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All that stuff about beer quality? It starts on the farm

Roy Farms hop package label (Cascade)

A few years ago, Summit Brewing founder Mark Stutrud made a serious commitment to using locally grown barley (and a specific variety, Moravian 37) in Summit Pilsner. Listen to him talk in the video and you’ll think, yep, this is somebody who understands the importance of local.

So it is interesting to see him take a wait-and-see attitude toward using local hops.

“We’re keeping track of what’s going on in Minnesota, but a lot of folks who are starting hop farms in Minnesota don’t think of how they’re going to measure the quality of their harvest. Are they going to have a kiln? Will they pelletize or are they just going to grow the vines and say, ‘Come on over and pick them up?'”

The best the Hop Growers of America can figure Minnesota farmers planted about 20 acres of hops in 2014. But these are questions that need to be asked from the outset and often aren’t.

“I get these calls every day (from would be hop growers),” Sean McGree, hops manager at Brewers Supply Group, said the other day. “All they are worried about is getting their trellises in and hop going. They don’t realize that 60 percent of the quality that brewers see comes after the hops are picked.”

I’m more optimistic that farmers trying to revive hop growing in regions outside the American Northwest might succeed than I was three years ago, which is not to say I have any interest in investing in a hop farm. Picking and drying remains the next big challenge for many of them. But as Hop Head Farms in Michigan has shown it can be done.

The image at the top gives you an idea of one of the standards they will be expected to meet. There’s a lot more to know about what’s inside the package than the percentage of alpha acids, which many new farmers can’t even provide. Roy Farms goes beyond most, for instance including the picking and pelletizing dates as well as the crop year, but the other number to look at is the lot. Roy tracks each lot literally from the time the plants are trained to string in the spring until they are picked, processed and packaged. Ever wonder what pesticides might have been used on the hops in the glass of “wet hop” beer you had the other day at your local brewpub? Perhaps you should. (You’ll also notice that Roy Farms is as Salmon-Safe certified grower.)

This isn’t exactly related, but in doing some research for another article I was re-reading part of “Hop Culture in the United States” (1883). In it there is a report of the Chamber of Commerce for Middle Franconia in 1879:

“American Hops (we have to admit this, though unwillingly) are greatly preferred in England to ours, and have decidedly taken precedence of us in that market. Taking the excellent qualities of our produce into consideration, such a result would be quite inexplicable, if it were not that the system of German commerce, unfortunately, has itself to blame, in part for this defeat. American Hops, no matter whether of better or inferior quality, almost always appear in foreign markets in their original state, whereas, with us, parties are not ashamed to make up for exportation, hops of all countries and all qualities, mixed together, often marked with best brands on the outside of the bales, but containing the poorest kind of goods.”

Next there is this account:

“A brewer in England, a short time ago, bought a bale of hops in Nuremberg, and thought he got the genuine Bavarian article. But when he opened the bale, a slip of paper with the name of a hop-growers in Eastern Prussia on it, was found. The hops had been sold in Allenstein, Eastern Prussia, and from there found their way to Nuremberg. Being of good quality, the Englishman sent the grower, in Prussian, an order for more hops. A still more striking instance of such dealings happened in Wurtemberg, Prussia. A brewer, of that place, was prejudiced against the hops of his own country. He refused to buy hops in the Allenstein market. He wanted the genuine article from Southern Germany. He bought all he needed at Furth. But what did he find one day in a bale of Bavarian hops? A business card with the name of his next neighbor, a hop grower, whose hops he had declined to buy at any price. Unwittingly, he had taken them many a time at a fair premium, when they were sent by some Bavarian hop dealer.”

Kind of funny, but not really.


Monks offer neomexicanus hops for sale

Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico will soon offer neomexicanus (almost native American) hops for sale. These will only be available in quantities suitable for brewing at home, as opposed to commercially (except at nano size), and as whole cones rather than pellets. Barring complications, orders may be placed at the Holy Hops website beginning Saturday.

They were grown on the monastery grounds and harvested by the monks, with help from some friends.

Christ in the Desert, monks picking hopsMonks picking hops in fall of 2011.

The monks acquired several varieties of hops from Todd Bates, who bred them on his property between Embudo and Taos, N.M. They don’t include Medusa, the only hop in Harvest Wild Hop IPA, which Sierra Nevada Brewing will release in December. The brewery provides a preview at its website: “These bizarre, multi-headed, native U.S. cones have a flavor like nothing we’ve tasted, and for the first time, we’re showcasing their unusual melon, apricot and citrus aromas and flavors in our beer. Neomexicanus is the literal wild card in our five-bottle Harvest series which features single hop, fresh hop, wet hop, and wild hop beers.”

So a quick primer is in order. The genus Humulus likely originated in Mongolia at least six million years ago. A European type diverged from that Asian group more than one million years ago; a North American group migrated from the Asian continent approximately 500,000 years later. Five botanical varieties of lupulus exist: cordifolius (found in Eastern Asia, Japan), lupuldoides (Eastern and north-central North America), lupulus (Europe, Asia, Africa; later introduced to North America), neomexicanus (Western North America), and pubescens (primarily Midwestern United States).

