The Hops of Madison County

Brandy Bones

Benjamin Franklin once said: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Colgate’s drink of choice has been making us happy for some 5,000 years – about as long as bread has been around to soak up its effects. Occupying a small niche in recent beer history is our very own Madison County. In 1808, two years after the founding of Madison County, James D. Coolidg planted the first hopyard in New York State near the Village of Madison. Eight years later, Coolidg traveled to New York City and sold the first Madison County hop crop earning $2,000 for two tons. The burgeoning industry took off in 1822 when an English hop shortage pushed prices up making it more cost efficient to brew beer using American hops. With the construction of the Erie Canal in 1825, a market to the west opened up. In an 1872 history of Madison County, Luna M. Hammond noted, “During the subsequent 40 years, the town of Madison was largely indebted to the hop culture for its steadily growing wealth; so marked and substantial was the advance among hop growers, that travelers were always struck with evidences of it on every farm where one or more acres of stacked poles were to be seen.” By 1849, New York State created about 70 percent of the entire national hop output; by 1859 it produced about 88 percent. Throughout the nineteenth century, the counties of Otsego, Madison, Oneida, Schoharie, Franklin, Montgomery and Ontario were the most important areas for hop production in the U.S. Some innovative credit is due to Madison County farmers for their inventions of standard hop poles and a hop picking machine combining the process of picking and separating hops into one easy step. Each harvest season from late August to mid-September brought itinerant workers to the area, and all children and able hands could be found out in the fields picking hops. In Lebanon Hill Tales and Anecdotes, brothers Harry and Aaron Hart set down their memories of the area where their family had been farming since 1820. To them “it seemed like it was time to write about the local happenings and places before they became too faded in memory.” In one tale they describe the harvest season. “The ‘thrashin’ (not threshing) as it was always called, locally, was done in the late fall. The grain was either put in the barn or stacked. The cleaner, or separator as the threshing machine was called, was most often set up on the barn floor, and a steam engine belted to it. Later, of course, the gasoline engine was used. There would be ten or twelve men to work, neighbors and hired men to do a job. The ‘cleaner’ had to be fed by hand by the ‘feeder’ standing on the machine. Each bundle had to be placed head first and the band cut and then shoved into the throat of the cleaner. The bundles had to be spaced just right so there was an even flow of straw to the ‘cleaner.’ Wherever you worked you would soon become a colorful character in a short time; everyone getting black enough from the dust for a minstrel show.” By World War I, a strong temperance movement and increased competition from the West coupled with rampant blue mold infestation of the crops relegated the hop industry, as so many others in this region, to the annals of the past.Nonetheless, one brewing company still depends on local hops – the flower that makes beer bitter – to bring us their brews. Of the 2,000 independent brewing companies making beer in America in the year 1900, fewer than 20 remain in business today. Matt Brewing Company of Utica has survived the test of time distributing its Saranac brews since 1885. The brewery was founded by F.X. Matt, a German born immigrant who quickly made it the largest and most successful of the 12 breweries operating in Utica at the time. The Matt Brewing Company is now operated by the third and fourth generations of the Matt Family and distributes 12 different kinds of Saranac beer from India Pale Ale and Lager to Black Forest and Mocha Stout. For many of us who have reached legal age, escaped the confines of a dorm and as a result, developed a taste for the finer beverages in life, a six pack of Saranac has become a regular staple. And for more years than anyone can remember, Students for Environmental Action (SEA), under the noble guise of saving us from global warming while getting students inebriated, has been serving up Saranac brews at the now infamous Save the Ales celebration. The connection between global warming and a party about beer is perhaps tenuous, but for a moment, bear with me and fellow environmentalists. The spiraling climactic changes resulting from humankind’s use of fossil fuels, which, since the beginning of the 20th century, has increased the world’s mean surface temperature 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit, effects the growing of hops. Hops, so essential to our IPAs, are threatened by global warming which could lead to drier summers and an outbreak of insects which feed on hops. The majority of hop production has moved to the Pacific Northwest but as residents of Central New York, no doubt inspired by our rich history as hop producers and our love for the hops that make possible our local Saranac brews, Save the Ales remains. The event, hosted last semester in the Hall of Presidents, was the most successful to date. T-shirt, sweatshirt, and beer sales brought in over $2,000 and all proceeds went directly towards Native Energy, a company that builds wind farms. Another proceed came from the Saranac Brewery who donated 40 VIP tours to SEA. Students enjoyed an unlimited supply of any and all of the Saranac beers as well as a tour of the brewery grounds. Brewery tours are given regularly September through May on Fridays and Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and reservations are advised. Located down the road in Utica, you’re advised to follow the aroma of fresh malts and Hops for a tour that offers a complete look at the brewing and bottling process. Best of all, you’re free to sip your favorite Saranac beer on the tour. While you do, you can think on the hops and history within the bottle.