20 Questions: Chad Meigs from The Bineyard talks New York Hops

 

 

Once the source of most of the nation’s hops, New York went decades without much commercial activity until several factors created a resurgence in demand for local hops. New York hop production peaked in the 1890’s (Rumney, 1998) and was in decline well before prohibition came along in 1920.

Chad Meigs from The Bineyard steps up to the glass and plays 20 questions to fill us in.

From what I’ve seen in looking into the history of New York hops, prohibition combined with a huge mildew outbreak all but killed production in the state during the early 1900’s. What was the catalyst that started the industry back up again?

There were a few factors at play bringing back the NY hop industry. Firstly, there was the hop shortage of 2007-2008 which sparked interest where there previously wasn’t any. On top of this there were a few history buffs in the state that thought it would be cool to start growing on a small scale. Enter organizations like Cornell Cooperative Extension to promote and educate and you have a blossoming new industry! The Bineyard got into the game in 2010 which makes us one of the “older” hop yards in the state.

 
Photo from The Bineyard Instagram Feed.

 

New York has a huge variety of micro-climates, from the North Fork in Long Island, the Finger Lakes area and the lake effect area in Buffalo. For someone not familiar with Cazenovia, how would you describe the area?

Most people describe NY State as either “Upstate” or “Downstate” but if you talk to the locals Cazenovia is in Madison County and is located directly in the middle so we consider it “Central NY”. It is true that there are many different micro-climates in the state, you will find most of the apple orchards and grape growing regions located in and around the finger-lakes because those crops require that. Hops are a different story, growers have had success growing pretty much anywhere in the state with the exception of the Adirondacks.

 
Photo from The Bineyard Instagram Feed. Winter in The Bineyard.

 

You use New York Terroir to describe your hops, and we’ve talked a little about the differences in East and West Coast Cascade before. How do you describe what the upstate region of New York gives to hops?

Terroir is coming into the hop conversation more and more these days, I feel this is based in part because they are now grown more outside of the Pacific Northwest and most recently brought to light by Boston Beer Company’s Sam Adams only purchasing hops from the “Bavarian region of Germany”. Central NY soil is composed mostly of Honeoye Silty Loam which brings differences in the flavor and aroma to hops. For instance, a Cascade hop grown in the Pacific Northwest will have more citrus qualities where a NY Cascade will have more herbal earthy tones. This might not be ideal for your NEIPA but other hop varieties, say Crystal, will have more of that citrus that you may be looking for. It’s a mind change for most brewers that are not aware of regional Terroir.

According to the latest Hop Growers of America report, New York has increased from 150 acres harvested in 2014 to 400 acres harvested in 2018. How much of that production is in your area?

These 400 acres seem to be spread out across the state uniformly. The exception to this rule would be the Adirondacks and urban areas (think Long Island and surrounding NYC). I break down the different growing regions in the state as Western NY, Finger Lakes, Central NY (where The Bineyard is located), Capital Region and Catskill.

What changes have you seen in the NY hop industry in the last few years (both close to home and in the state overall)?

The biggest difference I have seen across the state in the past few years is simple: Quality. It takes a hop plant 3 years to reach full maturity. When you think about the capital expenditure to produce such a crop it all adds up fast. Those farms that started 5+ years ago are starting to hit a groove, they are achieving their yield goals, have had the ability to invest back into their operations like mechanical cultivating equipment, quality harvesters, balers. All of these investments translate to a better higher quality product.

 

Photo from The Bineyard Instagram Feed. Hops drying in the Oast.

What has the experience been like working with other growers?

Working with other growers has been a place of enjoyment for me. When we first started our farm in 2010 there weren’t that many people doing this on such a small scale so we made many mistakes. After years of learning from these mistakes I have the ability to share this knowledge with other growers. The way I see other hops farms is not a competition but as assets. If they are successful in growing quality NY hops this will only help the local industry and in turn help us here at The Bineyard. The biggest challenge for the NY hop grower is processing. Not only is investing in your own processing equipment very costly but timing of the harvest and how you harvest can really make or break your season.

