“Weather” or Not You’ll Be Able to Enjoy an Indiana-Sourced Craft Beverage This Fall

“Weather” or Not You’ll Be Able to Enjoy an Indiana-Sourced Craft Beverage This Fall

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

The reopening of the state has begun – slowly and quasi-deliberately. The issues of safety, economics, supply and demand, etc. are many, making it a crapshoot no matter what paths the restaurant and craft beverage producers choose to follow. To all the obvious factors we named and the innumerable ones we didn’t, you can now add the weather. Yes, Mother Nature could have something to say about you enjoying an Indiana craft beverage this spring and into fall.

Two factors about the weather come to mind in terms of Indiana beer, wine, and spirits this year, 1) how will the harvest be affected by the freeze we had early morning on May 9th, and 2) how will the weather affect your ability to enjoy the outdoor seating at a restaurant, brewpub, or eventually tasting room/taproom. Outdoor seating is going to be a big deal for a while, it’s amazing to consider that rain or cold could actually cause a business to close, but it indeed could. Today we’ll talk about the recent freeze, while next time we’ll tackle the outdoor seating issue this spring.

Just what did happen on Saturday morning, the 9th and what effects could it have? Jim Pfeiffer of Turtle Run Winery in Corydon gave me a weather lesson I am not likely to forget, but it drove home the point that the people who are growing crops aren’t just farmers, they’re meteorologists and botanists too. You want proof? Jim told me, “I do suspect all of this sudden cold was fueled off of an unusually warm northern Pacific which I believe created a blockade of the jet stream from dropping down and giving us normal winter weather in December, January, and February.  The variation in temperatures from the Arctic to below the Arctic was quite extreme, and I figured at some point it was going to release and I suspected early April back at the end of January.” As things progressed Jim honed in on later in April, but being as late as May 9th came as a surprise to him.

image credit: Turtle Run Winery

Grapes. Jim has all that knowledge, but the recent weather event still put his grape harvest in jeopardy – as if small businesses needed another challenge. The freeze of May 9th came on the heels of a freeze in April that had set some of Jim’s varieties back considerably. The vines did come back to life and start to shoot, but that was just a few days before the freeze on May 9th and, so their quick recovery actually did more harm than good.

The cool spring (more on that next time) probably saved the vines from being even further along on May 9th, but Jim said that he likely lost 70% of the shoots across his twelve acres of Chambourcin, Vignoles, Corot Noir, Noiret, Traminette, Diamond, Catawba, Stueben, Frontenac and St. Croix grapes. Jim told me, “Since we haven’t experienced anything like this before, I hadn’t really read up on additional frost or freeze protection, so now I am looking at various sprays, including with with copper, to strengthen the vines.”

For the 9th, they were anticipating an overnight low of about 31 degrees with a decent breeze to keep the cold from setting in, but by 2:45 they had already hit 31 and there was no breeze at all. Jim had set up some wood for bonfires to keep vineyard warm, but the lack of breeze really screwed things up. “We set up the fires, 18 overall going between vineyards, expecting to utilize a west northwest breeze, but a lot of the heat just went straight up.  In my estimation we went through at least seven full trees worth of wood. These were big fires in which we continually fed them wood into the morning.  I can’t say for sure what the temperature dropped to, but it was somewhere in the 20’s.  If you left the vineyard area, you definitely felt a drop in temperature.  Several times I walked up to the winery and the temperature was lower there.”

Jim added, “Our big problem greeted us an hour before sunrise – a sudden frost appeared.  I thought for a second of getting out my boom sprayer which was loaded with water, but it was so cold that I didn’t want to chance lowering the site temperature anymore due to evaporation.” Altogether, this is what led to the 70% shoot loss that Jim described above. I can’t tell you if other vineyards experienced the same degree of freezing, but Dr. Bruce Bordelon of Purdue University Dept. of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture told me that Jim’s experience was not unique.

image credit: Ambrosia Orchard, Cidery & Meadery

Dr. Bordelon said, “There was widespread frost/freeze damage in fruit crops across the state on April 15-16 and May 9.  The full extent of the grape crop loss won’t be known for a while since grapes are very resilient and will develop secondary shoots that can be fruitful. So we’ll have to wait and see what develops. I suspect some varieties will be better than others. Some may have near full crops depending on the grower’s pruning practices.”

Apples. Dr. Bordelon also happened to mention that apples took a hit on May 9th. He said, “Apples and peaches also got damaged. Both of those crops always produce far more flowers than the trees can support, so we typically need to thin heavily to reduce the crop load. So, again, it is too early to tell for sure. I suspect few growers will have a full crop but there should be a partial crop in most areas.” In light of this, I looked for a bit more information. Sources I read stated that only 2-3% of flowers need to be pollinated in order to get a good crop, so in all likelihood, a decent crop could still be in the works for Indiana apples to make cider from.

