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On the Hops Trail

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

At one time, there were more than 60 hotels and rooming houses here. Now the grand hotels, forsaken by wealthy clientele who came to regard Saratoga Springs as more fashionable, are mostly gone, some victims of "insurance fires" after the spa tourism collapsed.

"In their heyday, the hotels were filled," Spofford says. "The waiters, including Ed Koch [who would become mayor of the Big Apple], made good money here."

Other villages along Route 20 have also declined, though few travelers will lose sleep over the loss of the cheap family-owned motels and kitschy gift shops that once lined the road. What began as a pioneer turnpike later brought baled hops to market, and, beginning in the 1920s, the roadbed became a main transcontinental trunk, still favored by many European tourists who prefer its slower pace to I-90, the New York State Thruway.

The superhighway smothered Route 20's roadside businesses, though an exceptional example, a gift shop in the form of a giant tin tepee, persists in inviting passers-by to trade money for souvenirs a few miles west of Sharon Springs.

The real Cooperstown

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Just as hop roots surface in unexpected places, hop culture turns up in another village with two claims to fame. Nearby Cooperstown would today be the home of the Beer Hall of Fame if historical accuracy determined where museums are built.

Instead, as John O'Dell, history curator of the Baseball Hall of Fame acknowledges, the well-intentioned burghers of Cooperstown established the baseball museum based on misinformation about Abner Doubleday, a Civil War general who never lived in the area and apparently didn't invent the sport.

To get the real story on Cooperstown, start at Hyde Hall. From Sharon Springs, go about 11 miles west on Route 20 to East Springfield, watching for signs for Hyde Hall, a 50-room, English-style manor house and one of the last great early-American country homes. Turn left onto Route 31, which will take you across four miles of farmland to the northeastern end of Otsego Lake and the right turn to Hyde Hall.

This neo-Palladian limestone house, from which its residents could see Cooperstown at the other end of the lake, is on the Hops Trail because its second owner, George Hyde Clarke, with his tenant farmers, was a major buyer and producer of hops on thousands of acres he inherited through his Colonial lineage.

Atypical as it may be, this is the only example -- open to the public -- of the style in which some of the hops kings lived.

No hops are grown on the grounds today, but Jo Case, a farmer's widow, brings in wild hop vines from her property to show visitors what they look like. She also serves up another kind of living history to those who show up on Wednesdays, when she gives tours.

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Case knew members of the last Clarke family members who lived in the house -- as late as World War II. Twelve-year-old Polly Clarke, for example, was riding her pony when a servant summoned her. Her father wanted Polly to come into the house and meet someone. But the girl demurred.

"She was a lot more interested in riding her pony than getting cleaned up to meet Governor Roosevelt," said Case.

Within Glimmerglass State Park, the mansion is at the end of a shady, one-lane dirt road that crosses a deep ravine before opening onto a cleared bluff at the base of Mount Wellington, named by Clarke's father after the Duke of Wellington, a classmate at Eton.

The family was ruined when Clarke, who speculated in hops, went bankrupt after the mercurial hops market fell. Thanks to the intervention of local residents who prevented the state from demolishing it, the manor house has been undergoing restoration for at least 30 years.

Apart from its hops entanglement, Hyde Hall is one of the best examples of the disappearing work of Philip Hooker, who designed the state Capitol and many now-lost buildings in Albany.

Continue south for about 7 miles to Cooperstown. The lakeshore road will take you through the center of town, past the famous baseball museum.

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At this point, if too much trail dust has worked up your thirst, you may be excused for a quick side trip to Milford, about 8 miles south on Route 28.

There the Cooperstown Brewing Co. makes Back Yard India pale ale with a dash of hops from a short row growing along the entrance to the brewery.

Return to the trail in Cooperstown and head north for a mile on Route 80 for a stopover at the Farmers' Museum. This is where it becomes clear that, as much as they may seem inseparable today, beer came before baseball.

Many uses for hops

The Farmers' Museum, a living history settlement, has what may be the state's only publicly accessible hops yard and authentic (1850) hop house.

The hops are trained to grow up stout poles made from saplings about 25 feet long, looking at first glance like pole beans on steroids. Harvested by the costumed staff in August, the hops are dried in racks in the second floor of the hop house, with heat supplied by a stove on the first floor, just as they were 150 years ago.