When we spoke before, you said that you don’t blend the lots from the other farms you work with and that brewers wanted to be able to go back to hops from a specific farm again and again. How much education did that take on your part, or did they get it right away?

This is something that I constantly deal with every day. The education of the brewery and what they are purchasing is key. Most brewers are used to buying a specific hop, from say YCH, and expect similar results season after season. If consistency is your goal (and most commercial breweries it is) you expect this. I could achieve this by blending all of our hops together but I enjoy showcasing all of our different growers as each farm usually has something unique about them and their flavors. Once a brewery has a relationship with a farm, they tend to stick with them and in some cases promote that farm. This is a win-win for both the locavore brewery and farm itself.

What has the response been from local brewers? Seems like you’ve got some solid supporters using NY hops.

The response from local brewers has been nothing short of awesome. I feel the brewers really like to connect to where they get their raw ingredients from. Once this relationship has been established it is a learning process for us both. They get educated on NY hops and we get educated on their needs and what is most important to them so we can continuously improve our product offerings.

 
Photo from The Bineyard Instagram Feed. Wet hop NEIPA made with all Bineyard hops by Sahm Brewing Co., Syracuse, NY.

 

Is there any interaction between the growers and brewers?

  • Are they usually looking for the same things in a hop?
  • Do you ever take input from brewers when looking to expand acreage?

Interaction with the brewer is a key aspect of becoming a successful hop operation. These are the people who are paying us for what we do. With the popularity of IPAs most of the breweries are looking for a citrus forward hop they can put into IPAs and NEIPAs and around these parts the answer is not always Cascade (as some breweries are used to) but a blend of many different varieties that can achieve the same thing, even as a replacement for proprietary varietals (that we cannot grow here) like Citra and Mosaic. When varieties work for a particular brewer, they tend to purchase the same hops year after year, this is where contracting comes in and contracting directly impacts how we plan for expansion.

What got you interested in growing hops? Did you have much/any experience farming?

My background is in software development. HA! I didn’t have much farming experience prior to starting The Bineyard. When I moved to Central NY from Boston there weren’t many job opportunities for me here. I’ve always enjoyed hop forward beers and with the move to the country I started to homebrew. Homebrewing got me to plant my first rhizomes, I planted two Galena and two Perle against the side of our barn. Those 4 turned into 150 turned into 2,000 turned into the approximate 10,000 we grow today.

 
Photo from The Bineyard Instagram Feed. Recently harvested Perle hops.

From our earlier conversation, it seemed like you went fairly quickly from idea to actually starting your own hop farm. What was that process like?

It sure seems like it was quickly but in reality, I tried to grow slow and organically. Growing The Bineyard slowly allowed me to make my mistakes on a small scale without much loss of capital and allowed me to make up for my lack of formal agriculture experience. I feel my unconventional approach to farming has been an asset to The Bineyard because I don’t have the mentality of “this is the way we’ve always done it”.

Where was the Cascade we’re going to send out grown? Was that from your own bines, or was that one of the other small farms in the area you’re working with?

The Cascade that was sent to Hop of the Month Club was grown here at our farm in Cazenovia. ALL of our farms that we work with I have a direct hand in growing them. I might not be there every day in and day out but I do need all of the farms to be on the same page as we have high expectations of what our final product should be. If hops do not meet our high expectations those hops are rejected and not sent to market that season.

Where was the Mt. Hood we’re going to send out grown? Was that from your own bines, or was that one of the other small farms in the area you’re working with?

The Mt. Hood that was sent to Hop of the Month Club was grown by one of our apple growers located in LaFayette, NY that was looking to diversify their apple operations with hops. This is actually very common in our area, for apple farmers to get into hops. I feel apple growers have the knowledge of perennial crops and the resources to grow exceptional hops.

 
Photo from The Bineyard Instagram Feed. Harvesting Mt. Hood hops by driving down the row of plants.

 

Are you involved in any research being done in the state?

Yes, The Bineyard is directly involved in many initiatives throughout the state, some of them associated with Cornell Cooperative Extension. NY is seeking its own varietal and we see this as a much-needed step in the next chapter of NY hops.

