The Kinderhook Creek Hop Yard runs on 2 acres and has 1,800 plants. Kinderhook Creek grows five varieties of hops, which can be purchased as pellets, wet whole cones or dry whole cones. The Handys are working on their third harvest in four years.
“Most of our hops come from the Northwest,” said Joey LoBianco, owner and operator of the Rip Van Winkle Brewing Company in Catskill. “We also use hops from Germany for our traditional German Lager and hops from England for our American brown ale.”
Rip Van Winkle Brewery Company, on Route 32, has been offering local craft beers since 2014. It also has an Italian-American restaurant in addition to the brewery. Rip Van Winkle Brewery Company has won awards for two of its craft beers.
Hops are just starting to grow in the state again, LoBianco said.
“It’s like grapes — the crops get better every year,” he said.
When they use state-produced hops, the crop tends to come from the central part of the state because orchards and vineyards in that region also grow hops. In the 1800s, Cobleskill and Cooperstown were home to some of the largest and most productive hop yards in the region, LoBianco said.
Subversive Malting & Brewing, with a malting house in Livingston, plans to brew and sell locally sourced malt and beers — but it won’t be easy, one of the company’s founders said.
“Anyone who is trying to do so is taking a risk,” said Max Ocean, who is in charge of delivery and sales. “It’s tough to purchase locally. A brewery can get more consistent crop out west.”
The new legislation will only affect one of Ocean’s hops suppliers in the state, he said.
“We are trying to intentionally support New York,” Ocean said, adding farms are larger and better equipped in the central and western areas of the state to supply hops to local breweries.
Along with its local malting business, Subversive is slated to open a brew house called the Catskill Beer Cafe on Main Street in the village this fall.
The new tax exemption will allow state hops farmers, at least for the first several seasons of growing the crop, time to get it up to productivity. Hops, a perennial crop, is planted one year, but requires several more before it reaches maximum productivity.
“[Hops] are like any perennial agricultural crop,” said Stephen Hadcock, regional agricultural entrepreneur and marketing developer for Cornell Cooperative Extension. “You plant them in one year and it will take some time before they reach full production.”