Cheryl Wygal grew up loving to play and help out at her grandfather, Arno Bebernitz’s farm in Ontario. “He was a gentleman farmer, with a few cows and chickens, and some alfalfa, row crops, apples and strawberries,” she re-called. Helping him by picking rocks, planting and picking strawberries and baling hay was part of her childhood. She lived just down the street on Walworth Road.
Cheryl was a part of the 4-H Club, “Handi Hands”, which concentrated on horticulture, baking, and sewing while she grew up and attended Wayne Central Schools. She had always had an interest in growing things. She started a perennial flower bed in fourth grade which grew to a 1000 square foot garden by the time she graduated high school.
After raising her 5 children, Cheryl decided to look for a business model for herself that would incorporate her degree in horticulture earned during her years at CCFL (Community College of the Finger Lakes, now FLCC). She envisioned something to do with agriculture.
Cheryl bought and considered what to do with her grandfather’s 47 acres, (half of which is woods), and consid-ered planting a vineyard. Recognizing that this area and the Finger Lakes are very saturated with wineries, at the suggestion of a friend, she considered investigating the planting of hops for beer instead. With a great deal of homework/research, she chose a great niche market - growing hops for local brewers.
2016 was the year the first plants went in the ground at Cobblestone Hop Yard at 5736 Walworth Road in Ontario. She invested in starter hop plants; they are an herbaceous perennial. Hops are diecious, meaning that there are distinct male and female plants; there are only female plants in a commercial hop yard.
She purchased and installed the trellis of poles and cables, a chemical sprayer, a hops harvester, driers, a baler and had a barn built so she had the space to dry the hops. The original 7-1/2 acres of the 10 she set aside for hops were planted. The first year’s yield was ok, but not ready to be put on the market. In the next few years, she established 14 varieties and promoted and sold to many local brewers. Cheryl investigated the market, contacted commercial brewers in the area and got feedback on the types of varieties they sought.
A little background....
Hops are the green cone-shaped flowers (inflorescence) of the Humulus lupulus plant. Craft brewers are after the lupulin inside hop cone - those tiny yellow pods contain resins and essential oils that are the source of bitterness, aroma, and flavor in beer. They are a climbing perennial.
Hops grow best in moderate climates with rich soil and abundant sunshine. Cheryl’s research led her to plant the best bines for this area.
Within the resin are acids that aren’t very soluble in water, so when brewers need to extract bitterness, they add hops during the boil (the “hot side” of brewing) to release their bittering qualities. The essentials oils, however, are far more volatile and can boil away quickly; so when specific aromas and flavors are the goal, brewers often add hops toward the very end of the hot side, and into the “cold side” of the process (i.e., during or after fermentation). Many varieties of hops, much like wine grapes in wine, have their own unique uses in brewing. Some hops are excellent for bittering, others have signature aromas and flavors that brewers mix and match like spices in the kitchen.
Currently, Cobblestone Hop Yard grows these varieties: Cascade, Brewers Gold, Centennial, Chinook, Glacier, Fuggle, Crystal, Mackinac, Magnum, Nugget, Perle, Sorachi Ace, Tettnanger and Zeus (CTZ).
The work process at Cobblestone Hop Yard, begins with prepping the bines and tying strings in the spring, as weather permits. When the growth is at about 2 feet, the bines are trained around the strings. The bines are spiky with stiff hairs and “stick” to the strings to climb up. This is what makes a bine different from a vine, in that vines climb with the aid of the curly tendrils. Hops are bine plants, grapes are vines.
“This is spring training for hops. I spend about 10 to 12 hours a day in April and May, as soon as the snow has melted, to begin to prepare the hop yard. I tie about 15,000 strings in a few weeks. Training begins in May and harvest occurs in August and early September,” explains Cheryl.
Her one-person, woman-owned business is ideal for keeping the overhead down, but basically, Cobblestone Hop Yard is a family affair. Cheryl and her second-born son, Jonathan, work together and rally the troops (from their large family) in the busy Spring training and harvest seasons.
Cheryl does her singular daily work from a lift in the Spring. The summer maintenance consists of spraying the hops with fungicides to keep Downy and Powdery Mildew away, and she monitors insect pests and treats as needed. She uses a disc and a drag to keep the rows clean to create good air flow in the hop yard.
When harvest is upon the Yard, Cheryl musters family and friends. The bines are cut at the bottom, followed with a wagon with a tower to cut the top and carry them back to the barn, string and all, where they are run through the harvester to sort; the cones are placed on the driers, and then baled. They are dried down to 8% moisture. “It is a very airy crop and takes up a lot of room if you don’t compress them into bales. Baling them also helps prevent oxidation of the essential oils while waiting to be processed.” Later, preparing for packaging, the bales are sent out to be formed into pellets.
Cobblestone Hop Yards, sells their product in 11 lb. packages of pellets to commercial brewers. Sometimes she has been known to have a few 1 lb. packages to sell to local home brewers. Currently she deals with about 3 dozen regular brewer customers.
“We are proud to be providing brewers with New York State Grown and Certified hops. All across New York State, and down the East Coast, we are excited to taste the beers created with our hops! Located just North of the beautiful Finger Lakes Region of New York State, our hops have a delicious, unique flavor associated with only our terroir,” said the very proud owner.
Cobblestone Hop Yard welcomes visitors, especially in the summer months when the hop yard looks its best. They love to teach about everything that has to be done every year to grow the hops. Visit them at www.cobblestonehops.com.
As a young child, I fell in love with my grandfather’s farm. It is a dream come true that I have the opportunity to continue to farm his land by growing NY hops,” Cheryl marvelled.
by Patti Holdraker