Friday, October 25, 2013

The Ups and Down of Farm-to-Glass

I have my reservation about New York's Farm Brewery law. In theory, it's great. I suppose I'm just wary of the politicization of beer.

It does have some good initiatives. The legislation creates a "Farm Brewery" license which allows farms to sell New York State labeled beer and other alcoholic products at their retail outlets. The intent is for these farms to become Farm Breweries (or Farm Wineries or Farm Distilleries). It also encourages existing breweries—including those not necessarily on farms—to buy locally produced raw ingredients. A point of clarification, the license isn't a brewing license—that still goes through the State Liquor Authority—but it does make it legal to sell beer (and wine and liquor) where it was illegal to do so, just a year ago. It also allows these new farm breweries to operate restaurants which serve New York State labeled beer—as well as allowing for tastings at these restaurants. The new Farm Breweries can also sell brewing related equipment, souvenirs and other products similar to those allowed under the existing Farm Winery statute.

Most notable, however, are the tax credits for craft brewers introduced with the Farm Brewery legislation—a credit worth 14 cents per gallon for the first 500,00 gallons produced in New York and 4.5 cents per gallon for the next 15 million gallons produced in the state, for those New York breweries producing less than 60 million gallons or less a year. The law also exempts breweries producing less than 1,500 barrels annually, from paying the SLA's $150 per year brand label fee. Lastly, it eases the tax filling requirements for the farm brewery business.

So what are the Farm Brewery license qualifiers? According to a July press release from Governor Andrew Cuomo's office:

In order to receive a Farm Brewery license, the beer must be made primarily from locally grown farm products. Until the end of 2018, at least 20% of the hops and 20% of all other ingredients must be grown or produced in New York State. From January 1, 2018 to December 31, 2023, no less than 60% of the hops and 60% of all other ingredients must be grown or produced in New York State. After January 1, 2024, no less than 90% of the hops and 90% of all other ingredients must be grown or produced in New York State.

That all sounds reasonable, right?

There's just one catch.

New York's agricultural infrastructure is woefully under equipped to meet even the first 20%/20% quota. Neither barley or hops are—or even can be—grown in great enough quantities in New York, to meet that requirement. Especially since the license is not restricted to breweries located only on farms. Matt Brewery, alone, could easily consume all of the barley and hops grown in New York.

Barley doesn't grow reliably in this climate. It thrives in cool, dry climates like in northern parts of the U.S.' Midwest and Canada. New York wheat farmers are reluctant to take the risk on growing barley. And who could blame them? Wheat grows wonderfully in this state, and there's an enormous demand for it. Why would they risk taking a loss on barley? The expectation for a variety of barley that will grow reliably in New York (from what I've heard anecdotally) is years away.

What about hops, you ask? Hop farms are opening all the time, right?

Yes, they are, but again infrastructure is an issue. Hops harvesters and pellitizers are expensive, and realistically New York's hops farms are small, in fact many are hobby farms. New York grown hops are expensive. The farms in the Pacific Northwest are ginormous, and ginormoty keeps cost down. Hops are also a uni-tasker, they are grown for one purpose. Granted the craft-beer biz is booming, but the demand for hops is still a fraction when compared to the demand for other New York grown crops—like corn and apples.

I'm not saying the farm brewery law is dead in the water, but like most popular-topic laws in New York State, I think it could have been thought out better. I'm not sure how much research—let alone discussions with brewers or farmers—was done before it was proposed. What I fear the most is that this is all for the sound-bite. A showy-show which leaves participants out in the cold when it comes down to it. I wouldn't put it past New York's politicians to jump on the craft beer bandwagon to garner votes, and then not follow through.

Okay, enough of the Negative Nancy bit.

How does the farmer brewer overcome these odds?

It just so happens that my pal Rebecca Platel of the Carey Institute for Global Good had a pretty good idea a while back. The Carey Institute was developed around the philanthropist and businessman William Polk Carey’s defining principle of “Doing Good While Doing Well”. Polk's ideas of bringing together innovative and dynamic people from around the world to seek creative solutions to the most pressing challenges of the day is the cornerstone of the Institute. Located at the Carey Conference Center—a world-class, state-of-the-art retreat, meeting, and conference center in Rensselaerville, New York—the Institute is purpose-built to bring people together to discuss ideas—so why not brewer's and farmers?

So what was Rebecca's idea?

Open New York's first two-barrel, model farm brewery on the grounds of the conference center. Through business incubation, educational programs, and agri-tourism workshops the Carey Center will address some of the problems and limitations addressing New York's "farm-to-glass enterprises". Rebecca aims to make the Carey Institute's Farm Brewery Project a hub for collaboration and aims to connect farmers, brewers, distillers and consumers—all focused on overcoming the barriers that now limit New York's potential farmers, brewers and farm breweries.

Still need convincing?

What if I told you the Center was planning on housing their model brewery in a Dutch Barn built the 1760s? That's right, the Carey Center has partnered with Albany engineering and construction management firm, CSArch, to move a New World Dutch Barn, donated by Randolph J. Collins, 20 miles from Guilderland, New York to Rensselaerville. CSArch, isn't just going to move the structure, they're planning on upgrading the 250 year-old structure by adding solar, steam and possibly bio-mass systems to the building. If you're interested in learning more about the project, contact the Carey Institute at 518.797.5100

Whatever the hurdles there are with the farm brewery law, they're sure not going to stop Rebecca and her Dutch Barn model brewery from trying to get over them.


  1. If wheat grows well but barley doesn't, they could always brew wheat beers! What about other local grains? Maybe a grist including (say) 20% local wheat for now, rising to 60% and then 90% local grains once suitable barley varieties have been identified.

    1. You're right and I've actually had conversations with Rebecca about that. It all comes down to whether or not breweries—specifically those not located on farms—are willing to develop lines of wheat-forward beers. And with the popularity of some specific styles, that might be a hard sell.

  2. At least two of the farmers who grow grains for Valley Malt in Hadley, MA are in New York. Their local malthouse model is being imitated throughout the country. More and more Massachusetts breweries are using their malts and marketing their beers as locally sourced. I guarantee this will be the case in New York soon enough. Maybe New York needs a maltster to buy the grains? Or local breweries could open their own malthouse?

    Valley Malt is hosting a Farmer Brewer weekend seminar in January 2014 if people are interested in finding out more:

    And the Northeast Hop Alliance has a seminar on December 7:

    It will take a few years to ramp up but I guarantee this will happen.

  3. I don't know much about how barley grows in this climate, but if local farmers can't/aren't willing to take the risk growing it, meeting these future local ingredient quotas will be difficult to say the least.

    It's not realistic for 1 farm brewery, moreless multiple farm breweries to be successful brewing only wheat-forward beer. Even if one were able to be successful, most wheat beers are made up of 40-50% wheat malt. The other 50-60% is made up of barley and other specialty malts. You still may have a problem filling the local ingredients quota, especially by 2024.

  4. Grodziskie/Grätzer is 100% wheat. And what about reviving the wheat beers that were brewed in early colonial New York?