COOPERSTOWN, NY — For a pair of millennials, 20-year-old Alicia Hager and her 30-year-old brother, Louis Hager III, have a surprising grasp of their family’s history and how it relates to their own future.
The Hagers hosted a group of hops growers, brewers, consultants and others interested in the beer and beverage industry on a tour of Hager Hops Farm outside Cooperstown on in August. The visit was the fourth and last stop during a field day sponsored by the Northeast Hops Alliance (NeHA) and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Madison County.
This year’s field day drew 110 participants. It started Saturday morning at Northern Eagle Beverages in Oneonta. The group was then treated to lunch at Cooperstown Brewing Company in Milford, and from there, they traveled north for a brief visit to Belgian-owned Brewery Ommegang, on the outskirts of picturesque Cooperstown.
In mid-afternoon, the participants drove up Route 80 to reach the hillside farm of Hager Hops, which was “founded” in 2013. The Hager Hops Farm is a reincarnation of a farm that belonged to the Hagers and their ancestors, the Busch family (of Anheuser-Busch brewery fame). The land was prepared for the hops last year and stock from Pacific Coast nurseries was planted on 11 acres this spring.
“My family came over from Germany in the 1800s to grow hops here,” said Alicia Hager. “We were thinking about what we could do, as a family, that is sustainable to support the local farmers…so we decided to make our past our future.”
From the early 19th century to the post-Civil War era, the south-central New York counties of Otsego, Madison, Oneida, Montgomery and Schoharie led the U.S. in hops production.
In the late 19th century, farmers in the Pacific Northwest decided to jump on the hops bandwagon, and began employing modern machinery to markedly increase production. Such competition forced down hops prices. Even if New York’s hops farmers managed to survive into the 20th century, they couldn’t withstand Mother Nature’s later fury — a devastating one-two punch of downy mildew in 1909, followed by “an extreme attack of hop aphids” in 1914. The local industry collapsed entirely in the shadow of Prohibition.
Though the original Hager Hops Farm went out of business, it remained a gentleman’s farm, Alicia Hager noted. About 20 years ago, her father, Louis Busch Hager Jr., began considering a way to resurrect the farm. The elder Hager is owner and CEO of Northern Eagle Beverages distributorship. He also bought the Cooperstown Brewing Company a few years ago.
Hager Jr. envisions taking advantage of the resurgent Upstate hops farming industry. Within a year or two, he will be able to complete the circle, growing and brewing the hops from his farm, and of course, distributing the beer. Hager’s farm grows seven varieties of hops — 11,000 plants covering 11 acres. “Next year, we’d like to have 12 acres, but it’s not definite,” Alicia Hager said. “We also plan to build a barn. We have 1,000 acres total. We might also have apple trees some day.”
Built in 1997 on the site of a former hops farm, Ommegang’s popularity sparked the 21st century hops revolution in Otsego County. The six microbreweries and wineries on the Cooperstown Beverage Trail (except for the Fly Creek Cider Mill) have sprung up within the last decade. Although owned by a company in Belgium, Ommegang has always insisted on brewing a beer to American tastes and that means using hops from the U.S., mostly from Washington State and Oregon.
A few rows of hops are growing on a hill behind the spacious 136-acre brewery and visitor center in Cooperstown, but they’re not merely to show the tourists, who arrive by the busloads every day.
“We’re fortunate that we can use these hops for research, to test batches and aromas,” said guide Jason Stone. “But five to 10 years from now, we will reduce the varieties and work in hops from local farmers. We want to increase our use of New York State grown varieties.”
Christopher and Justin Whipple of the Whipple Brothers Farm from Kendall in western New York were also invited to discuss their hops business during the field day. They sell their hops to small breweries in western New York and the Finger Lakes.
“We didn’t have any brewing experience,” said 32-year-old Christopher, three years older than Justin. “But we grew up on our uncle’s farm. We both still work fulltime on family farms in addition to our farm. We started dabbling in hops, and the more we dabbled, the more we invested in hops. We started going to NeHA events and attended our first conference in 2011. We’ve had our farm three years now. We grow a high-quality crop and I think we’ve found our niche.”
Another reason for the success of family-owned and operated hops farms has been the introduction of smaller, more manageable harvesting equipment. Steve Steenland and his father, Pete, of Steenland Manufacturing, displayed their new hops harvester. Pete is a welder and fabricator who spent three years designing the all-steel machine. He finally got it into production this year. It is about the size of a commercial riding lawn mower, making it tiny compared to the massive European harvesters used by commercial growers. The Steenland harvester retails for $11,000. It can be towed easily on a small trailer and can harvest one acre a day.