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Empire Brewing Company Rejuvenates NYS Hop Culture

15
Jul
2016

19th Century bricks lay the foundation of a modern Empire

It was 1808 when James Coolidge planted the first commercial US hop yard in the fertile terrain of Madison County less than 20 miles from the Empire Farm Brewery in Cazenovia, NY. It wasn’t long before Coolidge began transporting his hops to New York City, catalyzing an industry that would soon sweep the nation. Two hundred years later, Empire Brewing Company inspires a new chapter in Madison County’s rich hop heritage. Empire Brewing Company set an example with their Empire State Pale Ale, the first beer made with 100% NYS ingredients in over 50 years. Last week, 2 acres of Cascade hops were planted at the Empire Farm Brewery, but much more will be needed for the production of their award winning ales and lagers. Hop farms in Central New York diminished after a decade of national temperance, but local farms are finally experiencing a revival due to the recent popularity of local craft breweries.

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In the late 19th century, Central New York was producing annual hop yields of more than 21 million pounds, over 80% of the nation’s hop supply. An accommodating agricultural climate coupled with the accessibility of the Erie Canal stimulated a brewery boom in Central New York from 1850 until Prohibition. With a steady supply and an increasing demand, a strong hop culture developed in Madison County. At the peak of production in 1890, hops sold for $1 a pound. Men, women and children would temporarily leave their factory jobs to move onto hop farms for 3 weeks of harvest season in late August. Flowers were picked from the hop bine and then transferred to “hop houses” where the hop cones would be dried and processed. At night, laborers would play music and socialize in the hop houses, a festivity known as a “hop dig”. Hop houses from the 1800’s can still be found along the Madison County Hop Trail.

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With over 20 breweries in Syracuse, NY, brewing was the second largest industry in the state pre-prohibition, second only to salt mining. Haberle Brewery, the longest surviving local Syracuse brewery, was established in 1857. Known for their popular “Congress” lager, Haberle produced as much as 100,000 BBLs of beer annually. When the National Prohibition Act was passed in 1920, production came to a halt. The price of hops dropped to 10 cents a pound, and the very last hop yard in Madison County shut down in 1950. Haberle Brewery shifted to non-alcoholic beverages during prohibition, but unable to maintain the new business model, they finally closed their doors in 1961. The Haberle brewery was dismantled 5 years ago, but a stockpile of bricks survived and Empire Brewing Company jumped at the chance to repurpose them. Now, this piece of history constitutes the outdoor patio at the Empire Farmstead Brewery, paying homage to local craft culture before them.

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After 50 years, Foothill Farms in Munnsville, NY was the first to reintroduce local hops to Madison County in 2001. Other farmers started to catch on and by 2010 there were 35 acres of commercial hop yards in New York State. The Farm Brewery Law passed in 2013 allowed hop farmers to produce and sell beer on site, and also incentivized brewers to source their ingredients from NYS. Today, New York boasts over 300 acres of hops, 280 breweries and 900,000 BBLs of beer per year. New York State is well on its way back to becoming a leader of the brewing industry with the support of local breweries like Empire Brewing Company and local farmers.