In a former pickle processing plant that borders the Gowanus and Park Slope neighborhoods of Brooklyn, New York, the Strong Rope Brewery offers patrons a warm, inviting space with a bar of dark wood and walls of distressed brick painted white.
On tap are an array of beers crafted with New York state ingredients: Seeds of Love and Outrage, Backroad Odysseys, and Lazy Lollygagger, an ale that spotlights the flavor of cherries and lemon-thyme.
Owner Jason Sahler knows his way around a brewery – tending to the beer in his tanks, consulting with his tap room manager and analyzing sales numbers.
But when he has a technical question – say, about the oil composition of a particular variety of hops – he turns to a guiding scientific hand 275 miles away at the Cornell Craft Beverage Institute at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York.
“By using the Hops Analysis Lab at the institute to understand the complex fruity, citrusy or piney oils, New York’s brewers can understand the capability of ingredients better,” says Sahler. “That means that we can better use those crops in our own process.”
Belly up to the Cornell Craft Beverage Institute, the new umbrella name that encompasses the Cornell Enology Extension Laboratory, the Craft Beverage Analysis Laboratory (formerly the New York State Wine Analytical Lab), and the Cornell Brewing Extension Laboratory. With the explosion of demand across the state for craft beverages, the lab now goes beyond wine, extending into beer, hard cider and spirits.
The institute is New York’s one-stop reference desk for fermented beverages. Scientists conduct analyses for commercial producers, and answer questions by phone or email. For complex problems, the Cornell extension staff visit farms or processing facilities across New York.
“We work with both new and experienced beverage makers, whose problems range from fairly simple to technical and complex,” says Anna Katharine Mansfield, associate professor of enology in Cornell’s Department of Food Science.
Solutions to those problems translate into big business for New York’s 1,156 licensed craft beverage manufacturers.
The craft beer industry had a total economic impact of $5.4 billion in 2018, according to the New York State Brewers Association, and the state’s more than 400 craft breweries created about 20,000 jobs.
In 2017 New York’s wine industry generated $13.8 billion in economic activity, according to a National Association of Wineries report. The more than 450 wineries created upward of 100,000 direct and ancillary jobs, while the state drew 4.5 million wine tourists whose visits generated $1.8 billion. (The young craft cidery and distillery industries have not completed comprehensive economic impact studies.)
But those dollars can quickly stop flowing if technical problems get in the way. On setbacks and snags, Mansfield has seen them all. She has resolved issues of wines oxidizing early, refermenting in the bottle and post-filtration contamination; and deciphered a cloudy wine from an incomplete fermentation.
“We’ve got the instrumentation – those expensive machines – that wineries and other craft beverage makers do not normally have,” she says. “To solve problems, we give beverage makers guidance on analysis, help them interpret the lab numbers and provide counsel on actions to take.”
Within the last year, the institute’s Craft Beverage Analysis Laboratory has analyzed 1,762 craft beverage products and processed 2,500 samples for research.
The institute also schedules a spectrum of short workshops throughout the year, from basic viticulture and enology certification to winery sanitation, pathogen monitoring, beer sensory programs, distillery operations and tasting room sales strategies. The institute – through Cornell AgriTech – has educated 500 craft beverage professionals and entrepreneurs in the past year alone.
Kaylyn Kirkpatrick, an extension associate who previously worked for New Belgium Brewery in Colorado, now supervises the institute’s Hops Analysis Lab and brewery pilot plant scheduled to open in early 2020. She helps brewers statewide test ingredient quality.
“Before we had this lab, New York’s hop growers would have to mail the hops across the country, pay a lot of money and wait a long period of time to get results,” Kirkpatrick says. “Now, it’s almost instantaneous, so this is huge for them.”
The lab tests moisture content and storage ability. Spectrometers and gas chromatographs are used to analyze the hops’ qualities including bitterness potential – technically, the alpha and beta acids – that indicate harvest maturity and readiness.
The demand is enormous. When the Hops Analysis Lab debuted in fall 2018, Kirkpatrick received about 100 samples. For this recent harvest, a year later, the lab tripled its workload, providing services to commercial growers and university research programs along the East Coast.
