Kurt Charland has big goals for the area's burgeoning hops industry, with hopes it can play a role in elevating New York craft beers to the level of New York wines.
"Beer really is the new wine," he said.
Charland, an engineer by trade, owns Bluebell Hopyard in Victor with his partners, Fred Armstrong, president of Animatus Studio, an animation and video production company in Rochester, and Rob Potter, a retired Victor Central School District teacher.
The trio started the business in spring 2012 on Armstrong's land on Cline Road.
The venture is part of an emerging trend in New York: growing hops.
According to Cornell Cooperative Extension, more than 100 acres of hops have been planted in New York in the past two years, and the New York Brewers Association estimates 140 craft breweries operate in the state. That includes roughly 10 in the Rochester area that are open or in the works.
Bluebell Hopyard has had success with local brewers. The company recently completed a picking event with Fairport Brewing Co., which is to release its Bluebell Pale Ale this season.
Bluebell also delivered 26 pounds of hops to Roc Brewing Co. for a harvest ale the brewer is releasing. In addition, the grower sold hops to Abandon Brewing Co. in Penn Yan, Yates County, and Victor Brewing Co.
Bluebell began as a hobby among friends.
The company has nearly 900 plants on two acres, yielding seven varieties of hops. Each plant yields two to four pounds of hops, and each root planted takes three years to mature.
Hops form on vine-like stalks called bines, which spiral upward around twine suspended from high wires and poles up to 18 feet tall.
It costs $15,000 an acre to get such an operation up and running, Charland estimated. The Bluebell site has an irrigation system, and the business recently invested in a hops drying machine.
The three partners are concentrating on developing the business by supplying hops to brewers, but a long-term goal is the creation of the Blue Bell Brewery.
They see demand for the hops due to the strength of the local craft beer industry, which got some state support with passage last year of the Farm Brewery Act. The new law provides tax incentives and other benefits for beer brewers.
That, coupled with the increasing popularity of buying local and the farm-to-table movement, has helped the business, proponents said.
Growing hops was big business for New York around the turn of the 19th century, and hops were the No. 1 cash crop before the Civil War, Charland noted. However, factors such as plant disease from fungus and Prohibition diminished the business's popularity.
To bolster the growth, the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva created a one-acre hop yard this summer with a $40,000 state grant.
Its purpose is twofold: to determine how hop varieties fare in the climate and to improve methods for disease and insect control.
David Combs, research support specialist at the station, manages the hop yard.
There has been an increasing interest in the hops business, he said. He noted that a recent field day at the station drew more than 300 people, many of whom were there to learn about the hops industry.
"It's taking a very similar start as the state's wine industry," Combs said. "It has a good chance to follow that route."
Craft beers could exceed the state's wine business, he said, noting the potential for varieties of craft beers using local fruits and honey, among other ingredients.
"There is the potential to have more types of beer than wine," he said.
The elevation of the region is ideal for growing hops, Combs said, and there are technologies to deal with fungal and pest problems. Another goal of the hop yard is to determine best practices for hops growers, making recommendations on matters such as site selection, integrated pest management and pesticide use.
The new state legislation should also bolster the industry, Combs noted. Under the law, New York-based brewers must use at least 20 percent local hops and other ingredients grown in New York to qualify for the benefits. That will increase to no less than 90 percent of each in 2024.
"It's a big step in the right direction for the industry in New York," Combs said.
The Farm Brewery Act was a factor in the founding of the Victor Brewery, which is slated to open in late fall, said Thomas Bullinger. He owns the business with his wife, Catherine.
A home brewer since the 1980s, Bullinger has spent the past two years working commercially. The Victor Brewery is planned for a site on Route 96.
He knew the partners at Bluebell and not only purchased hops from them but helped with the farming there.
Bluebell is one of three sources where Bullinger got hops and the only local one. The others are in Texas and Washington. The local hops are fresher, with more flavor, and since they are hand-picked, they are of higher quality, he said.
While the new state law dictates that he must buy some local hops, Bullinger believes it will benefit not only local hops growers but brewers and barley producers. He also sees opportunities to pair New York beers and wine, with tours of vineyards and hop yards.
"It will work out well," Bullinger said. "I'm betting on it."
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