Photo from The Bineyard Instagram Feed. Wild hop trial plants.

 

Seems like both Downy and Powdery mildews are still a problem in NY. Are there varieties that are resistant?

  • Which varieties have you seen doing well?
  • Are there any varieties that you’re growing on an experimental basis?

Mildew is an issue in NY state and part of the reason why hops left the state a century ago. There are many varieties that are resistant to mildews like Comet and Columbia and others that are not like Cashmere and Centennial. This is not to be said non-resistant varieties can’t grow here, the grower just needs to be aware of these restrictions and be prepared for any outbreak.

Photos from The Bineyard Instagram Feed. Downy Mildew discoloration, 2016.

 

NY is in a unique position regarding experimental varietals. Since hops were prevalent here a century ago there are many “wild” or “feral” hops here that have survived the test of time. I call these hops “hedgerow hops” and they usually show signs of disease resistance. The Bineyard has many of these hedgerow varieties currently in trials. Stay tuned…

Photo from The Bineyard Instagram Feed. Wild, or “Hedgerow” hop rhizomes being sent out for testing.

When are your hops usually harvested?

Peak harvest season is mid-August to mid-September and determined by moisture content of the cone, sensory analysis and oil content. Last season we harvested everyday all day for 5 weeks straight without a day off.

I know that you occasionally attend homebrew club meetings. How is interacting with that group different from professional brewers? (Or is it?)

In most cases it is the same, educating them on terroir and the differences between local hops and PNW hops but they also tend to want to get into the growing part of it as well. Most of the questions I get from homebrewers is how to successfully grow backyard hops. I think this is SO cool and encourage anybody to grow their own hops.

 
Photo from The Bineyard Instagram Feed.

 

What advice would you give a homebrewer looking to plant a couple of bines in their yard?

Pick a spot that will get the most sunlight, usually south facing. They grow VERY tall too (up to 18-20 feet) to have some sort of structure for them to grow up on. When we first started, I tied some strings to the top of our south facing barn and this worked great, no infrastructure required. Lastly, make sure they get plenty of food and water. Water them daily and add nitrogen (Miracle Grow) occasionally. 

Do you still get a chance to brew once in a while? If so, what styles do you like to brew?

Growing and selling hops keeps me very busy these days but I do get a chance to brew from time to time. When I do get a chance to brew, I usually brew up IPAs, why not as I have the hops available, right! My wife likes her stouts and hefeweizen so they make it into the mix as well.

Do you have a favorite hop? If so, what makes it special?

I have two favorite hops. First is Chinook. Not only does Chinook grow exceptionally well here in NY the cones are long and square which makes for great photo opportunities. The other I’m really enjoying lately is Comet. This is of the Neomexicana variety so they have a distinct look and start out the growing season as a bright green which really stands out in the hop yard!

 
Photo from The Bineyard Instagram Feed. Comet Hops, Summer 2018.

 

Anything else we should know?

I really encourage brewers and homebrewers alike to really understand where their ingredients come from. The more you understand your ingredients the better you will be a using them in your brew. A great start is subscribing to Hop of the Month Club which will give exposure to many different kinds of hops and will lead to experimentation and brewing knowledge.

Thank you for interest in NY hops!

 

Photo from The Bineyard Instagram Feed. Chad (left) at Eastwood Brewing Company in Syracuse, NY. 

 

References:

Rumney, T. A. (1998). A Search for Economic Alternatives: Hops in Franklin County, New York During the Nineteenth Century. Middle States Geographer, 31, pp. 23-34. Retrieved 02 24, 2019, from https://msaag.aag.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/3_Rumney.pdf 

 

Want to read more about The Bineyard? Check out these articles:

Syracuse.com: https://www.syracuse.com/drinks/index.ssf/2015/06/hop_harvester_to_help_growing.html

Al Dente blog: http://blogaldente.com/2016/03/al-dente-qa-5-chad-meigs-the-bineyard/

List of articles on The Bineyard’s website: http://www.thebineyard.com/Grower/Media

 

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