By Dyann Nashton
(Madison County, NY – Sept. 2012) Last weekend was not the first time that things were “hopping” in Madison County. The Madison County Hop Fest provided a weekend-long celebration of its more than 200-year-old hops heritage.
Presented by the Madison County Historical Society, the event began Friday with a paired beer dinner at Ye Olde Landmark Tavern in Bouckville. It continued Saturday with the festival at the MCHS grounds. The day’s agenda included a food and beer pairing and beer sampling.
The festival concluded with a day-long hop kiln tour on Sunday.
In its 17th year, the festival serves several purposes. The most important of which, according to Sydney Loftus, MCHS executive director, are “to pay homage to the heritage while acknowledging that hops in Madison County has a very promising future.”
The newly crowned hops king and queen are examples of what tomorrow holds for the hops industry here. From Good Nature Brewing, Inc., in Hamilton, Matthew Whalen, head brewer, and Carrie Blackmore, president, stood on the steps to the historical society Saturday for their coronation with hats wreathed in hops.
The newlyweds only recently opened their Milford Street brewery, which, despite Madison County’s long hops heritage, is believed to be its first. Production outgrew existing equipment within only three months of their January opening and resulted in an upgrade, said Blackmore.
Initially, Good Nature Brewing was capable of producing 62 gallons at a time.
“But demand was just astronomical, and we just couldn’t keep up,” she said, adding that the brewery uses 98 percent local hops and raw materials.
With their new seven-barrel system, Whalen said, they can brew 217 gallons at a time and upward of 50 barrels per month. Their products contain no adjuncts such as the corn or flaked rice found in many macro-brews, he said.
The bus for the hop kiln tour Sunday stopped at the brewery where participants could sample a couple of the Good Natured brews and see firsthand the facilities. When Whalen showed the group the boil kettle, he said, “This is where, in my opinion, the fun stuff happens.”
He described how he experiments with flavors and aromas in the process.
Dot Willsey, an early proponent of the county’s hops culture, hosted the group. Carl Stearns, preservation architect from the firm Crawford and Stearns Architects and Preservation Planners, led the tour. Stearns, with an interest in historic barns, was instrumental in helping to stabilize a hops house in Poolville.
“This is the last call for these hops houses,” he said, explaining that while some have not yet been identified, time wears on those that have been found and remain.
The hops houses or kilns are “architectural treasures,” Willsey said. “Madison County has more hop houses still up than any other place in New York State and possibly the Northeast.”
Tour participants were able to visit several styles of hops houses in the county and see the remains of others by the roadside.
The tour also visited hops growers like Mosher Farms in Bouckville where a fledgling hopyard is well underway. The group also stopped at Foothills Hops in Munnsville. Owned by Larry and Kate Fisher, the farm boasts nearly two acres and more than a dozen varieties of hops. Kate Fisher said there are about 7,000 plants in two different hopyards.
The couple was instrumental in establishing the Northeast Hops Alliance, a coalition dedicated to promoting hops as a specialty crop.
Hops are perennial plants grown from rhizomes and have bines as opposed to vines. Kate explained that they climb trellises by using their coarse texture without the tendrils found on vines. Because the growing tips follow the sun, she explained, the bines are trained on a trellis in a clockwise direction. They are most commonly used to enhance the flavor of beer although can be used in a variety of products.
“Many people think we got interested in hops because we like beer,” Willsey said. “We didn’t get into it for the beer. We got into it for the plants.”
Seventeen years ago, she said, there were only a few craft brewers growing only few hops plants. Now, hopyards decorate the landscapes, breweries are bubbling up and there is a new appreciation of the antique beauty of the hops house before it can vanish from Madison County’s landscape.
Dyann Nashton is a freelance writer from Oneida.