Varieties European brewers identified early on as outstanding, such as Saaz and Spalt, were Humuplus lupulus. When the first settlers arrived in North American they brewed beer with hops (Humulus lupuldoides) they found growing wild, but also used hops (lupulus) they brought from Europe. Not surprisingly, native and imported hops cross-bred naturally. As recently as 1971, Cluster — one of the hops that resulted — accounted for nearly 80 percent of U.S. hop acreage. Today almost all the varieties grown in the United States contain a mixture of North American and European genetic material.

An article last summer in Smithsonian magazine generated sudden interest in neomexicanus and Sierra Nevada’s beer is certain to increase it. Eric Desmarais at CLS Farms in the Yakima Valley first planted two varieties he acquired from Bates in 2011 (quick promo: details in “For the Love of Hops”). This year he harvested nine acres of a hop first called Multi-Head and then trademarked as Medusa, with virtually all of the crop bound for Sierra Nevada or Crazy Mountain Brewing in Colorado. Desmarais figures Brewers Supply Group, the broker that handles most of his hops, could have sold 10 times what he had available. He plans to expand acreage next year, but expects Medusa to remain a niche variety. He has another acre of experimentals from crosses Bates made.

Christ in the Desert, New Mexico, hop fieldThe hop yard at Christ in the Desert shortly after the 2010 harvest.

The monks have five varieties for sale — Amalia, Chama, Latir, Mintras, and Tierra. Their alpha acids range from 4.1% to 7.3% and in most cases the beta acids are slightly higher. Amalia contains about 1 mL of total (or essential) oil per 100g. Of that almost 80% is myrcene, with 4.8% caryophyllene, 1.5% humulene, less than .01% farnesene, .7% linalool, 1.5% geraniol, and .7% pinene. Complete information will be available at Holy Hops.

Drying hops at Christ in the Desert, New MexicoThe hop dryers at Christ in the Desert.


Is there a craft beer/music on vinyl connection?


Twitter feed, pH

Just to mix it up, I thought about making all the links this week to Twitter. I changed my mind, but it certainly was curious on Friday to see this combination on my feed. Just be clear, Ed Wray’s came first and 47Hops surely didn’t see it before an almost simultaneous tweet.

Does shaming work on Twitter? I’m not sure, but Alchemist founder/brewer John Kimmich sure drew a lot of comments when he posted this photo and tweeted “$42 / four pack. WARM on the shelf. CJ’s Kegs Cases & more in Potsdam, NY. Shameful.”
[via Twitter]

Masculinity, Hipsters and the Miller High Life Man. Perhaps I need to add a little Pocket icon for longish posts you may want to save for later. This is one. Just plain entertaining, plus thoughtful consideration of the “enduring influence of the High Life Man message in the millennial era.”
[Via Punch]

Exploring Drinker Demographics: When Biology and Social Expectations Collide. Speaking of millennials … I posted a link to this story on Twitter, asking for feedback on this thought: “Craft beer is not only a beverage choice; it appears to be a lifestyle choice.” This was the most interesting and amusing thread that resulted. There actually may be a connection between the decision to purchase a particular beer and one to buy music on vinyl.
[This Is Why I'm Drunk]

Craftwork. This was one of many posts from The Beer Nut from Germany, and you can use the Blog Archive on the left of the posts for several other “must reads”™ from his trip. This one examines the “wave of foreign styles that’s destroying traditional German brewing.” Or not.
[Via The Beer Nut]

The Rumpkin Chase. “Even accomplishment means little, in the end, when we beer chase.” Yep.
[Via Make Mine Potato]

Bierquellenwanderweg. It might be enough to just tell you Stonch is back, but if not here’s the explanation: “I live in London. I quit law and became landlord of the Gunmakers Arms in Clerkenwell in 2009. In 2014 I re-opened the Finborough Arms, a Victorian pub in Earl’s Court that had been closed for some time. I started writing this in January 2007, but knocked it on the head exactly three years later. Now I want to do it again.”
[Via Stonch's Beer Blog]

These requests from abroad, volume four: “May I ask you to send me one set of your beer labels?” Likewise, I’m not sure about the privacy thing, but the “What’s the rest of the story?” question is pretty compelling.
[Via The Potable Curmudgeon]

Top of the Hops. Adrian-Tierney Jones travels a Vermont beer trail. Sets the mood for the next gathering of The Session.
[Via Enterprise Magazine]


The Session #93 announced: Beer Travel

The SessionBrian and Maria at the Roaming Pint have announced the topic for The Session #93 will be “Beer Travel.” They travel to beer destinations around the country in an RV, but that’s not a requirement to partcipate.

Because Beer by Bart asked writers in Session #29 to tell him about their favorite beer trips Brian is suggesting contributors focus more on why than what.

