Mother Nature, a known puritan, seems like the only force capable of quelling the unstoppable growth of the craft brewing industry, what with all of the droughts and hops shortages and barley shortages she throws at it. Well, New York Senator Charles Schumer has a plan to fight back — or at least help out those N.Y.-based farmers who want to keep growing the essential ingredients that keep growing the craft beer industry.
While standing at Empire Farmstead Brewery in Madison County, Schumer pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a crop insurance program for Central New York farmers who grow malt barley, a crop that is crucial to the continued growth of the area’s burgeoning craft beer industry. Schumer explained that there currently is no federally backed insurance coverage for malt barley in New York State, even though farmers in other states do have coverage, which severely hampers the ability of local farmers to grow the amount of malt barley needed to meet the demand of local craft brewers.
Schumer noted that multiple farms and farmstead breweries in central New York, like Empire, are already growing malt barley to meet local demand, but malt barley needs very specific conditions to grow and severe weather can completely knock out an entire crop. Therefore, Schumer is urging the USDA to expand its malt barley crop insurance program to include New York State. Schumer said that with a number of farm breweries already open and operating in Central New York, it is essential to make sure the malt barley crop can thrive locally.
“In order for local craft brewers to expand right here in Central New York and beyond, we need a strong local malt barley industry, since the crop is so important to the production of beer and spirits,” Schumer said. “But the lack of insurance for malt barley is preventing farmers from planting this crucial crop. Without protections, the risk is just too high, and that is preventing our craft breweries from really taking off.”
In order to meet the demand of craft brewers, Schumer said New York State will need to increase its malt barley production by 15 times, but this is likely impossible without crop insurance.
Schumer said over the next decade, New York State is expected to require farm craft brewers and distillers to source 90 percent of ingredients from local farms and malt houses. Currently, 20 percent of all hops and 20 percent of all other ingredients, including malt barley, used by farm brewers licensed by the New York Farm Brewery are required to be grown or produced in New York State. However, by 2018, that proportion is expected to jump to 60 percent. By 2024, New York law will require no less than 90 percent of all farm craft beer ingredients be grown or produced locally within the state.
According to the New York State Brewers Association, while only the breweries and distilleries licensed as Farm Brewery are the ones required by law to meet the 60 percent (2018) and 90 percent (2024) ingredient requirements, most non-farm craft breweries and distilleries are also increasing their sourcing from local areas, so the pressure is mounting to supply New York State grown ingredients in the coming years.
Right now, New York State has approximately 2,000 acres of malt barley, some of which is grown in the Central New York region. According to data from Cornell Cooperative Extension, there are 13 Malt Houses either in operation or planning to open in New York as well as 39 farms engaged in growing malt barley, with an estimated 2,000 acres farmed as of 2014. However, it is estimated malt barley production will have to grow 15-fold to 30,000 acres in the near term to meet the needs of New York State brewers and distillers, including many that have begun to take hold in Central New York.
Empire is a great location to deliver this message. In 2014, Empire secured a $200,000 USDA grant to build out its own farm in Central New York so it would be able to grow hops and create a bottling facility, where the brewery would bottle its own beer for the first time in the company’s 20-year history. This newly established facility is set to open in 2016. Schumer said that this expansion would allow the company to better meet demand, seize more of the craft beer market and prepare for further expansion. Schumer also said that Empire’s model of having a brewpub, hops, a barley farm and a bottling plant all in one is a new model that could help propel central New York’s exploding craft beer industry.