Around the middle of the 19th Century hops became an important crop in Sharon and the surrounding farms of Schoharie County. Hop growing was a delicate process and a considerable gamble for the farmer, but hop picking time in early September was a time of fun and frolic as well as hard work. Clerks and other city-dwellers spent their vacations in the country picking hops (agri-tourism!).
Such is the allure of a good brew.
Beer poses an interesting question for those who try to eat and drink local products. Unlike grapes, which must be picked at exactly the right time and crushed as soon thereafter as possible, none of the ingredients in beer is perishable. Malted barley and dried hops can last indefinitely, and even some yeast can be dried and packaged for long storage. Decent beer, in any style, can be made anywhere provided one can get deliveries of malted barley, hops and yeast. Even the hobby brewer, making beer in the garage on weekends, can select what kind of malt, hops and yeast to use. Consequently, Budweiser, Heineken and any number of famous beers are now brewed all over the world with precious little difference from brewery to brewery.
It wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time, before paved roads and rail transport made it possible to move tons of freight to just about anywhere, beer was a truly local product and local produce determined the style. One used the local barley, malted in the only local facility, and local hops. Most importantly, before the science of microbiology explained the process of isolating and propagating the desired strain of yeast, brewers had to rely on whatever strain happened to be in the air or the cellar. And the local climate determined the temperature of that cellar, which determined whether the yeast was “top fermenting” or “bottom fermenting” and that determined whether one could use open tanks or had to use closed fermenters, and that determined a host of other elements. So, just as wine differs from village to village or vineyard to vineyard, beer once differed from village to village, brewery to brewery and monastery to monastery. (By the way, monks played as important a role in the development of brewing as they did in winemaking, which may explain why the small and very Catholic Bavarian city where my father was born had more breweries than churches.) So the Pilsner style – characterized, when made authentically, by very light color and the distinctive aroma of Saatz hops – would not have been likely to develop anywhere but Bohemia where those hops originated.
The microbrewery movement of the 80s and 90s was an attempt to return to this kind of individuality in American beer. But with all the world’s ingredients now available to brewers, it is quite likely that at microbrewery near you, the only local ingredient will be the water. The barley used may come from Canada, the hops from Oregon, the yeast from a laboratory in Germany and the recipe from Scotland. And the ability to control temperature allows the brewer to determine the speed of fermentation and the style of the beer. So, except for the Lambic beers of Belgium, the only beers that are still made by spontaneous fermentation, anyone can brew any style of beer anywhere. How well they do it is another matter.
A case in point is one of our local breweries near Sharon Springs. Ommegang is an authentic Belgian style ale that is brewed in Cooperstown, New York. But the reason it is brewed there is a matter of pure coincidence. There is nothing about Cooperstown or the surrounding region that makes it especially suited to Belgian ale other than the fact that it is where the founders, a couple who imported Belgian beers, happened to live. They did it right. There is no question that the beer is excellent. It cannot be mistaken for any other beer and we are all proud that it comes from our neck of the woods. I even had the privilege of hosting the launch party for Hennepin ale, Ommegang’s second offering, at my restaurant eleven years ago. The brewery is beautifully designed to resemble a Belgian farmhouse without feeling like a Disneyland. The project was a partnership with a prestigious Belgian brewery that sent one of their brewmasters to develop the recipe. They use the best ingredients from numerous far-flung sources. But how local is it? As I said, an interesting question to think about over a beer. Personally, I am more concerned with where my vegetables grow.