Farmer Robert Johnson, who began Niagara Malt two years ago and works as a biology professor at Medaille College, said his goal in starting his hops and barley farm is to create Western New York terroir of the crops. The term terroir is often used to describe the regional flavor of a crop, most notably when vinophiles talk about the different taste of wines created in certain parts of the world.
“The hops grown in Western New York taste different and come off with different aromas than the hops in the Pacific Northwest” where most hops in the United States are grown, Johnson said. “Everywhere you go the unique environment of that area flavors the crops grown in that area ... the soil type, the moisture, the prevailing temperatures, the amount of sunlight, the day length, all kinds of subtle of micro and environmental factors, even the insects greatly influence the flavor and aroma.”
Johnson describes his favorite hops — chinook — as having less of a pepper note than those grown in the Pacific Northwest, with a strong citrus aroma.
“My chinooks smell like a fresh-cut grapefruit,” he said. “It’s becoming my signature.”
Johnson goes into greater detail about his desire for a Western New York barley and hop terroir in an article he wrote for this year’s Buffalo Beer Week program, which will be available at some of the week’s events.
The farmer ultimately plans to build a malt house sometime in the spring where he’ll be able to sell already malted barley to local brewers. Though his farm has been in operation for two years now, he’s only just now making his hops and barely available for use because, like grapes, it takes a few years for the crops to mature. He was inspired to start Niagara Malt in part because of the growing interest in craft brews, but mostly because of his interest in biochemistry and ecology.