Why is it important for us to visit the place the where our beers are made? Why does drinking from source always seem like a better and more valuable experience? Is it simply a matter of getting the beer at its freshest or is it more akin to pilgrimage to pay respect and understand the circumstances of the beer better?

He’s also mixing up the regular process a bit, so pay attention: “To participate in this Session, write a response to one or more of the questions above and then post a link to the article in the comments section below by November 6th. Then come back on November 7th to read my round up of all great perspectives on the issue of why we travel for beer.”


Is beer as good as it’s going to get?

Windows at Louis Mueller's in Taylor, Texas


How I pick the links to include here:

– Wednesday morning I received a press release about chef David Chang’s bit of silliness in GQ about “fancy beer.” Friday morning I received a press release about Garrett Oliver’s response, also in GQ. No need to bother with this pissing match. You’re not going to miss it.

– Tuesday morning, because I roll out of bed rather early, Dan Paquette’s Monday night into Tuesday morning rant was near the top of my Twitter feed. And the story sped ahead from there. The ratio of words to actual information was rather high and only by chance did Twitter point me to an interesting (though anonymous and unsubstantiated) post 10 pages into a Beer Advocate discussion. In my youth I was a newspaper city editor. I’m pretty sure that we could have found a way to report this as a local story. It would have taken both feet on the street time and some forensic accounting. When I see a proper story I’ll be sure to link to it. Waiting for that link.

– Although I suspect I’ll be waiting for that particular link a while, Saturday morning Zak Avery used the topic as a jumping off place for an entirely different discussion. Drop that one into Pocket.

Craft Beer in a Post-Craft World. One of Avery’s takeaways is “Beer isn’t going to get any better than it is now” (it appears three times in boldface). In part that’s because it is really good now. I understand what he means when he writes “the technology of craft beer – focusing on quality and flavour without cutting corners to maximise profits – has reached endgame.” But I don’t agree that it won’t get better.

As I type this I realize it could be an entire post, but I’ll try to be unusually concise. Granted, “good enough” and “better” are moving targets. But how do you know that something better won’t come along? I had conversations with people just two weeks ago in which they guaranteed me that Firestone Walker Pivo Pils was the best pilsner-type beer they’d ever tasted. And it hasn’t been in bottles two years.

This isn’t about a quest to find the best pale ale, the best weissbier, the best porter; or even a desire to always be tasting something new. Beer is food, and that means there are more than 3,000 (a lot more, given the freedom many breweries extend multiple brewers) beer chefs operating in the United States. I’m happy enough to think that I’ll never find commercially smoked brisket better than at Louie Mueller’s in Taylor, Texas, but there are times when I might enjoy brisket more someplace else. And I really like sitting in Louie Mueller’s (those are Mueller’s smoke-stained windows at the top).

Avery accurately describes “post-craft era” as a buzz-phrase. I like it. It drew me to his post (Boak & Bailey used the phrase “post-craft world” back in May, but I was in Brazil and missed it until now). In an email not long ago Vince Cottone, who gets credit for giving us the term “craft” brewery, wrote that he was disappointed the term “industrial brew” (which he wrote about at the same time 30 years ago) didn’t get any traction. I’ve been having conversations with brewers about post-industrial beer and post-industrial brewing and although they humor me there is the chance this is only something I’ve made up.

It works better if you don’t aim for a specific definition (sorta like “craft”). But the idea is that brewers at businesses interested in operating on various levels of scale now have the technology that resulted from the R&D very large brewing companies could afford. So we can have beer that is not designed for the broadest audience and shipped all over the face of the earth, but still “cleaner, more consistent, more reliable, less of a lottery.”

The discussion about good, better, best, fantastic, life changing, and so on is a different one. Avery has given us a lot to think about. Makes you wish we didn’t have to wait 112 days between posts. If only because this one also hit the on switch for Max Bahnson.
[Via Tasting the Pith]

So You Wanna be a Brewer? 20 Real Facts About Working in a Brewery. Since I might have hijacked Zak Avery’s idea to make my own point, here’s another reminder that brewing is a business.
[Via Queen City Drinks]

Farmhouse ales of Europe. “Farmhouse ale lives in many more places than people have been aware of.” Wow, what a list. Do we call these indigenous?
[Via Largsblog]

If Everyone Else Is A Beer Expert – Why Not Me? Proof that you can make a point in a lot less space and in a far more amusing way than me.
[Via A Good Beer Blog]

Could Budweiser be better than craft beer? When I posted this on Twitter complained they’d just wasted two minutes of their life reading it. Consider yourself warned.
[Via The Drinks Business]

The Uncritical Embrace of Craft Beer? Also got dissed for posting this link on Twitter. “Did you mean to make me lose that time?” It is long, and it is a topic already discussed at length, but something people are still figuring out. And relevant, I think, to The Session #90 Roundup.
[Via a Tempest in a Tankard]


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