Aug 30, 2016
On Top of an Old Pharmaceutical Building, The World’s Only Rooftop Hops Farm
A couple of weeks ago—when all of Brookyn felt as soupy as a Russian bathhouse—I walked to the roof of the old Pfizer Building on the border of Bed-Stuy and Williamsburg with Keely Gerhold, co-founder of Tinyfield Roofhop Farm. The 1,000 square foot space at the mammoth, late prescription drugs headquarters is home to the only urban rooftop farm, anywhere, that grows hops—the flower that is a cousin to Marijuana and lends itself nicely to beer brewing, providing it with refreshing notes of citrus and a pleasantly bitter bite. Currently, Gerhold is the sole farmer for the entire operation.
“I’m up here every day and night,” says Gerhold, a very amiable South Dakota native, who gives me a tour of the year-old space wearing a Tinyfield T-shirt. “To water everything takes 45 minutes,” she tells me. But, this Friday, Gerhold’s watering duties will decrease, because she will harvest her crop—hopefully five pounds of hops—and then hand them all over to Strong Rope Brewery in Gowanus. From there, together, they will make delicious, fresh, wet-hop ale (designated by hops that are brewed into beers within 72 hours of harvest). “We are harvesting on Friday and making the beer in the afternoon!” Gerhold tells me. “I’m so excited.”
While urban rooftop farming has been a thing for a minute or two in Brooklyn—Brooklyn Grange, Gotham Greens, and more recently Rooftop Reds, the world’s first commercially-viable rooftop winery, located in the Navy Yards—for some reason, it hadn’t spread to the world of beer, and hops, until now.
That day, Gerhold walked me inside of the greenhouse that she built to accompany her hops production. In it, she produces greens—the salad and micro variety, including radishes, spicy mustard greens, and cilantro. Microgreens, as opposed to standard sized plants, contain about 40 times the flavor and nutrients, Gerhold tells me, due to their condensed physiognomy. “They’re really powerful,” says Gerhold. “ Seeing them all tidy in their little beds is an impressive sight, but standing there also provides shelter from the unabated scourge of light outside. “Ideally, I’d grow about 13 to 15 pounds a week when it’s not so hot,” Gerhold explains. “Microgreens want the temperature to be 75 degrees, and last week it was like 120 degrees in here. It’s been kind of bananas.”
Weekly, Gerhold’s greens get delivered to five Brooklyn restaurants or food purveyors, and, says Gerhold, every one of them are run by, or their head chefs are women or people of color: Maison May in Fort Greene, Cow & Clover in Williamsburg, Delaware and Hudson, Sunshine Co. in Prospect Heights, Watty & Meg in Cobble Hill, and Provisions in Fort Greene. Of course, that was not her intention—these are simply the businesses that were interested in what she was selling. “We sent out to 40 places, and only women and people of color were responsive,” Gerhold told me. “The guy who delivers for us, he is a native New Yorker, and he says it is like a fascinating experiment, because normally he is dropping off to white dudes.”
Growing a crop of perennial hops and a greenhouse of salad and microgreens on a rooftop in Brooklyn—namely, being an urban farmer—was not the future Gerhold saw for herself, growing up in Castlewood, South Dakota, a town of 670 people. Her grandfather had a farm, which her uncle lives on today, and from which he runs a hay grinding business, and her own family had a dairy farm. Gerhold helped her dad with farm chores on the weekend. “I never ever thought I wanted to do it,” Gerhold told me, standing by her extra-powerful cilantro. “The thing I enjoyed most was getting to hang out with my dad.”
Gerhold studied environmental science at the University of Minnesota, then moved to San Franciso for a spell where she worked for non-profits. Afterward, in New York, she worked for AmeriCorps and on gardening projects. Finally, she headed to Portland, Maine, working for a company that made music tours—for large bands like Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson—less wasteful.
“That’s when I started calling farmers to source for tours,” Gerhold explained. It was a “farm to stage,” model. (Just when you thought you’d heard of every local, small batch business iteration, it turns out you have not.) They wold source caterers who use local farms, and it was Gerhold’s interaction with the farmers that nudged her back into farming. “They were all so lovely and, I was like, I want to be on the other side of it.”
And so, Gerhold went to grad school. After her first year at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, she sought an internship with a female farmer on two acres of land. The work was hard but the days went fast. “I went back to school in the fall and I was like, I don’t wanna leave,” she recalled. “That’s when I knew I should really be [farming].”
She met her cofounder, Katrina Ceguera, working for a community garden non-profit, and Gerhold—who had learned to love beer in Minneapolis, which is known for its abundance of breweries—suggested to her that they experiment with making hops. Not only did it seem “like a chill thing,” according to Gerhold but, because there are so few urban rooftop farms in New York City, it was also a way that they could skirt competition, and give themselves the coveted job that they both wanted.
Gerhold and Ceguera got a micro loan from Kiva last spring. Afterward, they raised a couple thousand dollars more through Indiegogo to build salad beds and shelves, and a few more hops, in order to sustain what would become a five member CSA. This all sounds like a lot of work but, honestly? says Gerhold: the hardest part, really, is hauling all of the soil required for the job up to the roof as a one-woman show.
In the future, in addition to Microgreens and hops, Gerhold will be holding lots of workshops on her rooftop space, collaborating with other young business owners in the Pfizer building (the average business owner there is 28!) to combine interests, doing catered events, brewing workshops, and even organic dyeing, using things like avocado pits. She is limited to the square footage she currently has for growing hops and greens, so these activities give her more income, and a way to sustain and improve her work into the future.
And as for those hops: When Gerhold harvests them on Friday, off of existing rooftop infrastructure that she turned into trellises—up which the hops inch and grow—she will go to Strong Rope Brewery and help make the wet hop ale that same afternoon.
While many of us have been concerned with eating local all of these years, Gerhold is bringing beer drinking to the next local level. Strong Rope Brewery is a farm brewery, which means 60 percent of the ingredients that they use to make their beer—grains, malts, hops—come from in state. It’s part of the New York Farm Brewery Bill, which incentivizes breweries to source from in-state farms (in return, breweries get tax breaks).
“A lot of people don’t think about where they’re sourcing their beer,” Gerhold summarizes. “And you’re supporting local agriculture and commodities by sourcing from these people—and that’s a nice idea to be a part of.”
Next season, after this batch of wet-hop beer is brewed with Strong Rope, Gerhold will continue to tease her Cascade hops up her rooftop trellises, and, in that way, continue to provide more and more wet hops to local breweries.
“Last year, we did an amber ale that did not use a ton of hops,” and that was a very successful, less-bitter beer. But, without hops, you’re just making a malt liquor. “So they’re essential,” says Gerhold. “It just tastes so good.”
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