MORRISVILLE, NY — Charlie Matt conducts his hops business in Switzerland, but he nevertheless felt it was vital to attend the annual Northeast (NeHA) Hops Alliance at Morrisville State College in central New York this past December. Matt, the president of C. Matt GmbH in Zurich and former global director at SABMiller, was invited to give two presentations on maintaining hops quality. Farmers, brewers and vendors sought him out frequently for his knowledge of the world hops market.
The day-long conference was sponsored by Cornell University and Cooperative Extension of Madison County. For the first time, NeHA invited commercial sponsors from F.X. Matt-Saranac Brewery (Utica), Empire Brewing (Syracuse), Cooperstown Brewing, Ommegang Brewery (also Cooperstown) and Brown’s Brewing of Troy. The sponsors were also asked to give an evaluation on 20 jars of Cascade, Fuggle, Centennial Willamette, Newport, Wild Adirondack and other hops varieties grown and offered for sale by area farmers. Some of the samples were in their original nugget form, while others were pelletized.
The Northeast Hop Alliance, organized in 2001, has some 300 members and is a broad-based coalition of farmers, vendors home and commercial brewers, historians and academia. Its mission is to explore the feasibility of re-establishing commercial specialty hops production in New York and the northeast. The conference featured a concurrent series of lectures directed at novice farmers, plus more technical topics for brewers. These topics included a rundown of legal regulations from the New York State Liquor Authority and a look at the latest hops research at Cornell’s Agricultural Research Station. The farmers and brewers also attended lectures on recognizing, preventing and treating pests, the science of quality yeast production, establishing cell counts in yeast and stocking a hop yard.
NeHA President Tom Barse, a hops farmer from Baltimore, MD, gave a short meeting after lunch and answered questions. He said his meeting was basically a “pep talk” for members. The organization has grown so large that he was also asking for volunteers to serve on committees.
The hops business (and NeHA) is thriving, Barse said in a later interview. “We probably have 150 producing acres and about 300 members from Canada throughout the northeast and to the southeast. It’s possible we’ll be up to 250 acres by next year.” Several timely occurrences have combined to spark the hops expansion. “I think it’s a confluence of different events,” Barse explained. “There was the locavore and farm to table movement, the increasing growth of the craft beer industry. People (and restaurants) are more inclined to buy local ingredients and hoping to reduce their carbon imprint. It’s all come together.”
Check State Websites for Licensing Regulations
Tom Donahue, special counsel for the New York State Liquor Authority, provided legal guidance in brief, to brewers on obtaining specific licenses for brewing beer at home, how to offer tastings on their premises and regulations for packaging, labeling and transporting their alcoholic beverages. In a later interview, he noted that the state began to change its perception of the home and farm craft brewing business only in recent years. The state legislature passed its first farm distillery bill in 2007 and in 2011 added a modification for farm wineries. He said New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo held his first wine and beer summit in Oct. 2012 and recognized the link between encouraging new businesses and attracting tourists. In 2013, farmers were able to obtain licenses for brewing wine and beer, and in 2014, the farm cidery law was passed.
American Beer Attracting Acclaim in Europe
One could speculate that NeHA’s growing popularity had attracted the attention of brewing consultants and executives worldwide, such as Matt. Surprisingly, European brewers are actually following developments in the U.S. hops industry. Matt said Europeans are impressed with the innovations and diversification in American craft breweries and trying to emulate them. Matt had a personal as well as a business interest in coming to Morrisville. His brother, Fred, is the current president of the 186-year-old Matt Brewery in the brothers’ hometown. Like many of his siblings, Charlie Matt, a Dartmouth graduate forged his career in the outside world. Some of them like Fred and his uncle, Nick Matt, the current CEO of Matt Brewery, eventually returned to their roots in Utica.
Charlie Matt has been in the hop business for more than 20 years working on both sides of the trade, at all points of the supply chain. He started with John I. Haas Co. in 1992 and became global head of trading. He spent five years in China and worked in other hops growing regions including Tasmania and Argentina. He joined Miller Brewing Co. in 2002 to manage the Watertown Hops Co. in Wisconsin. He transferred to Switzerland in 2010 to head up global hops procurement for SABMiller and to manage hops operations in South Africa.
Matt has been a member of the Hops Research Council since 2000 and was president 2010-2012. In September 2013, after leaving SABMiller, Matt started his own consulting business. His company provides advice, guidance and support for breweries in hop processing. He said he is an adviser to a Belgian brewer (fortunately not Ommegang, which is a Matt Brewery rival in New York State).
During his morning lecture, Charlie Matt discussed how to ensure quality in hops production, including picking, drying, handling, bailing, cooling, cold storage, mixing, pelletizing and packaging. He referred to these steps as systems. “Systems ensure quality!” he emphasized. For the sake of the customer, brewers must pay attention to documentation, which has to be tied to sanitation, hygiene and traceability.
A producer must not overlook the importance of the individual hops grower, Matt added. He or she “is the biggest difference (based on) experience, diligence, passion and attentiveness.” Among the challenges to ensuring quality in a cottage brewing industry are third-party evaluations, he said. How is the hops industry perceived by the public and what are its standards and certifications? “It’s a balancing act,” Matt said.
In addition, the industry is coming to rely more on support from the state and academic communities in building and certifying the hops infrastructure. Cornell University and the University of Vermont are advisers to NeHA. Fred Matt was accompanied to the conference by Jim Wrobel of Bridgewater, NY, who is his sole local hops producer, along with several employees from Matt Brewery. Jim Kinney, the brewery microbiologist, and Rich Michaels presented lectures on technical issues, such as maintaining healthy yeast strains and basic brewing calculations and water quality. Fred called Charlie an “unpaid, in-house expert” to Matt Brewery and they had a chance to discuss some new products coming out in spring. When asked if he was looking for any particular advice from the Swiss consultant, Fred quipped, “Just some brotherly love.”