Farmer Hops at Chance to Localize Craft Beer

Hops farmer John Condzella
Hops farmer John Condzella. Credit: Daniel Bowen Dermont

The East End’s passion for locally produced wine is now long established—it’s a love affair that’s inextricable from the peaceful vistas provided by the vineyards that dot the North and South Forks. What could be a prettier sight then fields of ripening grapes that will eventually produce world-class wine?

How about fields of ripening hops? That’s right, hops, one of the crucial ingredients in that other great thirst-quencher known as beer. (According to standard definitions, beer must contain water, malted barley or wheat and hops.) A number of craft breweries have sprung up across Long Island in the past few years, and they’re making some very decent beer. This is locally produced beer, but locavore sticklers would point out that so far, mostly only the water has been truly local. But that’s changing.

Which brings us to Condzella Farms in Wading River, a family farm where John Condzella has started Condzella Hops. An avid homebrewer and craft beer enthusiast, Condzella saw an opportunity to provide local breweries with a local source of a key ingredient.

“We provide fresh dried hops directly to the breweries, which allows them to use the hops at their peak,” explains Condzella. “If they get their dried hops from distant sources, they might not be as fresh, which means their flavor might have weakened.”

And what is the flavor of hops? That depends somewhat on the particular variety—Condzella grows Cascade and Mt. Hood hops—but, in general, hops are what give beer its bite. The bitterness and other complex flavors and aromas imparted by the hops serve to balance out the bready sweetness of the malted barley. In recent years, American craft brewers have taken to “hopping” their beers much more heavily than in the past, and have also experimented with “wet hopping”—that is, adding undried, just-harvested hops, which is only possible if you have a local hop farm.

“Last year, I partnered with Port Jeff Brewing Company to provide wet hops for their Wet Hop Ale, and we’re going to do that again this year,” says Condzella. “That’s another niche we can fill.”

Right now, Condzella has 1,000 hop plants, but he is in the process of expanding the acreage devoted to hops. The tall rows of hop plants, waving in the breeze, must make for an unaccustomed sight for the motorists passing on 25A. Imagine their curiosity if they were to catch a glimpse of Condzella’s most recent acquisition: that is, the German-made hop harvester, a construction of Rube Goldberg-level intricacy that is especially designed to strip the ripened hops from the hop plants.

“We’ve dubbed it ‘Beer Loves Company + Hops,’” says Condzella of the fascinating machine, adding, “We had a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to buy it, and the top donor got naming rights.” According to Condzella, the machine can cleanly strip the hops from 170 hop plants per hour, while a human worker requires a full hour to strip a single plant. With 1,000 plants to strip, yielding an anticipated 1,500 pounds of hops, it’s pretty clear why Condzella needed the hop harvester!

Condzella Farms has been in the family for over 100 years, and has gone through various changes: it started as a dairy operation, then became a potato farm, and now is a truck farm growing asparagus, raspberries and strawberries. Condzella’s father works the land as well, and is naturally an enthusiastic supporter of Condzella Hops. All around the Condzellas are former farms that have been turned into housing developments and strip malls, which serve as a reminder of how difficult it is to keep farming in the face of development.

Certainly, beyond the fact that the local wine is quite good, the East End’s support of our local wine is partially tied to our awareness that the vineyards are helping to preserve an agricultural heritage and a rural character that is threatened by encroaching development.  Wouldn’t it be great if the same were true of local beer? Condzella Hops is one of two hops growers in Suffolk County. Now all we need is for someone to start growing barley!


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