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Where hops are hip

Something's brewing in New York, where a determined group is trying to restore the state's beer credentials and where even a teetotaler can enjoy the Hops Trail.

Published November 20, 2005

[Photos: Dorinda White]
The Mohawk Valley as seen from the porch of the "gentlemen's quarters" at the historic Clausen Farms Bed and Breakfast Inn.

New York's Hops Trail includes farms, historic estates and museums where visitors can examine hop flowers and vines.

SHARON SPRINGS, N.Y. - Sure, touring California's vineyard country and stopping for tastings is all the rave now, but decades before there was significant wine production in the United States and beer was the common drink at the dining tables of working folks.

More than a century ago, New York state was the nation's leading beer producer with more than 365 breweries. Many even shipped their premium labels across the Atlantic to Europe.

Now, a group of professors, preservationists, farmers, brewers and, well, assorted beer nuts, are working to restore the Empire State's credentials as a grower of heritage hops.

Beginning in the mid 1800s, farmers in upstate New York grew an estimated 80 percent of America's hops, a perennial vine whose cone-shaped female flowers are a key ingredient in brewing beer.

Members of the Northeast Hop Alliance don't expect hops to be king again on central New York farms; hops growers in the Pacific Northwest have had a lock on the market since the Depression. But New York hops enthusiasts are betting that brewers of "boutique" beers will become a niche market for the state's hops.

Meanwhile, you don't even have to like beer to enjoy the state's Hops Trail, a string of picturesque hop houses (specialized barns) and farms, historic estates, museums, a spa town, landmark tavern, breweries, and a hops festival.

The trail cuts roughly 100 miles across the Mohawk River Valley, primarily on Route 20, starting in Sharon Springs, with occasional detours.

While hops are no longer grown near Sharon Springs, the village is as tenacious as the hops vine that is deeply rooted in its history.

With fewer than 1,000 residents, the village is located at mineral springs that once attracted Vanderbilts, Roosevelts, U.S. Grant, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde to "take the waters." At one time, there were more than 60 hotels and rooming houses.

In its hops-and-spa glory days, the village's farmers took advantage of the Erie Canal to send boatloads of hops to New York City, considered the beer capital of the nation. The cash crop made Sharon Springs a watering hole favored by the city's wealthy beer barons, who built swanky summer places and mixed business with pleasure here.

Max Schaefer, for example, of Schaefer Beer fame, owned one of the major bath houses in town. But his summer home was modest compared with Henry Clausen's estate. Clausen, a leading German brewer from New York City, built a sprawling compound. A 60-acre remnant of it remains and is the site of a charming bed and breakfast, Clausen Farms, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Visitors have the option of staying in the renovated Georgian residence of Tim Spofford, Clausen's great-great grandson, or in the 1890 Victorian "Casino," the two-story gentlemen's quarters where Clausen's beer buddies would work out in the gym, drink, gamble, smoke cigars, play billiards and bowl.

This may the only B&B in the nation with its own 19th century kegelbahn, a German-style bowling alley.

Set back behind trees, Clausen Farms is easy to breeze by as Route 20 crests on a long hill. So is "downtown" Sharon Springs, which is about a mile north of 20 on winding, two-lane Route 10.

Hops culture turns up in another village with a couple of claims to fame. Nearby Cooperstown would today be the home of the Beer Hall of Fame, if historical relevancy prevailed: The village established the baseball museum based on misinformation about Abner Doubleday, who never lived there and who now is given little credit for inventing the sport.

To get the real story on Cooperstown, tour Hyde Hall, a 50-room English-style manor. This neo-Palladian limestone house, on the northeast edge of Otsego Lake within Glimmerglass State Park, is on the hops trail because its second owner, George Hyde Clarke, was a major producer of hops.

Continue south for about 7 miles to Cooperstown. The lakeshore road will take you right through the center of town and past the famous museum.

At this point, take a quick side trip to Milford, about 8 miles south on Route 28. There you can sample the Cooperstown Brewing Co.'s Back Yard India Pale Ale - brewed with a dash of hops growing along the brewery's entrance.

Return to Cooperstown and head north on Route 80 for a mile or so to the Farmers' Museum. This living history settlement has what may be the state's only publicly accessible hops yard and authentic (1850) hop house.

The hops plants are trained to grow up stout poles about 25 feet long. The female flowers are dried in the hop house, just as they were 150 years ago.

Picking hops was hard seasonal work and growers had to bring in labor from all over the state. To compete for workers, growers frequently arranged evening harvest dances. These were called "hops," a term later used for the early rock 'n' roll dances held in high school gyms, where the kids were encouraged to protect the wooden floors by taking off their shoes, thus "sock hops."

The hop flowers were also used as a sedative, for tea or a tonic - or for stuffing in pillows. Insomniacs turned to the pungent flower cones to help them sleep, from which arose the term "hop head."

The largest brewer in the world currently is Anheuser-Busch, and back in the day, the Busch family's patriarch bought a hop farm overlooking Otsego Lake. You can see the Busch mansion on a hill on the left side of Route 80, a mile or two from the museum, as you head north to Route 20.

Cruising west on Route 20, you will pass more than 30 antique shops en route to Bouckville. Every August, that village hosts the largest outdoor antique exhibit in the state, which draws 1,000 dealers. A lucky scavenger might still snare hop tools, which have become scarce.

Stop at Bouckville's Landmark Tavern. It was built in 1850 by the son of a New Englander who planted the first hops in the region in 1808. It's a quirky stone structure with four facades, each of which housed separate businesses - sort of a 19th century minimall.

Thirsty wayfarers can still find a New York beer here, but the tavern is usually open only for dinner and closed in the winter.

Across the road is the Chenango Canal, which feeds into the Erie. The Chenango made the village a shipping hub for hops. Sixty stagecoaches a day once came to this intersection, with many passengers spending the nights in nearby canal hotels, including what is now the Bouckville Antique Corner. A 5-mile section of the tow path is open for hiking and exploration.

From Bouckville, the trail goes north on Route 46 to Oneida. In September, Oneida hosts its annual Hop Fest on the grounds of the Madison County Historical Society, in a neighborhood of impressive old homes and mansions.

The festival includes talks about hops by members of the Northeast Hop Alliance. A barn on the property, with hops climbing around the doorway, contains a two-room hop exhibit.

You can see several hop houses on a self-guided driving tour described in a brochure from Madison County Tourism.

Somewhat arbitrarily, the hops trail ends here. But there is nothing to prevent an enthusiast from heading east about 20 miles to Utica, for a tour of the oldest brewery in the state, Matt Brewing Co. It was established in 1888, making beer with Madison County hops.

Meanwhile, agricultural researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca are evaluating the best root stock to help beleaguered small farmers kick-start a wider hops comeback.

And microbrewers and brew pub owners may find that "craft beer" aficionados, every bit as fussy as wine snobs, will hit the hops trail, embracing its whispers of orange, licorice notes, spicy intrigue and complex finish.

- Hal Smith is a freelance writer living in Windsor, N.Y.


FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the following:

Northeast Hop Alliance,

Madison County Tourism,

Madison County Historical Society, for the annual Hop Fest in Oneida,

Sharon Springs,

Clausen Farms Bed and Breakfast Inn,

Hyde Hall,

The Farmers' Museum,

Cooperstown Brewing Co.,

Matt Brewing Co.,

Landmark Tavern,

For gardeners and home brewers who want to grow hops, rhizomes are available from Huey Road Hops, Leonardsville, NY 13364; 315 855-7807;

[Last modified November 18, 2005, 10:20:04]

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