Long ago, the Mohawk Valley and Catskills were a hotbed for hops, with Cooperstown being one of the central growing and distributing hubs (Read more about that here). Through our partnerships with Brewery Ommegang and The Farmers Museum, we’ve been lucky enough to learn so much about hops growing, how difficult it was and still can be to grow this fickle plant, and the history of how hops and beer became such a huge part of American history.
Beer is one of the oldest beverages in the world. Older than the trees on the farm, older than Sharon Springs itself. William Beekman himself probably brewed his own beer since it was a farmhouse staple during his time. Traces of beer was found in pottery dating back to the 5th millennium in Iran and the written history of the beverage dates back to the time of ancient Egypt and Babylonia.
Its history is long, with many claims as to who first invented it and who first drank it. But it all boils down to a few important moments of history.
Beer production could not have begun without fermentation and China was a leader for developing delicious drinks and food via fermentation even in ancient times. The first recorded production of alcohol was in China is 7,000 B.C. and was created by fermenting rice, honey and fruit in jars. But the main ingredients for beer were not native to China, so most of their alcoholic beverages were more like what wine and liquor is like today.
The first documented recipe for beer was found in Egypt and dates back to 5,000 B.C. (Which means beer is one of the oldest recipes ever). Ancient Egyptians documented the process on scrolls and wrote about using indigenous plants in their brews, like dates and pomegranates. Craft brewers, scientists and archeologists have worked together to find recipes like this and centuries-old methods created by members of Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian and Roman societies (because once alcohol was discovered, everyone wanted to make it) to recreate these ancient beers and learn more about their history.
Beer soon grew to be the drink of choice over the following centuries. One of the main reasons it was so popular was because it was regarded as the safest thing to drink. Brewing was around long before water purification was and in many areas of the world, beer was safer to drink than the local water (so next time you’re in a new town, use this as an excuse to try the local craft beers. Safety first.)
As the years went on, beer changed and evolved with the technology, ingredients and brewers available at the time. In the 16th century, Germany began to pass beer purity laws (known as “Reinheitsgebot”) and set strict standards on what ingredients could be used and what styles of beer could be made. When they first drafted these purity laws, they forgot to add yeast (something beer absolutely needs) to the ingredient list. (Which just goes to show you that politicians passing laws without fact-checking is not a new phenomenon.)
No matter who ended up actually creating what we call beer, one of the most important part of its history is how beer became a staple of society as a whole. Brewing has always flourished in farming societies. Beer in its most basic form needs hops, barley and yeast to ferment and develop. Hops and barley were staples of many ancient agrarian societies and had many uses. These societies also had the time and the space to brew and store beer.
For these rural areas, beer-making and drinking became an integral part of the community. Brewpubs were everything from temporary markets for local farmers and artisans to town halls. Brewers would work with their neighbors and trade beer for ingredients and services. Tabs kept by bartenders in taverns in the newly formed United States are a written record of long nights working on legislation and nights spent celebrating the signing of the constitution, election victories and defeats. George Washington used a pub to have a farewell dinner in 1787 that racked up a $15,000 tab. (Only a small amount of that tab was for snacks. Talk about a send-off!)
In Germany, these events would push the limits of a pub’s capacity, leading to the establishment of the beer garden. These outdoor areas served beer, food and had entertainment. During nice weather, gossips-spreading, business dealings and more would take place outdoors in these areas.
This community minded tradition still holds up to this day. Brewers today still have partnerships with farmers and other members of their local community. Farmers can grow the grain or hops the brewers will use, and brewers will give the farms their spent grain. These are the grains that are left after the brewing process is finished. Spent grain is great for feeding livestock, because the grain still retains nutrients after being used in brewing. This partnership between brewers and farmers is a win-win, with farmers earning money for their crops and brewers eliminating their food waste.
Another partnership that has stood the test of time is the one between brewery owners and local artisans. For hundreds of years, breweries and brewpubs have opened their doors for shows featuring local musicians, artists and more. Many breweries have even partnered up with local fitness studios to have events like yoga classes and CrossFit competitions in the tasting and brewing areas (sign us up).
Hops festivals are also ways in which farms and breweries get the community involved. The first industrial hop harvesting machine didn’t make it to market until 2015, meaning there were hundreds of years where farms needed a lot of hands to help harvest hops. Neighbors from around the region would come to a hops farm and help remove the hops from their fragile bines. Soon enough these gatherings turned into all out parties, with hops pickers enjoying food brought in by neighbors and fresh ale made by local breweries. These hops festivals still exist today all over the United States.
That type of communal work between farmers, brewers and neighbors still exists right here in the Mohawk Valley. Our work with Brewery Ommegang has led us to create unique projects that could only come from goat farmers and brewers getting together to trade recipes, products and ideas. The idea of neighbors helping neighbors is something we can always get behind.