But then I talked to Blanca Rosa at Ambrosia Orchard, Cidery & Meadery in Hoagland about the freeze’s effect on Indiana apples. Ambrosia Orchard uses only Indiana apples for their ciders, so the freeze has a particular effect on their cidery. Blanca told me that they had a good breeze that night so the damage wasn’t as bad as it might have been, but other orchards in Indiana from whom they source apples from could have been hit harder. She was correct in making the point that if you source your ingredients locally, you are going to be more susceptible to such weather events, but I agree with her that being local is an important part of being craft. Unfortunately, staying local means that you make yourself vulnerable to such local weather events. She’s hoping that many of the later flowering varieties of apples were spared on May 9th, and the harvest may be adequate for the fall.

Barley and wheat. Caleb Michalke at Sugar Creek Malt Co. told me a happier story than did Jim Pfeiffer. The timing of the freeze on May 9th was lucky for barley. Barley and other grasses have a stem that grows from the ground and a spike, or head, that has the flowers (florets) and is where the seeds develop. Caleb told me that the stems of barley are pretty resistant to freeze damage, but if the head has developed, then freezing is a big problem.

image credit: Sugar Creek Malt Co.

The May 9th freeze occurred just as the head stage of growth began. Caleb said, “So far I think we lucked out with the frost. I have seen some damage just on the tips of the heads, but overall not too bad. Before barley heads out frost doesn’t bother it, but after it heads out that is when you have to worry, because that is when it flowers and pollinates. This is the first time we have had a frost this late in the year since we opened so we were a bit nervous, but like I said I think we got through it.”

The long stem of barley is relatively resistant to frost and freeze. When the head/spike begins to grow on the top, it grows from the base of a leaf called the boot. In barley, the spike is close to the boot, which initially protects it from frost. But as the spikelets grow and the head gets longer, the protection decreases and the florets can become sterile if frozen (no pollination is possible and no barley grains can form). The good news is that your beers made with Sugar Creek Malt Co. malts should be safe …. as of now. We still have many things that could go horribly wrong before harvest and malting, but hundreds of great Midwest beers use Sugar Creek malt now, so we should be very grateful for the near miss we experienced on the 9th.

Wheat is also important for Indiana craft beverages, everything from gin to vodka whiskey can be wheat based, so anything that messes with the wheat crop could likely mess with your Indiana-produced mixed drink this fall. Unfortunately, wheat is more susceptible to both stem frost damage and floret damage as the head grows. Its leaf sheath is longer and there is a gap between the boot and the head, which means that moisture can get near the stem to freeze. Lucky for us, wheat planting and growth is a few weeks behind that of barley. Caleb was optimistic about the wheat crop, saying, “Wheat matures about 2-3 weeks later than barely. So it hasn’t headed yet and in better shape to survive the recent frost.”

Hops. The news from last weekend was good for Crazy Horse Hops as well. Hops grow from rhizomes that get stronger each year. They are hardy, but can be susceptible to damage from temperatures below 30. What’s more, the later in the growth cycle the cold snap comes, the more damage that can be done. If the bines had been well on their way and trained on the strings, then a die back due to low temperature would leave them with insufficient time to reach their full growth (8-10 weeks is needed).

image credit: Crazy Horse Hops

Luckily, it seems this didn’t happen last weekend. CEO Ryan Hammer said, “We saw minimal damage to our crop but we did a few things beforehand to help prevent damage. Our agronomist is with a company called Timac and they have a product we use regularly in the spring that contains two plant nutrients from peat and humus called humic and fulvic acids. These increase the permeability of the plant cell walls for nutrients so whenever we have a “stress event” for the plant, such as when we trim back the first growth, we apply this as well. I applied it two days and the day before the frost, which I believe helped a lot. I also ran the irrigation through the night which made sure the plants had plenty of water in the cells to help ‘insulate’ and also to keep the ground at 50 or so degrees through the night.”

The small amount of die back they saw will allow the Crazy Horse folks to train the hops to the strings with plenty of time for them to attain maximal growth and therefore produce the best yield. Thank goodness for that; the 100+ acres of hops from Knightstown lead to a great deal of Indiana produced and Indiana sourced beer each year.

Conclusion. I know you appreciate Indiana craft beverages for their quality and innovation. The producers are people that respect quality ingredients and processes, but now we can take our respect for them one step further, to the field, orchard, and vineyard. Whether they grow the crops, prepare the ingredients, make the product, or all three – there is more going on there than we can ever know. But now we understand just a little bit more of what they do for us. Support them like the artists they are.

Tune in next time to discuss how we can help craft producers and retailers during the reopening, and about how Mother Nature is making that harder.

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