Hail the brewmaster!

That is the resounding cheer that resonates in nearly any conversation about beer. Every brewmaster relies on hops to ultimately shape the taste his beer. While everyone who enjoys beer, the hops farmer is often overlooked while the brewmaster is elevated to the level of a rockstar. That's not a comment coming from me, it's a comment coming from a craft brewer who actually was a rock star.

Jason Medvec, president of the Big Wood Brewery in White Bear Lake Minnesota, traveled the world as a member of the band “The Bay City Rollers," best known for their hit song “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y Night.”

In his travels Medvec developed a taste for the distinct flavor of the beer varieties he discovered on the road.

Says Medvec, “It was awesome. I spent a couple years touring with them and basically traveled the world and tried beer from Germany to the Czech Republic to Amsterdam and so on. I fell in love with the different styles and the way people brewed. You can't help but drink great beer in Germany or Belgium or some of those other countries.”

Medvec noticed that the popularity of craft beer in the US reminds him of what he experienced while he was traveling with the band. “It's a lot like what's happening in the U.S. right now with craft beer emerging with a brewery in every town. Well that's what it is Europe.”

You can't help but drink great beer in Germany or Belgium or some of those other countries. -James Medvec

He can clearly see the comparison of today's brewmasters to the rock status of his former career.  “The brewers are the rock stars. The guy brewin' the beer is the one who is the star. Everyone wants to meet him and everybody wants to talk to that guy.”

While that distinguished honor may be given to the brewmaster by many of today's American craft beer drinkers, it is not a view held around the world. “Yeah it's kind of interesting that brewers have been elevated to celebrity status,” notes brewmaster Phil Leinhart, brewmaster of Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York. “We get business from our Belgian counterparts at Duvel and they just shake their heads-they just don't understand it. It's not the same way in Europe. Although it's much respected over there, it's more on the level of a doctor or a lawyer-but over here you're a rock star.”

A rock star needs his guitar, and a brewmaster needs his hops. Much like the name of the musician's instrument, the hops farmer's name is unknown to fans. On Saturday, December 5, 2015 I spent the day at the annual Northeast Hops Alliance annual convention in Morrisville, New York.

For the past five years Cornell University has invited attendees to the conference that has grown significantly, mirroring the popularity of craft beer. Hops framers from nearby states and speakers from around the country spend the day talking about issues that are important to hops cultivation. While most of the topics would seem to be of little interest to the casual craft beer drinker, the farmers are there to gain the knowledge about the latest industry developments.

How do you control the two-spotted spider mite? What is it? You might not know, but your hops farmer does. He also knows that if it spreads unchecked, your brewmaster might not have the hops he needs to make the beer you're drinking-and you'd have nothing to cheer! What about the Minute Pirate Bug? Will this tiny insect steal your precious hops? Well actually, no.  In fact the Minute Pirate Bug controls the aphid population. It kills the aphid nymphs before they grow up and eat away the precious plant that is the cornerstone of great beer.

There is a myriad of facts that each farmer must know- and it extends far beyond the garden pests. Soil consideration, disease, developing new hops varieties and harvesting techniques only touch the surface of things a farmer needs be aware of to be successful.

Wrobel Farms in Bridgewater, New York has been growing hops for years. Today, heirloom varieties (that go back to the mid 1800's) grown at the farm are the main ingredient of a special beer produced each years by Saranac. Every August, for the past five years, the hops are harvested by volunteers who travel to Wrobel Farms and then attend a party at the Saranac 1888 Tavern in Utica, New York, where the beer is unveiled.

This year's beer, “Wrobel IPA,” like the preceding brews, gives the hops grower a night they can share the spotlight equally with the brewmaster.

Jim Wrobel, the owner of Wrobel Farms, loves the hops business, but cautions people looking to start growing hops. “This is a very difficult business. Farming is hard. Farming is a lot of different things that go with it-and hops are particularly challenging. This year my crop was half of what it was last year. And I think I kind of know what I'm doing. So it's hard to do-even if you get everything right. Nature can throw a curve ball at you.” He goes on to mention a bit of concern for those who are entering the hops farming business. “They've got a hard road ahead of them. It's rewarding, yes. But it's a lot of hard work.” Not only is hops farming hard work, with the exception of nights like this, the farmer rarely gets an opportunity to have their efforts recognized by most beer drinkers."

So next time you wave your beer in the air with a toast to the accomplishments of the brewmaster, give a cheer for the farmer who grew the hops- the rock star's favorite guitarist.

[EDITOR's NOTE: Rick E. Lewis is the Creator and Director of "The Beer Next Door," hosted by WIBX's Kristine Bellino.]


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