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Taste of Empire - Farm to Pint

This Sunday in Hamburg, a celebration of Western New York’s beer terroir

The Buffalo Niagara Brewers Association (BNBA) announces its first annual Farm to Pint (F2P) celebration on May 18, noon-5pm at Hamburg Brewing Company. This event will showcase the establishment of a craft beer making supply chain in Western New York and the local brews that result.

The impetus for this return to local brewing and flavor is the New York State Farm Brewery Act, which establishes farm breweries that have special fee and regulatory status but requires the incremental use of New York State-produced hops, grains, and malts. Whether or not a designated farm brewery, all New York State craft breweries will benefit from this law as it opens and supports a market for local hops and grain growers and maltsters who can provide commodities that have been grown in our local soils and environment.

The French refer to the taste of the land and microclimates expressed in their regional grapes and wines as terroir. The expanded production of local brewing commodities will allow Western New York craft brewers to experiment with and develop local brews that have local flavor—indeed, a Western New York beer terroir. For example, the Northeast Hops Alliance suggests in its growers newsletters that aroma hops may do best in New York and the humid Northeast. Some suggested aroma varieties to grow in the North East include Cascade, Chinook, Centennial, Liberty, and Willamette; Nugget is a higher-alpha acid hop (bittering) that has done well in Western New York hopyards. A number of scientific articles have found that humidity-loving fungal pathogens increase a plant’s production of essential oils, which are natural defenses against fungal infection. These essential oils are responsible for unique hops aromas and flavors; the bittering alpha acids may likewise be affected. There may actually be a direct connection between our Great Lakes environment and the aroma/flavor of our local beers!

What are hops?

Hops are perennial plants in the family Cannabinaceae (yes, the marijuana family) that are prized for their essential oils (aroma) and bittering characteristics (generally known as alpha acids). In addition to providing flavor, these compounds help form a white creamy head and stabilize beer due to their natural antibacterial properties. Hops are usually grown from rhizome cuttings put directly into soil or from tissue cultures that are grown in pots in greenhouses. Hops plants have separate sexes, with most commercial hops being female. It is the female plants that produce numerous cone-like flowers containing the lupulin glands that produce the alpha acids.

What is malt?

Malt is simply barley, wheat, rye or another small grain that has been sprouted under controlled conditions and rapidly dried. The object is to use natural seed enzymes that are produced when seeds germinate to convert stored complex carbohydrates into sugars; these sugars can be used for the growing seedling or in the case of brewing, for yeast. A skilled maltster will steep grains to promote optimal germination, allow the sprouting process to proceed until the acrospire (sprout) and rootlets are about a quarter inch long, and quickly stop the process using gentle heat and high air flow to preserve the important conversion enzymes. These enzymes will be reactivated during brewing in a wort kettle to continue the conversion process. Additional flavor, color, and body can be obtained by further increasing the kiln tempertures or transferring the malt to a roaster.

If hops provide the soul of a beer, then malt provides the body. When thinking of the corporeal, one envisions the heaviness (or lightness), color, sweetness, head, and mouth-feel of beer, all characteristics contributed by a brew’s malt. Although less is known about how a region’s microclimate or local pathogens may influence the flavor characteristics of grains, climate and soil conditions are known to influence barley germination efficiency, hull thickness, enzyme, and polyphenol levels. Perhaps the most important feature of using local malts is the potential freshness, which can influence both the flavor of a beer and the conversion efficiency of the malted grain for alcohol strength. Local craft maltsters have the ability to provide fresh malts and batch malting notes that can help craft brewers in establishing a signature brew. Specialty malts are often added in smaller amounts to specifically influence or to create specific flavors or styles of beer; craft maltster’s notes on finishing temperatures and kiln air flow on these specialty additions can be used by craft brewers to fine-tune brew techniques and refine flavor profiles.

There is increasing demand for local hops, malts and specialty small grains by existing craft brewers and by the new wave of farm breweries and distilleries. This growing demend presents both New York State and the BNBA with challenges and opportunities. Cornell Cooperative Extension has stepped up its support of small grain growers and has been conducting malting barley variety trials to determine the varieties best suited to our regional climate and pathogens and to establish agronomic protocols for grower success. Bill Verbeten, a Cornell extension agronomist stationed in Lockport, is focused on these challenges. Verbeten’s assessment is that New York State malting barley production has doubled in each of the past three years (2,000 acres currently), but anticipated needs in the future will require 15,000 to 20,000 acres planted to meet sustained demand. Additionally, Bill Verbeten considers getting the raw barley to malt may be a production bottleneck in the chain. Verbeten and his Cornell colleagues have been assisting malthouses in finding potential growers of high-quality malting barley, but see a need to get more New York State malt houses into production mode. (Two local malthouses are opening this spring: New York Craft Malt in Batavia and Niagara Malt in Cambria.)

Verbeten adds, “…once more malt houses are online they can begin to provide the bridge between the brewer/distiller demand and the farmer supply. When New York State malting capacity expands, rapid growth in overall malt capacity will likely result as farmers will then expand production to meet demand.” The BNBA formed a Supply Chain Committee at its outset to provide a platform for commodity producers, brewers, distributors, and retailers to monitor links in the supply chain and to act as an advisory and educational body designed to help keep our local brews flowing.

To showcase the quality of our local and New York State hops and malts and the talent of our local brewers, seven craft brewers have prepared six unique ales for your enjoyment at Farm to Pint this coming Sunday:

• The House Dressing Amber Ale (Hamburg Brewing Company)

• Klassy American Pale Ale (Community Beer Works and Big Ditch Brewing Company)

• Honey Bunches Ale (Flying Bison Brewing Company)

• Local Pale (Gordon Biersch)

• Niagara County “Session” Pale Ale (Old First Ward Brewing Co.)

• Maple Monk Tripel (Hamburg Brewing and Resurgence Brewing)

These brews were composed of malts from New York State grown barely malted at Valley Malt as well as hops from Niagara Malts & Hops in Cambria, McCollum Orchards in Lockport, and East Prairie Hops in Collins. As Niagara Malts and New York Craft Malt begin production, expect the Buffalo Niagara appellation to be increasingly common in your pints.

Given the prodigious quantities of malt made and used in Buffalo in the halcyon days, this return to local malt and hops is both fitting and well timed. In the meantime, be sure to get out to the breweries and pubs listed above in order to get a direct Taste of Empire this coming week in Buffalo Niagara—you will be glad you did.

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