In a few months, commercial brewers across the state will be able to use the new electric brewing pilot plant, which consists of four temperature controlled half-barrel (15 gallons) fermentation vessels, a one-barrel finishing tank, and a state-of-the-art control system enabling automation and precision across the brewing process.
The pilot plant will be perfect for Strong Rope Brewery’s Sahler, as he creates new beers like Lazy by The Bay, a mellow ale with blueberries and lavender.
“We can only do so much research at our brewery. We are actual companies trying to create business. When there are places like the Cornell Craft Beverage Institute, we can do more,” says Sahler. “I think it is extremely important. We can utilize data and results, and then bring this information to market.
“For the state’s brewers, the institute brings a lot to the table,” says Sahler. “Its potential is amazing.”
Derek Grout ’94, co-owner of Harvest Spirits, began honing his spirit-making skills more than a decade ago at distilling workshops, hosted at the time by the Cornell Enology Extension Laboratory and the Carl distillery equipment group. His family’s third-generation Golden Harvest Farm features several hundred acres of orchards, just miles from the Hudson River.
When the New York Legislature passed the Farm Distillery Act in 2007, Golden Harvest received the state’s first farm distillery license – sparking a decadelong commercial craft distilling boom. There are now 188 farm distilleries, with 25 added just in the last year.
“We didn’t want to wing it,” says Grout. “The foundation that these workshops provided was crucial to understanding the process of distilling.
“The better you are in the very beginning, the better the product. You don’t want to launch a product at the very beginning that’s disappointing. It’s hard to get a second shot.”
Today, Harvest Spirits farm distillery – adjacent to Golden Harvest Farm – offers gin and vodka made from the orchard’s apples. Its first product, Core Vodka, remains the distillery’s bestseller.
Grout is not alone. Producers throughout the state are making spirits from apples, pears, grapes, potatoes and honey, with the help of the institute.
The desk telephone of Chris Gerling, the institute’s extension associate who handles wine, cider and spirits, rings off the hook.
In early 2019, the state marked the fifth anniversary of the Farm Cidery Law that created a license for hard cider made from apples grown exclusively in the state. The number of those hard cider producers jumped from eight in 2014 to 73 today, according to New York State Liquor Authority.
A current trend in the hard cider industry is packaging the product in easy-open cans, Gerling explains. That way, consumers can carry cans of hard cider to the beach, to parks and to the pool without having to worry about breaking glass bottles.
The problem: Hard apple cider can re-ferment. If there is too much sugar or yeast, the can could explode. It’s tricky, says Gerling, who spends time working out formulations with cideries. “Cans are all the rage. It’s a consumer’s dream and a producer’s nightmare. We do microbiological tests all the time and help out cideries every day with that and day-to-day tests.”
The institute handles routine needs for most of the state’s cideries. At Pennings Farm Cidery in Warwick, in Orange County, the scenic young cidery is part of a three-generation farm that takes advantage of typical institute services, such as determining the alcohol content that is needed for label approvals.
“The institute helps on the chemistry analysis,” says Steve Pennings ’15, whose cidery offers a dozen products on tap. “They’ll do a taste-testing panel analysis and give you feedback. They’ll help you to improve your product.”
In the Hudson Valley, the institute has also assisted Fishkill Farms in Hopewell Junction, which uses apples from its historic orchards to make Treasury Cider. Those orchards opened soon after Henry Morgenthau (President Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of the treasury during the Great Depression) purchased the farm after graduating from Cornell in 1913. The farm remains in the family today, with Josh Morgenthau guiding the farm and the cidery.
“Just having this wonderful group of scientists available to contact when we run into an issue is invaluable,” says Stacy Dedring, Treasury’s cidermaker. “When you do run into an issue, you need to act quickly to right the ship. The institute has been incredibly responsive and gracious with their time and expertise.”
Having the institute backing up Dedring for cidermaking technical questions frees up her creativity to make it delicious: Treasury’s Homestead and Wiccopee ciders feature Golden Delicious apples from old-growth trees. Onda and Burr Knot ciders have won awards, and Centennial cider is made from Roxbury Russets and the 18th-century Esopus Spitzenberg variety – a favorite of Thomas Jefferson.
“We’ve leaned on the institute’s expertise,” says Dedring. “After all, making cider is a science and an art.”