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Workshops meet surging interest in growing hops and microbreweries

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John Carberry

Plastic cups, bottles of beer, bags of hops and 460 slides -- these are the materials Karl Siebert, professor of food science, uses in Brewing Science and Technology, a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences course that filled an auditorium at Cornell's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y., earlier this month.

Siebert, who has received awards from the Master Brewers Association of the Americas and the American Society of Brewing Chemists, teaches an eclectic mix of home brewers, established commercial brewers, growers, equipment suppliers and others the biology of barley and hops, malting and brewing technology, the biochemistry of fermentation and dozens of other topics.

It's the second time this year his nine-hour extension program sold out.

According to N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office, there are 75 microbreweries in the state, and interest keeps growing. In fact, Cuomo is hosting a Beer and Wine Summit today (Oct. 24) at the New York State Capitol. The event builds on the momentum, in part generated by new legislation that allows microbrewers to sell products on their premises if they've sourced the majority of ingredients from New York growers.

The hope is the summit will help identify additional opportunities for spurring industry growth and promoting related economic benefits such as tourism.

"It's encouraging to see so many people interested in this field and legislation that gives them incentives for using local ingredients," said Siebert. "Now, we need more hops, more barley and more malt houses for the industry to really take hold."

Siebert's course is one tactic for meeting this need; his roster of 163 participants included 22 hop farmers.

Cornell senior research educator Steven Miller, New York's first hops specialist, explains that microbrews include a high percentage of hops compared with traditional beers made by bigger breweries.

"The fact that microbrewers in the Northeast have increased has made it possible for us to have a market in New York," said Miller. "People can now grow hops without having to sell thousands of acres."

Two hop growers attending the workshop were Kate and Larry Fisher, who started Foothill Hops in Madison County in 2001 and helped found the Northeast Hop Alliance, a nonprofit advised by Cornell Cooperative Extension and the University of Vermont.

"We have a local foods initiative in Madison called 'Mad Foods' and now we've got 'Mad Drinks' to go along with that," said Kate Fisher.

Miller and Siebert note that both barley and hops -- essential ingredients in beer -- are key parts of the recipe for industry growth, and they emphasize that new growers need help through research, outreach and infrastructure improvements.

"To produce a quality crop economically, New York growers need varieties that will thrive here, as well as better tools for insect and disease management," Miller said. "That's where Cornell faculty and extension specialists come in."

But in a craft beer industry that has doubled in just a decade, education is equally critical.

"I was not trained in school for this -- few of us were," said Ryan Coleman of Flying Bison Brewery Co. in Buffalo, N.Y. "More people need to learn for the industry to grow."

Justin Lottridge of Brewery Ommegang agrees and says changing attitudes is important, too. "You need to educate the masses," he said. "Beers offer complex flavors just like wine -- and they make great pairings with local foods, too."

Kate Frazer is the agricultural experiment stations communications officer at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.


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