On the Hops Trail

Travelers with a taste for history and beer will find much to like on a journey through upstate New York, which once produced 80 percent of the country's hops.

Cover Story

July 04, 2004|By Hal Smith | Hal Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Milwaukee? Fuhgetaboutit! More than a century ago, New York state was the nation's leading beer producer, with more than 365 breweries, including many that exported their premium labels to Europe.

This would have been improbable except for a factoid in the long-forgotten history of beer: Upstate New York grew 80 percent of America's hops beginning in the mid-1800s.

Now a group of professors, preservationists, farmers, brewers and assorted beer nuts are working to restore the Empire State's beer credentials as a grower of heritage hops.

Members of the Northeast Hop Alliance don't expect hops will ever be king again on central New York farms -- growers in the Pacific Northwest have had a lock on the market since the Depression. But New York hops enthusiasts are betting that brewers of boutique aroma beers will become a niche market for the state's crop.

Meanwhile, you don't even have to drink beer to enjoy the Hops Trail, a string of picturesque hop houses (specialized barns) and farms, historic estates, museums, a spa town, taverns, breweries and a hop festival -- all in or near towns rich with Revolutionary War history.

You won't find the trail by looking at a map or doing an Internet search. Fleshed out here for the first time, the trail cuts across roughly 100 miles of central New York, primarily on U.S. 20, a noted antiques corridor, with short detours, from Sharon Springs in the east to Bouckville in the west, then north to Oneida.

This is the Mohawk River Valley, the Wild West of the 1700s, where settlers farmed at the risk of being attacked by Indians and Frenchmen. Today, the valley's farmers put dairy cows out to pasture on their rolling hills, and the main danger for visitors is inattention -- distracted by carpets of yellow buttercups in the fields, and purple and white dame's rockets stippling the roadsides, tourists run the risk of rounding a curve and rear-ending farm equipment moving slowly between hayfields.

While hops -- a perennial vine whose cone-shaped female flowers are a key ingredient in beer -- are no longer grown near Sharon Springs, the village is just as tenacious as the vine and deeply rooted in hops history. With fewer than 1,000 residents, the village takes its name from mineral springs and was once one of the most successful spa towns in the Northeast.

The Vanderbilts, Roosevelts, Ulysses S. Grant, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and the Macys were among those who flocked to Sharon Springs to "take the waters."

Although Sharon Springs' hops-and-spa glory days are gone, Russian immigrants, attracted by the mineral springs and property values, are buying summer homes. And preser- vation-minded entrepreneurs, artists, theater people and others attracted by the town's stock of rambling fixer-uppers refuse to let the town completely wither.

The American Hotel, for example, has won honors for its restoration work, and has a fine dining room. Gino's Italian Restaurant is a surprising oasis of good food and atmosphere which, together with a handful of shops, make the town well worth a stop.

Home to beer kings

The local economy still depends to some extent on farmers, just as it did more than a century ago when they took advantage of the Erie Canal to send boatloads of hops to New York City and Europe. Hops made Sharon Springs a watering hole for the city's wealthy beer kings, who came to the area to mix business with pleasure while ensconced in their swanky summer places.

Max Schaefer, for example, whose Schaefer Beer would one day be a sponsor of the New York Yankees in the early days of televised baseball, owned one of the major bathhouses in town. But his summer home was modest compared with Henry Clausen's estate.

Clausen, a leading German brewer from New York City, then beer capital of the United States, built a sprawling compound, a 60-acre remnant of which is now a charming bed and breakfast, Clausen Farms.

Guests have the option of staying in the renovated Georgian residence of Tim Spofford, Clausen's great-great grandson, or in the 1890 Casino, a two-story Victorian clubhouse where Clausen's beer buddies would work out in the gym, drink, gamble, smoke cigars, play billiards and bowl. This may well be the only B&B in the nation with its very own 19th-century kegelbahn, a German-style bowling alley.

The Casino lobby, in a turret paneled with pine darkened by more than 100 years of sun and smoke from a large fireplace, features a wraparound porch and a spectacular 90-mile view across the valley. Llamas graze in the pasture immediately below.

Creaky steps lead to the phone-free, television-free bedrooms upstairs, and to bathrooms with pull-chain lights, pedestal sinks and claw-foot tubs.

Set back behind trees, Clausen Farms is easy to breeze by as Route 20 crests on a long hill. So is "downtown" Sharon Springs, which is north on winding, two-lane Route 10, about a mile downhill from its intersection with Route 20.

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