Walking into most breweries these days, you’d assume there’s an arms race for crafting the hoppiest beer around. Though a majority of IPAs on tap at local breweries like Roscoe Beer Co. or Yonkers Brewing maintain an IBU no higher than 75, there’s more than a few brews out there with IBUs skyrocketing into the thousands; these hop bombs are so bitter they’ll turn you into a real-life Wally Warhead.
Clearly the burgeoning craft-brew scene demands an abundance of hops, and with close to 40 breweries in the Hudson Valley region there’s a hefty demand here, too. So who’s supplying?
Well, if there’s one person to thank for rising to the occasion, it’s Justin Riccobono of Hudson Valley Hops (HVH), whose mission is to “help the local craft beer industry access quality and consistent hops from the region.”
Riccobono, a Fishkill native, has his own hops farm near his family’s Gardiner bed and breakfast, Inn at the Ridge, but his main focus is providing other Hudson Valley farms with consultation services through Hudson Valley Hops. Both new farmers and farmers looking to expand their crop portfolio come to Riccobono for advice on designing and managing their hops yards and then distributing their yield to local brewers.
Riccobono didn’t become involved with agriculture until 2006 when he moved back into the Hudson Valley after working as a fiber optic network engineer in Manhattan. His curiosity in the hops industry was sparked, coincidentally enough, at Beacon’s craft beer restaurant The Hop (now closed), after glancing at a picture of a New York hops yard from 1872. Noting a lack of farms in the region, Riccobono pitched his idea for a hops yard to his friend Carmine Istvan, who had just bought a closed Dutchess County garden center. The pair planted two acres of hops in the spring of 2013, starting Dutchess Hops, the first commercial hop farm in the Hudson Valley.
By the fall of 2014, Riccobono’s dedication to the hops industry as a whole informed his decision to leave Dutchess Hops. He believed his next step involved helping other farms start their own hops projects after an influx of farmers contacted him for advice; with that, Hudson Valley Hops was born. Since then, Hudson Valley Hops has built five hop yards in the Hudson Valley, the most recent in Warwick, and provides management services to about 20 others.
Hops are climbing plants, growing up trellises for greater exposure to light
According to Riccobono, there are approximately 20 acres in the region dedicated to hops farming. “That’s really only going to satisfy maybe four or five breweries,” he explained. While that may seem extremely insufficient, it’s important to remember back in 2010 there were only 15 acres used for that purpose in the entire state.
New York was a hops-production capital in the 19th century, churning out 21 million pounds in 1880 alone. But pests and disease got the best of the Empire State’s hops industry, and Prohibition was a nail in the coffin as farmers sought out other crops for profit.
Fast forward to 2012 when Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced farm brewery legislation, providing breweries with tax incentives and other benefits for using locally grown farm products and ultimately bringing hope back to a promising industry. To qualify, at least 20 percent of the hops used in brewing must be grown in New York, but by 2018 this will increase to 60 percent, and 90 percent by 2024. Riccobono estimates there are 7 to 10 breweries in the Hudson Valley region that qualify as a “farm brewery.” Growth is already very apparent, with about 400 acres statewide dedicated to hops production as of 2015.
And with growth comes room for leisure. As with the wine industry, the uptick in craft brewers is generating interest in the process behind the scenes. Riccobono has been interested in agritourism for some time, having helped Dutchess Hops hold their first Hoptember beer and food festival in 2013. Riccobono is even planning to turn his family’s Inn at the Ridge into an agritourism bed and breakfast, where visitors can learn about hops farming and tour surrounding yards.
Still, with 240 craft breweries spanning New York State, up from 95 in 2012, hops production has a long way to go until it meets its own demand. But for Riccobono, who hopes to see the Hudson Valley have close to 100 acres dedicated to hops in the next five years, we are definitely headed in the right direction.
“There’s a lot of great beer being produced in the region, we’re kind of at the beginning of a golden age,” says Riccobono. “And within the next 10 years I think we’ll be in a really good position as a major producer and provider of a lot of local products in high demand internationally.”
Interested in more Hudson Valley craft beer coverage? Check out our Craft Beer Guide!