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Picking hops was hard, seasonal work, and growers had to bring in additional labor by train from all over the state. Pickers, who received free room and board, came to make cash as well as to take a sort of working vacation away from the cities.

Growers, competing for labor, frequently arranged harvest festivities, including evening dances where many courtships began. (They were called "hops," a term still used in the 1950s, when Danny and the Juniors recorded their classic rock hit, "At the Hop.")

Aside from brewing, hops were used in medicine as a sedative, which you'll find in the village pharmacy. Hops are also available in the general store, where they would have been sold for tea or a tonic, or as a substitute for yeast, or for stuffing in pillows. Nineteenth-century insomniacs turned to the pungent flower cones to help them sleep, from which the expression "hop head" arose, referring to someone who appears to be drugged.

A popular exhibit at the museum, When the Hop Was King, closed last year after a four-year run. It revealed, for example, that the Busch beer dynasty -- Anheuser-Busch -- still has a strong branch in Cooperstown, where the family patriarch bought a hop farm overlooking Otsego Lake. You can see the stately Busch mansion on a hill on the left side of Route 80, a mile or two from the museum, as you head north to Route 20.

In about 20 miles, at the intersection with Route 8, you'll come to a decision point if you want to see a hop house on an original site. If you head north on Route 8 for about 2.4 miles, you'll find one of the most well-preserved hop houses in the region at the Wrobel farm on the left, which is not open to the public. Its round cobblestone kiln, attached to a white barn, is unusual for hop house architecture.

Alternatively, you can take a self-guided driving tour to several hop houses "in the rough," described in a brochure available from the Madison County Tourism office.

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Antiques center

Within five miles of Bouckville you will pass more than 30 antiques shops, which is probably the most pleasing legacy of Route 20's heyday. On Aug. 21 and Aug. 22, the annual Madison-Bouck-ville Antiques Show, the largest outdoor antiques exhibit in the state, will attract 1,000 dealers. A lucky scavenger may still snare a bit of brew history in the form of hop tools and ephemera, which have become scarce.

For beer fans, a stop at Bouckville's Landmark Tavern is a must. It was built in 1850 by the son of a New Englander who planted the first hops in the region in 1808. It's a quirky stone structure with four facades, each of which housed separate businesses, making it a 19th-century mini-mall.

Thirsty wayfarers can still quaff New York beer here, but the tavern is usually open only for dinner.

Across the road is the Chenango Canal, one of the feeders of the Erie Canal.

The Chenango made the village a shipping hub for hops, which paid many a farmer's mortgage. Some 60 stagecoaches a day once rumbled through this intersection; many travelers stayed in the nearby canal hotels, including what is now the Bouckville Antique Corner. (If you're not an antiquer, a five-mile section of the towpath is open for hiking and exploration.)

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From Bouckville, the trail goes north on Route 46 to Oneida, known for the 19th-century utopian religious community that became a silverware manufacturer.

On Sept. 18, Oneida will host its annual Hop Fest on the grounds of the Madison County Historical Society, which has its headquarters in a Gothic Revival cottage on Main Street, in a neighborhood of impressive old homes and mansions.

The festival includes talks about hops by members of the Northeast Hop Alliance, after which the band cranks up and the beer tent opens. In some years, the alliance organizes a bus trip to visit hop houses in the area. A barn on the property, with hops climbing around the doorway, contains a two-room hop exhibit which, though small, covers the bases.

Somewhat arbitrarily, the Hops Trail ends here. But there is nothing to prevent an enthusiast from continuing farther to:

* Syracuse for the New York State Fair, Aug. 26-Sept. 6. A major hops exhibit, new last year, will return. Although the state fair is no longer primarily an agricultural show, hops will soon appear at the fair to be judged on their quality, along with apple pies, homemade jams and fancy roosters.

* Finger Lakes wine country, where two breweries are making beer with New York hops: the Wagner Valley Brewing Co. is making an India pale ale near Geneva Lake; and the Ithaca Brewing Co. is making Double India Pale Ale, the first beer made entirely with the state's hops in 50 years. Both breweries are supplied by a farmer near Geneva who has re-established the first small-scale commercial hop yard in the state.

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Meanwhile, also in Ithaca, agricultural researchers at Cornell University are evaluating the best rootstock to help beleaguered small farmers start a wider hops comeback.

None of this may work in the long run. Better growing conditions in the Pacific Northwest, and blue mold, a stubborn plant disease, were too much to overcome in the past. Those challenges remain.

But savvy microbrewers and brew pub owners -- especially those in out-of-the-way country towns peppered with antiques shops, hop houses and other historic attractions -- may find that craft beer aficionados, every bit as fussy as wine snobs, will hit the Hops Trail, embracing its whispers of orange, licorice notes, spicy intrigue and complex finish.

The historical record shows that the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth rather than continuing to New York, at least partly because of "our victuals being much spent, especially our Beere."

New Yorkers, it appears, are beginning to declare their independence from West Coast hops and positioning themselves so that no boatload of beer-drinking visitors will ever get away again.

An ideal day

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8 a.m.: As the morning mist clears, take in the 90-mile view across the Mohawk Valley at Clausen Farms in Sharon Springs. Linger over a country breakfast.

9 a.m.: Cruise Sharon Springs' hilly side streets, which are filled with restored and derelict boarding houses and grand old summer homes.

10 a.m.: Tour Hyde Hall, the manor house on Otsego Lake, one of the best surviving works of architect Philip Hooker, designer of the state Capitol in Albany.

Noon: Lunch in Coopers-town and a stroll over to the stately courthouse, where hops leaves and cones are carved in stone atop the granite entrance pillars.

3 p.m.: Hunt for antiques bargains at the Bouckville Antique Corner, a former hotel used by stagecoach passengers and the Chenango Canal's muleskinners.

5 p.m.: Walk the old towpath of the Chenango Canal.

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6:30 p.m.: Sip an Old Slugger beer and dine at Bouckville's historic Landmark Tavern.

-- Hal Smith

When you go

Getting there: It's about 360 miles from Baltimore to Sharon Springs, N.Y. Take I-83 north to I-81 north to Binghamton, N.Y. Merge onto I-88 east, continuing to Route 10 at Cobbleskill. Take Route 10 for about 14 miles to Sharon Springs.

Lodging:

Clausen Farms Bed & Breakfast Inn, P.O. Box 395, Sharon Springs, NY 13459

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518-284-2527

www.reu.com / clausen

* Charming B&B; listed on the National Historic Register. Rates: $115 double (private bath and breakfast); $160 for a two-room suite.

Activities:

Hyde Hall, Mill Road, Cooperstown, NY 13326

888-472-9002

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www.hydehall.org

* English-style manor house, open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Oct. 31.

The Farmers' Museum, Route 80, Cooperstown, NY 13326

888-547-1450

www.farmersmuseum.org

* A 19th-century living-history village. Admission is $9 for adults, $8 for seniors, $4 for children ages 7 to 12.

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Madison-Bouckville Antiques Show, Route 20, Bouckville, N.Y.

315-824-2462

www.bouckvilleantique shows.com

* This year's show, featuring 1,000 dealers, is Aug. 21-22.

Hop Fest, Oneida, N.Y.

315-363-4136

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www.dreamscape.com / mchs1900

* For details about the annual Hop Fest on Sept. 18, contact the Madison County Historical Society in Oneida at the Web site above.

Taverns and breweries:

* Landmark Tavern (open April through December), Route 20, Bouckville: 315-893-1810; www.yeoldelandmark.com.

* Cooperstown Brewing Co., 110 River St., Milford: 877-346-3253; cooperstownbrewing.com.

* Wagner Valley Brewing Co., 9322 Route 414, Lodi, N.Y.: 607-582-6450; www.wagnervineyards.com.

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* Ithaca Beer Co., 606 Elmira Road, Ithaca: 607-273-0766; www.ithacabeer.com.

Information:

For general upstate New York information, including lodging and attractions, contact:

* Madison County Tourism, in Morrisville: 800-684-7320; www.madisontourism.com.

* For Sharon Springs information, contact the Chamber of Commerce: 518-284-2034; www. sharonspringschamber.com.

* For Cooperstown discount tickets and brochures, call 888-875-2969; www.coopers towngetaway.org.

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* To learn more about hop culture in New York, contact the Northeast Hop Alliance: 315-495-2451; www.northeast hopalliance.org.

* For gardeners and home brewers who want to grow hops, rhizomes are available from Huey Road Hops, Leonardsville, NY 13364: 315-855-7807.


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