NY hop growers face challenges to meet rising brewery demands

 

Media note: A video of the researchers is available here.

ITHACA, N.Y. – The New York craft beer industry is really hopping. From 2012 to 2016, the number of breweries more than tripled, from 95 to 302 ­– and the industry contributes $3.5 billion to the state’s economy annually.

This surging craft-brewing industry is spilling into agriculture, specifically in the demand for hops, a key ingredient in beer. Cultivating hops has its challenges, mainly from pests and diseases. Cornell University plant-disease experts David Gadoury and Ph.D. student Bill Weldon, both at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, are providing expertise to help everyone from hops hobbyists to professional farmers through outreach materials, public presentations and field visits.

“Many New York growers lack practical experience with hops,” said Gadoury, a senior research associate in the plant pathology and plant-microbe biology section of the School of Integrative Plant Science in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

One hundred years ago, New York was the center for hops production in North America, with an optimal climate for the plant. But the combination of powdery mildew and downy mildew, aphids and alcohol prohibition killed the industry. Hop agriculture moved to the inland Pacific Northwest after that, where a dry climate limits downy mildew, though powdery mildew is a problem.

In order to get new hop growers up to speed, Gadoury and Weldon focus on outreach and education. Weldon traveled to the Pacific Northwest to gain insights from experienced growers; Washington, Oregon and Idaho produce roughly 98 percent of U.S. hops. He also met with New York state growers to better understand their needs. With this knowledge, he helped produce a new Cornell website that serves as a hub for hops-related information.

In 2013, New York lawmakers signed the Farm Brewing Law, designed to bolster New York’s economy by increasing demand for locally grown products and creating new businesses surrounding the brewing industry. The initiative revitalized hop growing in the state.

According to brewers, the quality of New York-grown hops has been inconsistent so far. Many brewers source their local hops from hobbyists, who are still learning. Also, brewers want certain varieties, such as Cascade for IPAs, but some of those varieties may be more susceptible to disease and pests. As a consequence, many New York brewers have no choice but to source some of their hops from Washington and Oregon, and that’s a lost opportunity for New York hop growers.

“That’s one of the things we are trying to change, having high-quality varieties and enough of them,” Fowler said.

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews. For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.