Experience Cortland Visits Willet Hop & Grain
As a person who know very little about growing the hops used in the brewing process, despite visiting the Guinness Factory six times, I was excited to make the trip to Willet Hop & Grain Farm to learn more.
In the southernmost part of Cortland County I knew I was getting close to my destination when I noticed buckwheat growing on both sides of the road leading to the farm. But where were the hops? Then, rising from the hills were the towering hops vines or bines as they are known in the trade.
I met up with Chuck Rhoades, the owner of Willet Hop & Grain, and a brewer from Cooperstown Brewing Company to take a tour of the farm. Climbing into Chuck’s truck, we drove out to the fields to see the hops up close. The 17 acres of hops are impressive as the plants are set up to grow to 18 feet tall. Each hop plant strand is carefully strung by hand to a wire that then rises up to attach to a cross wire which creates rows of towering hops vines. There is more than one type of hops grown at Willet Hop & Grain and each row is labeled accordingly. The hops are watered by a 50,000 ft. irrigation system that takes water from a nearby pond.
As we drove in between the rows of hops, Chuck reached out and took a hop cone. He then went on to explain how you know when a hop cone is ready for harvest. First you take the hop cone and give it a light squeeze and then you roll it in your hands and smell it. Next, you roll the hop right next to your ear. The hop should be springy, dry, and papery on the tips, and sticky to the touch. Once we split open the hop cone you can see the lupulin, the visible thick yellow substance. If it was ready for harvest, this would be on the outside of the cone. The smell of these hop cones, still some ways away from harvest had a distinct beer smell to them.
During the tour I was surprised to learn Willet Hop & Grain grow more than hops for beer. The buckwheat I noticed on my drive in can be used for gluten free brews as it’s a nutseed that is naturally gluten free. Buckwheat is also used for their buckwheat honey. Willet Hop & Grain also grows rye and barley used by distilleries, like Dragonfyre Distillery, Cortland’s very own distillery. Willet Hop & Grain also produces maple syrup from their local maple trees.
The main building on the property is where the hop harvesting equipment is stored. One piece in particular is a massive hop picking machine. Originally built in 1974 in Germany, the previous owner had this machine in operation in Wisconsin. It is a beast. It attaches to one of their massive tractors and the hop strands fed into it and the machine removes each hop cone.
Chuck Rhoades got started brewing beer as a hobby with friends and always talked about opening a brew pub. “I became very intrigued by New York’s dominance in the hops industry over a century ago, and decided I wanted to join the many others who are working diligently to return this state to a prominent position in the business.”
Yes, New York State did in indeed dominate the hop industry over 130 years ago. New York State had the largest hop industry in the country until Prohibition in the 1920s drove the industry out to the Pacific North West. Today, the industry is making a comeback under NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo. “Craft breweries are a significant sector in our agricultural and tourism industries, and when they do well, our economy does well. I encourage New Yorkers to sample all of what our craft brewers have to offer.”
New York State Craft Beer has a tremendous impact on our state economy with 326 operating breweries (4th largest in the United States) generating $525 million in craft beer tourism and providing 12,564 full time jobs.
Today, Willet Hop & Grain supplies a number of NYS breweries and even a few in Pennsylvania. Founded in 2014, it has taken a lot of work towards the 3 years it takes for the hops vines to mature and become productive. Willet Hop & Grain looks forward to supplying the craft beer industry and to contributing to the rebirth of the hops industry in Central New York.
New York State Craft Beer has a tremendous impact on our economy with 326 operating breweries (4th in the United States), $525 million in craft beer tourism, and providing 12,564 full-time jobs.