by Erik Wollschlager
It has certainly been a great year for the craft brew industry, even locally here in Western New York. Preliminary reports show that nearly 700 new craft beer breweries opened nationwide in the last year, and several here locally. As the growth of the industry of brewing continues, it only stands to reason that there would be a marked increase in the demand for the ingredients that are used to make beer, most notably, grains and hops. Our contemporary global economy, combined with ever-evolving technology, has made the world a smaller place, but still, the craft brew industry stands as an anomaly. While global options are certainly available for grains and for hops, brewers and drinkers alike are moving toward a system that provides for locally sourced ingredients, and the WNY area is no different. Several events over the last year have highlighted the farm-to-pint experience, which has only served to increase the demand for beer brewed in conjunction with local farmers. As we are hitting the final, crucial weeks before the harvesting seasons, some local growers were able to weigh in on the state of farming in WNY.
Genesee County farmer and former professor Fran Domoy spoke about the process of becoming a grain farmer, and he made an important statement regarding farming for craft beer. When a local farmer makes a decision to grow products for the craft beer industry, their ultimate goal is two-fold: to grow a product that meets current brewing standards and to grow a consistent product that brewers can come to depend on. This can be difficult in Western New York. The high humidity can lead to diseases and fungus that can ravage an entire crop, so one must be careful to cultivate varieties of grain that are resistant to such environmental mishaps. This year, though, it is the weather that is causing the most trouble for farmers. According to Fran, the unusually wet summer has led to a stunting in the maturation of the barley and rye grown on his farm. While he will begin to harvest this week, much of the crop is still ‘green,’ which is to say that it is not quite ripe and therefore not quite ready to be picked. The goal is to harvest the grains and diminish the moisture content to 13 percent before shipping it to the malthouse, and obviously, this is more difficult with a grain that is still green and still growing. Fran anticipates a good harvest, though, and is confident that local brewers will be able to use his crop as soon as the malting process has been completed.
Bob Johnson is a farmer out of Lockport. His Niagara Malt farm produces barley and other grains, but also grows hops for local use. Unfortunately, hop growers are experiencing similar problems as the local grain farmers. “I think 2015 will go down as a challenging hops growing year and yields strongly dependent on growing practices,” Johnson said in a recent e-mail. “May was a dry month for early hops development and June thru mid-July [were] wetter than optimal. Climatic factors seemed to promote population outbreaks of leaf hoppers and now Japanese beetles. Wet conditions are also optimal for the infection and spread of various fungal pathogens, including Downey and Powerdy mildews that have been reported around the state. Hop growers that are spraying regularly with fungicides and insecticides will be well served this season. A new class of Organic approved bio-fungicides have saved my hops.” Johnson says he’s begun to harvest his crop, which is the earliest harvest he’s ever had. He expects his yield to be about ten percent lower than last season, but overall, the quality of the hop will stand out. Buffalo’s hallmark persistence and tenacity will persevere.
2015 has been a great year so far, and Buffalo is making the most of every moment. Our local growers are out in their fields to bring brewers the best possible grains and hops, so that next year’s beers will exceed the excellence of those brewed this year. The growth of the local economy is firmly strapped to the backs of these fine farmers and they’re happily bearing the load as they work their fields. The weather has made farming for the brewing industry a bit more difficult than usual, but farmers have adapted and made the changes necessary to continue to grow a quality product. As we move forward, we can be confident that the local ingredients that make their way into our taps are in good hands. As brewers and farmers continue to work together to create unique and inspired beers, Buffalo will continue to enjoy the fruits of their labor.