Friday, August 31, 2012

Hop Scrounging in the Helderbergs

Yeah, yeah, I know I’ve been a bit absent of late.

Although, during my little hiatus, I have been working very hard, I promise you that. Thankfully it wasn’t on anything of any real importance. It was however, all about hops. Specifically heirloom hops—and perhaps (and I say “perhaps” with some hesitation) with a connection to the New York hops industry of the 19th-century—being grown around the Helderberg hills outside Albany. Yup, that’s right I may have stumbled across the very same hops that helped to build the hop boom in New York State 150 years ago; and of which may also have been used to bitter-up my beloved—and a bit obsessed over—Albany Ale.

It's been a bit of a ride getting to these hops over the last two weeks, but I assure you, it was a ride that was well worth taking.

The whole adventure started as casual conversation at work. The New York State Museum—along with exhibits folks like me—also employs an number of natural scientists, such as Geologists. My friend Dr. Chuck Ver Straeten happens to not only be an expert on the Helderberg Escarpment, but also an all around knowledgeable resident of the Helderbergian town of Berne, New York. In our conversation about beer and New York, he mentioned that he had heard that wild hops grew in and around the jewel of the Capital Region hill towns, John Boyd Thatcher State Park, and that I should contact Dan Driscoll, a neighbor of Chuck’s who has done a good bit of Helderberg historical research, as well as some of his own hop growing.

Views from on high
Dan, it turns out, isn’t just growing your run of the mill, transplanted Pacific Northwest, Cascade or Centennial variety of hop. In fact, Dan doesn’t have any idea at all what he’s growing. Thirty years ago Earl Williamson, a retired Helderberg farmer, gave Dan a small cutting from one of his hop plants. Earl owned a small dairy and chicken farm in Berne from the 1920s to the 1970s, and at some point worked with the Shultes, a well-known hop farming family whose homestead dates back to 1800. Dan speculates that Earl got a few rhizomes from the Shultes and started his own little hop yard. To summarize, the Shultes gave to Earl and he, in turn, gave to Dan.

Enter Dieter.

In keeping with this tradition of sharing Dan has most recently passed a few plants along to my new pal Dieter Ghering. Dieter’s involvement in this hoppy lineage has really made things interesting. A freelance photographer, Dieter married into the Ten Eyck family—a good, New York-Dutch family who has operated the venerable, Indian Ladder Farms since 1915. Not only does Dieter have land, and experience, and the hops—he’s also a beer nut. His game plan is to begin supplying craft breweries and brew pubs with not only the finest Helderberg raised hops, but also the finest New York grown barley—a double threat.

Late addition: This is them...
Dieter’s interest in these mystery hops is based on sound economic reasoning and agro-sciences. My interest in them is firmly rooted in the past, yet we’re asking the exact same question—What are they? Whereas Dieter needs to determine the viability of these plants—Their potency, sustainability, etc. I want to prove that these hops are indeed the great-great-grand children of those 19th century hops.

Before I get into how we’ve decided to answer those questions, let’s look at a few things we already know. We know that hops did grow in the Helderbergs. The area is just about the eastern most border of New York’s historic hop growing region. We know what varieties of hops were the most prevalently grown in New York—English Cluster, Grape, and Pompey. The first two were the most successful, while the latter was more susceptible to disease. We know that these Helderberg hops thrive in the environment in which they are currently growing. Dieter has about 100 plants growing in his hop yard, of a number of varieties. They’re all doing fairly well, but the Helderberg hops are doing exceptional, having grown a third larger than the other plants.

So how do we answer the question? Determining potency is fairly easy. A few sample cones snipped—once their lupulin glands start producing resin—and sent of for a little lab work should answer that science-wiency bit. Genetic testing, of course, would answer the lineage question, but Dieter and I have decide to take the more scenic route, literally. Dan offered the names and address of a few Helderberg residents who live on property where hops were once grown commercially. So, Dieter and I decided to hit the road and visit a few of these places—on an adventure that Alan has now dubbed a “hop scrounge”. The hope is to locate a bine that matches Dieter’s stock on one of these properties. Finding a counterpart growing in an area known to have once had hops growing on it, suggests that the variety may (again I say hesitantly) be the feral offspring of New York’s hoppy past. It’s not 100% full proof, but it has been fun.

Last Tuesday, on our inaugural hop scrounge, I met Dieter at his house and he gave me my first look at his Helderberg hops. The plants were bushy with tri-tipped, slender leaves. The plants were about six feet tall and tapered at the top, winding their way up their twiney rig. Dotted with bright green cones, I plucked one of the flowers and rubbed it between my fingers, slightly disappointed, as they haven’t yet begun to give off their distinctive aroma. After my introduction to the hops, and a quick tour around the farm, Dieter and I climbed into his Prius and headed out into our first adventure.

