ITHACA, N.Y. –– To the delight of New York craft brewers, a new variety of malting barley has been developed especially for the state’s climate.This comes as part of a larger effort to stimulate New York’s craft brewing industry, and in turn help the farmer’s that would grow ingredients for brewers. 

However, state legislation meant to go hand-in-hand with the development of the new barley as part of the plan to boost the local industry, could pose a problem for the crop’s success. 

The variety’s name is Excelsior Gold, and it’s key for craft brewers trying to meet the standards of the Farm Brewer’s License.When the 2012 Farm Brewing Law was passed, craft brewers would have to source at least 20 percent of their hops and other ingredients from the state to qualify for the license. 

The policy is structured so that with time, this standard will increase. Right now, it’s at 60 percent, but in 2024, farm brewers will have to source at least 90 percent of their ingredients from the state. 

Barley has been at the crux of whether this steep, forthcoming 90 percent standard is at all feasible. Hence, Excelsior Gold.

A Grain is Born

Despite the challenging climate, western New York is actually where barley production first exploded in the early days of the United States.  

Dr. Paul Schwarz is a cereal scientist at North Dakota State University and he’s extensively researched the history of barley production in the U.S. He found that, “From the 1830s –– maybe into the 1860s –– New York was actually the number one producer…up to about the late 1800s close to 7 to-8 million bushels of barley a year, and just to put that into perspective…in the last few years in New York it’s 350,000 bushels.” 

After 1860, New York slipped from its position as the U.S. economy was flattening and cheaper malting barley was coming into the state from California and the Midwest. For New York barley growers, the message that the end was near came by way of the railroads and the Erie Canal, but prohibition would ring the death knell for New York growers and maltsters alike. 

Now, nearly 160 years later barley, especially malting barley for beer, is just plain hard to grow in New York. As opposed to the drier climates of Idaho, North Dakota, or Montana, where malting barley grows gangbusters, farmers in the Empire State have to deal with rainfall that comes around harvest time. 

Developed at Cornell CALS, Excelsior Gold is the brainchild of plant breeder, Dr. Mark Sorrells, who lends a healthy credit to his graduate student, Daniel Sweeney, for helping to design the variety. 

“This climate is conducive to — especially to — disease and premature germination of the grain while it’s still a plant in the field…We call it preharvest sprouting,” Sorrell said.

For barley to be more than just livestock feed, it needs to be harvested before it’s sprouted.

For all intents and purposes, malting is sprouting.  Maltsters do a controlled sprout of the barley to initiate the enzymatic process of converting starches to sugars. When they want to stop germination, they kiln dry the barley. After this, Brewers can use this as malt for brewing beer. 

Resistant to disease and early sprouting, Excelsior Gold was designed to be the best spring malting barley for New York’s wet climate –– a development that comes as a direct result. of the 2012 Farm Brewing Law. The new barley variety will expand niche opportunities in agriculture, but the degree to which the Farm Brewing Law will help farmers is a more weedy question. 

To Be a Farm Brewery…

Sourcing from New York is downright more expensive, but there are two big benefits that make the Farm Brewery License appealing –– first, they are able to open up to five off-site tasting rooms and bars; and second, in those satellite locations they can sell New York wine, spirits, cider and beer by the glass or bottle.

Emily Watson, an owner of Plan Bee Farm Brewery in Poughkeepsie, makes it clear that the combination of these two incentives is highly valuable. 

“I can sell my beverages without having to apply for new liquor licenses for each place, which is huge. It’s a huge money saver, and it just cuts through a lot of red tape and paperwork and all that stuff,” Watson said. She added, “New York state products that are beer, cider, wine, and distilled beverages…I can sell all four of those under one roof, which is not possible with any other license on the market right now.”

Watson continued, saying she, got into the game to make a truly regional drink, not because it is easy or profitable. 

“We always wanted to use 100% New York state ingredients,” she said.”We wanted to find out –– what does a truly regional American beer taste like?” 

The success of the 2012 Farm Brewing Law, as well as the economic cascade it was designed to stimulate, will depend on business owners like Watson, but the incentives also have to be strong enough for entrepreneurs with less rigorous philosophies.

Originally, the Farm Brewery License came with the benefit of brewer’s being able to sell their beer by the glass without an additional permit, but this incentive was extended to businesses holding the Micro Brewer License. 

This benefit was the real money maker that set the Farm Brewer’s License apart. Both licenses are designed for breweries of about the same size, limiting the production of beer to seventy-five thousand barrels a year. So since this incentive is shared between both licenses, they stand as suitable alternatives to one another for craft brewers. 

…or Not to Be

The underlying  idea that distinguishes the Farm Brewing license is how the policy attempts to keep money in New York. In 2024, If the cost of using 90 percent state sourced ingredients outweighs the benefits of the license it may make sense for craft brewer’s to switch to the Micro Brewer’s license. In a case like this, the future effect of Excelsior Gold becomes less certain. 

Randy Lacey, owner of Hopshire Farm & Brewery, and  a member of the Farm Brewing Committee of the New York State Brewers Association, believes in making local beer with local ingredients, but  recognizes the cost of it. 

“I don’t think the incentives for the farm breweries are enough to cause you to spend the extra money to buy New York grain,” he said.  

That said, he still plans to and is excited to see what maltsters can do with Excelsior Gold, but for the Farm Brewer’s license to keep its wings, Lacey thinks the portion of New York ingredients should remain at 60 percent.

So far, the Farm Brewing License has done what it’s promised. There were under 100 craft breweries in New York before 2012, now there’s just over 460. Craft beer accounts for  $3.4 billion of state economic activity. Hop production was just 15 acres in 2013, jumping to over 500 today, and where there were zero malthouses in New York State, there are now 12.

The license has unlocked the dreams and ambitions of craft brewers, and the economic activity that came along with them. The Micro Brewery License can be thanked for this as well, and breweries with larger licenses are following the trends. Lacey pointed out Ithaca Beer’s Brew York, as proof, saying, “It’s like 90% New York ingredients. And they did that strictly as a consumer appeal.”

The development of Excelsior Gold is proof of the excitement for craft beer, and the more people choose to spend on craft beer the better it is for farmers growing the ingredients. What’s in question is how New York state policy can best incubate the sectors of agriculture that have to do with the craft beer industry.

Barley is the next proving ground for how large the plan of the Farm Brewer’s Law can grow and, interestingly, this harkens back to a time gone by in New York.

New York’s Hay-Days

The craft beer renaissance is the most exciting thing to happen for New York brewing since the early days of U.S. beer production. 

The state will never gain the position it once held as a grain producer, but Excelsior Gold is the next step for the agricultural powerhouse to be reborn. As barley gets propped up as a niche crop for New York farmers, maltsters in the state experiment with the new barley and the brewing industry in New York gets another feather in its cap. 

New York’s brewing industry may have sputtered to halt some hundred years ago, but Excelsior Gold is serving another round.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn