By Julia Burke, Beer Editor

There are some exciting new vines in Niagara County –– well, make that bines. Rich and Bree Woodbridge, a charming and passionate young couple well-equipped for Niagara with a sense of adventure and a lot of heart, took a leap of faith when they moved to Lockport from California (after working in economic development in India) in March of this year to revitalize Rich's family's sixth-generation farmhouse.

McCollum Orchards is a hundred-acre farm dating back to the 1820s, and while it's wonderful land for apples and other produce, the Woodbridges have something special in mind for the property.

Woodbridges"Hops take off like crazy here!" says Rich. "There's two hundred years of farming here; the soils aren't depleted. We want to be part of the community and we want to engage it."

As of now they've tried small amounts (about a quarter-acre total) of several varieties to see what grows best and have found success with Cascade, Centennial, Nugget, and Fuggles.Rich says his Golding hops have struggled but he may replace them with Chinook and Magnum hops.

Rich explains that before Prohibition, New York was the number-one hop-producing state in the country. But the combination of a fungus outbreak, growing market pressure due to the large number of suppliers, and finally Prohibition itself destroyed that industry. Now, only fifty acres of hops are in cultivation in the Northeast as a whole as opposed to 30,000 acres in the Pacific Northwest.

But renewed interest in hop production in the Northeast and especially in New York state is fueling excitement: the Woodbridges recently attended the Hop Growers Conference and Northeast Hop Alliance (NEHA) annual meeting in Troy, New York, and found the atmosphere motivating: 180 attendees, of whom half were potential growers and the rest were starting breweries, met to exchange ideas, samples, and strategies to grow New York and the region's hop industry once again.

Our state's location, in fact, presents some unique advantages.In addition to Niagara's well-drained and hop-friendly soils (see "A Hop Farmer Emerges on the Niagara Escarpment" on this site), Rich explains that while on the West Coast hop farming is all about consistency to appease large producers, the East Coast has the chance to make a name for itself with hops that show vintage variability in the form of fluctuating alpha levels and a wide palette of possible flavors. While large, macro-producers might not want that, small beer artisans, they believe, would appreciate this unique way to showcase a sense of place. "We could be number one in certain varities: Chinook, Cascade, Centennial," Rich believes.

They plan to open for business selling their hops in the summer of 2012. In the meantime, they've been documenting every step of their journey on an amazingly detailed and fun-to-read blog. I'll be keeping an eye on McCollum Orchards as they grow, so watch for updates.