The Bathrick's hop house
Our first stop was to the Clarksville, New York home of Bob and Linda Bathrick, the current owners of the Van Wie Farm—a farm complete with a hop house built in the 1880s. The Bathricks’ have lived on the property for well over thirty years, and were more than happy to show us around the area. The hop press still sits in one of the barn’s lower two rooms. Above it, light streamed through a slatted ceiling that was used to dry the hops before being pressed and sent to market. While the hop barn was impressive the view from the Bathrick’s home—a nearly 180º panorama of the upper Hudson valley, southern Vermont and western Massachusetts—was just as stunning. After our visit with the Bathrick’s, we cruised around the back roads of Clarksville, and then Voorheesville, stopping occasionally to investigate promising areas, before calling it an evening.

This past Wednesday’s hop scrounge took us further into the Helderbergs— first to Berne, and then to Knox, New York. Our initial stop was at the hill top home of Russ and Zenie Gladieux, which in turn led us to John Elberfeld and Jane McClean, the current owners of the Bebee Farm farmhouse. The Bebee Farm was the largest hop farm in Albany County, but has since been subdivided into residential plots. That didn’t stop us from meeting some of John and Jane’s neighbors, and scrounging around their back yards for any clues to a hoppy past.

There has been one little snag—a minor set back, if you will. After all this traveling through pastoral landscapes, and visiting with—unarguably—the most friendly and out-going folks I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, we have not found any hops growing on any of the properties. There has been an unusual trend, though. Nearly everyone we’ve met has said, “Oh, yeah, there was hops around here ten, or so, years ago, but not now.” It’s amazing how many times we’ve heard that, repeated.

So what do we do now?

We hop scrounge west into Schoharie County, and then into Otsego and Madison Counties. If there are no hops in Albany County, there’s got to be hops somewhere.


  1. I've located dozens of feral hops growing around Oneida and Madison county, including a few of which I believe are of the Pompey variety. Most were found in old hop fields, growing in hedges. Also, I have an authentic English Cluster and Humphreys hop plant, which has been tested and verified. The English Cluster is almost exactly the same as the Humphreys, although the latter is ready to harvest a few weeks earlier. Both are citrusy in flavor, last years E.Cluster hops are intensely apricot-y and have a very pleasant herbal quality. The Humphreys two years ago were pure grapefruit juice.

    I brewed my version of Albany Ale not long ago. It's tasting lovely. Will be dry hopping it here shortly.

    1. Excuse me, I need to send a few emails...

    2. Are the hops pictured on you blog the English Clusters?

    3. Oops. Mixed up the hops there. Cluster are citrusy-grapefruit and humphreys are apricot-y. For what it's worth.

  2. Excellent stuff, Will. When do you see "English Cluster" starting as a descriptor? I only seeing Cluster or even big and small cluster pre-1850. Also, who is testing and verifying?

    1. The link in the text—English Cluster, Grape, and Pompey—points to a publication from 1864 and 1865. But if you do a Google Book search for any of those names you get publications through out the 19th-century.

  3. I only got this!

  4. Here is what I am seeing as a distinction. In the 1880s, there is this thing called "English Cluster":
    English Cluster in 1871:

    In 1865, a helpful NY Senate report describes three varieties - English Cluster, grape cluster and Pompey:

    But in the 1860 it is just Cluster:

    You see in the progression from 1860 to 1883, the wording large and small Cluster being lost becoming called English Cluster and Grape.

  5. The Senate report calls both the English and grape "cluster" hops but omits the "cluster" in Pompey hops. Interesting. Maybe cluster is a descriptor to how the cones actually grow, rather than simply a proper name? Your article on Hops in the 1880s also notes Humphreys and Palmer as well as Canada and Californias. I did a search for Humphreys and came up with a few hits, but all were very late 19th-century. Palmer yielded one result from 1876. Humphrey and Palmers may have been latter cultivars, perhaps replacing the less successful Pompey and Red Bines?

  6. Yes, it is originally definitely descriptive. Notice also how Canada becomes "True Canada" in the writing because, first, it is just a hop brought to CNY from Canada before 1860 and then there is a false plant imported that is crap. Cluster is just the hop that grows in clusters. In the 1835 Senate report, no one mentions a variety at all.

  7. Here's where it gets interesting, are Cluster hops of today English clusters, or something all together different?