Why if ’tis dancing you would be,
There’s brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
A. E. Houseman
— Illustration by Carol Coogan
The most popular alcoholic drink in Russia is vodka. The French have their wines. And for Americans, it’s beer.
Each of those drinks is entwined with the culture and the economy of those places.
Beer is part of our heritage. The Pilgrims drank it for breakfast. And waves of European immigrants brought their own methods of brewing to American shores. There are a wide range of beers — from the watery suds drunk before American TV sets to the near-treacley stouts and porters that suit the darkness of British pubs.
Like everything else in our society, the making of beer — a process first recorded in Ancient Egypt —changed with the Industrial Revolution. It changed further in the United States with large corporate production of beer. Thousands and thousands of small breweries shut down with Prohibition in 1920 and, afterwards, the trend was toward consolidation with mass production and marketing.
In recent years, though, quietly but relentlessly, a movement towards craft brewing has burgeoned in our country. And New York State has taken an active role in promoting the trend.
Last July 18, Governor Andrew Cuomo traveled to one of the oldest family-owned breweries in the United States — Matt Brewing Company in Utica, maker of Saranac beer — to sign a law supporting craft breweries. The new law gives any New York brewery producing fewer than 60 million gallons of beer annually a tax credit, and it exempts small breweries from brand label fees. The law also creates a “Farm Brewery” license allowing for retail outlets, restaurants, and tastings.
A study conducted by Cornell University just before the law was adopted projected initial capital investments ranging from $8 million (if 10 farm breweries opened the first year) to $24 million (if 30 opened). Similarly, the study projected the new law would initially generate between 52 and 417 new jobs “across various industries including brewing, glass manufacturing, real-estate services, metal/can/box/other container manufacturing, truck transportation, and the management of companies and enterprises.”
The effects of the resurgence are being felt close to home. Last week, the Enterprise Hilltown reporter, Marcello Iaia, covered a meeting in Rensselaerville where farmers, maltsters, brewers, and politicians convened, at the Carey Center for Global Good, to share progress and plans for the fledgling New York beer industry.
New York State was the worldwide leading producer of hops, a key ingredient for brewing, throughout the mid- to late-19th Century.
We need to look no further than yellowed Enterprise pages to see the importance of hops to our region. In September 1935, H. G. Von Linden wrote of the golden era of hops harvests of a half-century before: “Crickets fiddle under the harvest moon…faint sulphur fumes of the hop kilns ride in on the early autumn winds…It’s fall in the hills and hop-picking time in the valley….
“Today, as then, the wages of the hop yards, will bring wood and coal to workers whose income may easily have been slender throughout the summer past and a supply of flour and provisions to an all too empty cellar, without mentioning a few shillings that may find their way into the cracked sugar bowl to bring an eager smile to expectant kiddies come Christmas eve. Or sturdy cap and leather mittens for the head of the household when zero blasts its killing way down from the barren hills of winter….
“But somewhere in the intervening half century is lost irrevocably the festivities of the hop field. When from Schenectady and adjoining towns there came those who, if not in dire need, nevertheless annually waited for the gayety and hearty banter through the days of work and dancing the crisp night through to singing fiddles and the rhythmic throb of guitar….”
While we revel in such hyperbolic prose and can appreciate the way a crop may have defined a culture, we must, for the sake of truth, insert this statement from an 1886 Enterprise item, without the romantic glow cast by a half-century of retrospection: “Villagers who have been away hop picking are returning laden with shekels and a determination never to go hop picking again.”
Nevertheless, it is true that hops were an important economic force in the region, whether in the 1800s or the depth of the Great Depression. We believe that now, as we struggle to emerge from the Great Recession, local breweries could be a much-needed boon to the economy.
A brewery like the one being planned by Dietrich Gehring in the shadow of the Helderbergs could help promote agri-tourism as visitors come both to taste the brew and admire the local scenery.
The new law requires the small breweries that are taking advantage of the tax breaks and new licensing to use ever-increasing amounts of local produce — barley and hops. Between 1991 and 2009, according to the Cornell study, New York State had roughly 10 acres of hops in commercial production but that was expected to quadruple last year.
The hiring of the state’s first hop specialist, through a state grant to Cornell Cooperative Extension of Madison County, should help with continuing that expansion.
Here in Albany County, Executive Daniel McCoy told the gathering in Rensselaerville that a committee will be formed and that funding for business loans is assured for next year.
One of the biggest hurdles would-be local growers of barley and local brewers face is there is no nearby processing facility. We intend to hold McCoy to his word and check on the progress that is being made, perhaps by forming a cooperative, to start a processing facility here.
McCoy tweeted last week about our front-page story on the issue and promised, “We will work together to make things happen.”
Producing — everything from meat and poultry to milk and beer — and buying locally makes sense as well as dollars. Consumers have more control when they buy from farmers they know and trust. It also saves on transportation costs and the resulting pollution.
Re-establishing a crop that was here when the very first Europeans arrived — Gehring says the early Dutch settlers wrote home they’d be able to make beer in the New World because they had found native hops — would be a satisfying endeavor.
Maybe we would all dance the crisp night through to singing fiddles and the rhythmic throb of guitar.