The French have long referred to the influence that a region’s soils, water and microclimate imbues to wines and agricultural products as “terroir.” The concept is now appreciated throughout the world and is evolving into a more complex understanding of the interactions of both the physical and biological factors of a region. For instance, it’s not just the influence of soils, sunlight, water and temperature on crop growth and flavor, but also relationships with mycorrhizae (fungal symbionts in the soil), pathogens, insects and even other competing plant species.
As plants are attacked by herbivores and pathogens, their chemical defenses are induced; these chemicals are repellent to some organisms, but also the flavor and aroma chemicals that humans desire. My own experience as a hops farmer, at least anecdotally, bears this out. This summer, my hops yard in Cambria, NY suffered an outbreak of leafhoppers that set my plants up for a fungal attack brought on with our hot, humid July; it was a “perfect storm.” I responded with various organic approved chemicals and biologicals (OMRI certified for those interested) to thwart these hops pests and pathogens. My plants survived, but yields were down. However, as I now harvest my hop cones, the Centennial and Chinook cones are more aromatic and citrusy than I can recall from the past two years. Over the long term, the ability of individual plants to survive and reproduce in a region’s unique microclimate and biological environment often produces locally adapted populations or land races.
This evolution of locally adapted populations to region- specific environments takes the concept of “terrior” to its ultimate expression. This of course is of great interest to WNY hops growers who are interested in finding locally hearty plants with unique flavors. The Northeast Hops Alliance, in conjunction with Cornell University, is sponsoring a “geohopping” initiative, asking all hops-interested hikers to post the GPS coordinates of “wild-growing” hops plants that they find to their website (northeasthopalliance.org). These “wild” hops may be survivors of New York’s hops- growing heyday and they may be used in breeding locally adapted, uniquely flavored hops.
In addition to local hops farmers, there is increasing interest in growing malting barley and re-learning the art and science of malting in WNY. As with most any other plant species, barley and other small grains can be expected to respond to our terroir producing local flavor or malting characteristics, including germination efficiency, hull thickness, sugar conversion potential, protein and polyphenol levels. Because the yield and quality of malting barley is strongly influenced by a range of fungal pathogens, Cornell University Extension has developed regional experimental plots to test modern and heirloom varieties of two- and six-row malting barley for suitability in our area. The search for locally adapted barley varieties is on. However, heirloom varieties from North central USA or Northern Europe may also hold genetic traits that can be bred to enhance the disease resistance and malting characteristics of WNY barleys.
Robert Johnson is biology professor at Medaille College who grows hops and malting barley in Cambria, NY. Bob is president of newly formed Niagara Malt LLC which began producing malt late in 2014. Get into Gene McCarthy’s to taste “Therapy Session”—a pale made with malts and hops produced by Niagara Malt.