Anyone interested in an all New York state hopped IPA?
Sadly, we didn’t actually come up with this idea on our own volition, as great as it is. We came to this idea after realizing how few hops there are everywhere else.
We’re at the moment in our brewery progress where we’re working on finding vendors for raw materials. We’ve pretty much worked out our yeast strains. Of course, we know where our water is coming from. The next hurdle is hops.
In case you didn’t know, there are now a LOT of breweries in the US – and a great many more that are planning on opening. As of March 2013, the Brewers Association estimated that there were 2,416 breweries in operation – which is the most there’s been since, well, since they started counting. They also estimate 1,254 breweries in planning. Um, holy crap, that’s a lot of breweries!
Now, as far as craft beer goes, the most popular style in the US is the IPA (data from HopUnion, see slide 31.) American IPAs get their distinctive bitter finish and floral/pine/citrus aroma from the use of hops – a lot of hops. It’s not just IPAs either. Pale Ales, third on the list of most popular, definitely require hops. Sam is including more and more hoppy beers in their seasonal/variety packs. Even amber ales are hoppier than ever: while BJCP states that “Malt and hop bitterness are usually balanced”, I know of many beers called “Amber Ales” that are basically red IPAs (Nugget Nectar by Troegs, Cascazilla by Ithaca and Zoe by Maine Beer come to mind. Not that these aren't great beers.)
|McCollum hop harvest - if you lean in,|
your screen should smell of fresh pine and grapefruit
With so many breweries, and so many breweries making hopcentric beer, where are all of the hops coming from? Almost all of America’s hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.) However, the demand for hops is very quickly outpacing the supply. The hops in the greatest demand are newer varieties that have extreme and interesting flavors, like Citra (passion fruit), Simcoe (heavy pine) and Amarillo (super orange). These hops have become virtually impossible to acquire without a contract. What makes things really bad for brewers is that these hops are proprietary to only a few hop farms; Amarillo for instance, is grown on only one farm in the world – which is too bad, because it is my absolute favorite hop variety. The use of Australian and/or New Zealand hops (Galaxy, Riwaka, Pacific Jade, Nelson Sauvin) result in interesting flavors and have become very popular as well, but also suffer from being rare, as well as expensive to import.
As a new brewery, this has become a bit of a challenge for us. We love IPAs. It’s not only one of our favorite styles to drink, it’s also the most fun to brew. We want nothing more than to produce an IPA that will stand out from the pack. But we’re at a disadvantage because existing breweries are using up all of these special hops in their beers. This wasn’t a complete surprise to us – while we’ve been developing our recipes, we’ve been trying to rediscover overlooked hop varieties that are more available in order to avoid these proprietary hops. Anyone that’s tried our IPA before may have realized that…
However, we’ve been even more surprised that much more common hops like Cascade are also in short supply. Just to be clear – when I say short supply, I mean the hops from this year’s harvest – which hasn’t even happened yet – are already completely committed to existing breweries. Cascade is the quintessential American hop variety, featured in Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and is grown everywhere (stats from the Hop Growers of America show Cascade as approximately second in quantity of hops produced behind CTZ.) Yet we still have a real risk of not being able to acquire any.
This problem is compounded by the fact that many suppliers don’t permit a brewery to establish a contract until their licensing paperwork is completed. We have always planned to contract hops – this is one of those things you need to do this to keep a brewery running – but we were surprised by how many suppliers required licensing completed before they would sell us hops (like, they won’t even accept an advance payment with the supply contingent upon our licensing.) Imagine a scenario where we’re fully licensed, we have our equipment, construction is completed, the doors are ready to open – and we need to wait another year and a half until a new crop of hops is available!
These issues were enough to make me (at least for a little while) reconsider the beers we would be offering. Compare hops as a raw material to, for example, yeast. Yeast is a living and self-sustaining organism. With proper technique and a decent freezer, we could probably buy a few liters of yeast and propagate enough yeast to make beer FOREVER without ever having to purchase more. Belgian breweries focus their beer flavors around yeast character – most Belgian beer is characteristically fruity and spicy from the yeast they use and their fermentation process. To take it a step further, imagine the breweries that make “wild” beers in Belgium – these breweries don’t even purchase yeast. A cool breeze ushers in random organisms and the brewers age the beer for years to allow a complex flavor profile to develop. These beers would actually suffer from the addition of a lot of fresh hops, as the hops contain antimicrobial properties that inhibit the growth of these organisms. Beers like this are truly sustainable and forever linked to their environment.
Could Big Ditch be a Belgian-style brewery, or even make wild beers? We could – but we want to make all styles of beers, and as much as we enjoy our Belgians or an occasional Flanders, dammit, we’re Americans, and we want American beer. We certainly plan on making Belgian-style beers - we’ve already developed one – but we’re also set on making an IPA, or two, or three.
Enter New York. New York state was once a very large producer of hops – in the 19th century New York accounted for 90% of American hops – and the growing demand for craft beer has once again rekindled an interest in growing hops here. We’ve spoken about McCollum Orchards from Lockport before – we recently met with them again, along with another group of maltsters and hop growers, as well as a team looking to startup a farm brewery called Griffin Hill. We let them know of our dilemma and they spoke of ways they, as well as others in the Northeast Hop Alliance, might be able help. We are hoping that as Western New York adds more breweries, its hop and malt industries grow just as fast, if not faster. I expect that we’ll use as many New York state grown hops in our beer as we can.
We’re still working through our hop sourcing issues, but I’m confident we’ll get through it. The brewing community is very supportive – after all, Sam Adams sold a bunch of hops to other brewers during a shortage in 2008 and 2012 – and the local community here in Western New York is even more supportive. Throughout the process of opening a brewery, we’ve often taken one step backwards in our progress - and very shortly after taken two steps forward. If we wind up developing an all New York hopped IPA out of this experience, I’d definitely call that forward progress, both for us, and for the state of craft beer in New York.