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Savoring New York’s hop trail

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by Hal Smith

Milwaukee? Portland? Fuggedaboutit! More than a century ago, New York state was the nation’s leading beer producer, with more than 365 breweries, including many that exported their premium labels to Europe.

The Mohawk River Valley grew 80 percent of America’s hops in the mid-1800s. Now, a group of professors, preservationists, farmers, brewers and assorted beer nuts are working together to restore the Empire State’s beer credentials as a grower of heritage hops.

Members of the Northeast Hop Alliance don’t expect hops to become 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 hop enthusiasts are betting that brewers of boutique beers will become a niche market for the state’s crop.

Meanwhile, you don’t even have to drink beer to enjoy the Hops Trail, a string of picturesque hop houses (specialized barns) and farms, historic estates, museums, a spa town, a landmark tavern, breweries and a hop festival. The trail cuts roughly 100 miles across the central part of the state, primarily on Route 20, starting in Sharon Springs in the east, with short occasional detours, to Bouckville in the west, then north to Oneida.

While hops are no longer grown near Sharon Springs, the village is just as tenacious as the vine. With fewer than 1,000 residents, the village takes its name from pungent mineral springs, and was once one of the most successful spa towns in the Northeast. In its hops-and-spa glory days, Sharon Springs’ farmers took advantage of the Erie Canal to send boatloads of hops, a cash crop, to New York City. Hops made Sharon Springs a watering hole for the city’s wealthy beer kings, who came to the area to mix business with pleasure while staying in their swanky summer places.

Max Schaefer, for example, whose Schaefer Beer would one day be a sponsor of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the early days of televised baseball, owned one of the major bathhouses in town. But his summer home was modest compared to Henry Clausen’s estate. Clausen, a leading German brewer from New York City, then beer capital of the United States, built a sprawling compound, a 60-acre remnant of which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Downtown” Sharon Springs, which is north on Route 10, about a mile downhill from its intersection with Route 20, once had more than 60 hotels and rooming houses that hosted the Vanderbilts, Roosevelts, Ulysses S. Grant, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, the Macys and others who flocked to Sharon Springs to “take the waters.” Although the town’s hops-and-spa glory days are gone, Russian immigrants, attracted by the mineral springs and property values, now own summer homes there. Preservation-minded entrepreneurs, artists, theater people and others attracted by the town’s stock of rambling fixer-uppers refuse to let the town completely wither. The American Hotel, for example, has won honors for its restoration work, and has a fine dining room. (You may recognize the owners from their recurring appearances on Planet Green’s “The Fabulous Beekman Boys.”)

Hops history turns up in another village with two claims to fame. Cooperstown, a half-hour southwest of Sharon Springs, would today be the home of the Beer Hall of Fame, if historical relevancy determined where museums are built. Instead, the town established the Baseball Hall of Fame based on misinformation about Abner Doubleday, who never lived in the area.

To get the real story on Cooperstown, start at Hyde Hall, a 50-room manor house and one of the last great early American country homes. 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, blueblood George Hyde Clarke, was a major producer of hops. (Clarke’s English father attended Eton with the Duke of Wellington.) This is perhaps the last remaining public example of the style in which a hops king lived.

If too much trail dust has worked up your thirst, you may be excused for a quick side trip to Milford, about 8 miles south on Route 28. There, Cooperstown Brewing finishes its Back Yard ale with hops grown at the brewery. Return to Cooperstown and head north on Route 80 for a stopover at the Farmer’s Museum, a mile from the village. Here, it becomes even clearer that, as much as they may seem inseparable today, beer came before baseball.

The Farmer’s Museum, a “living history” settlement, has what may be the state’s only publicly accessible hops yard and authentic 1850’s hop house. There, hops are trained to grow up stout poles 25 feet long; after a harvest, they’re dried in the hop house just as they were 150 years ago. (Picking hops was hard work, and growers had to bring in additional labor by train from all over the state. Competing for workers, growers frequently arranged evening harvest dances called “hops,” a term used in the 1950s classic rock hit, “Let’s Go to the Hop.”)

The Busch beer dynasty (Anheuser-Busch) still has a strong branch in Cooperstown, where the family 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. At Route 20, turn west toward Bouckville. Before arriving there, you can detour and take a self-guided driving tour to hop houses “in the rough,” described in a self-guided driving brochure by Madison County Tourism. Within five miles of Bouckville, you will pass more than 30 antiques shops, the most pleasing legacy of Route 20’s heyday. Every August, the village hosts the largest outdoor antiques exhibit in the state, which draws 1,000 dealers. A lucky scavenger might still snare hop tools and ephemera, which have become scarce.

Stop at Bouckville’s Landmark Tavern, 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 polygonal structure with four facades, each of which housed separate businesses, making it a 19th century mini-mall. 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, one of the feeders of the Erie. The Chenango made the village a shipping hub for hops. Sixty stagecoaches a day once came to this intersection; many travelers stayed in the nearby canal hotels, including what is now the Bouckville Antique Corner. If you’re not an antiquer, a five-mile section of the towpath is open for hiking and exploration.

From Bouckville, the trail heads north on Route 46 to Oneida, which hosts its annual Hop Fest on September 16-18 at the Madison County Historical Society, headquartered in a Gothic Revival cottage on Main Street. A barn on the property, with hops climbing around the doorway, contains a two-room hop exhibit which, though small, covers the bases.

Somewhat arbitrarily, the hops trail ends here. But there is nothing preventing enthusiasts from heading east about 20 miles to Utica, for a tour of the state’s oldest brewery, F.X. Matt Brewing, which makes Saranac Beer in the shadows of the Adirondacks. It was established in 1888, using Madison County hops.

New York’s hops renaissance is young but growing, supported by the popularity of microbreweries, home brewing and the “locavore” movement that embraces local foods. And “craft beer” aficionados, every bit as fussy as wine snobs, can be counted upon to hit the trail in search of its whispers of orange, licorice notes, spicy intrigue, a dash of history and a complex finish.

[photo: Vaclav Mach]

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