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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.

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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.

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Talking hops next Thursday in Denver

Medusa hop

CLS Farms in the Yakima Valley posted this picture of Medusa hop cones fresh off the bine earlier this week.

This is the variety featured in Smithsonian magazine in July, and the one that will be the only hop in Sierra Nevada’s Harvest Wild Hop IPA later this year. I’ll be talking about native American hops, and how they may differ from hops simply found growing in the wild, among other things next Thursday evening at the Keg Ran Out Club’s World Brewers Forum at the Denver Marriott City Center.

This event raises money for the Children’s Hospital of Denver is always fun. Eric Nichols of Beryl’s Beer Co. and Shawn O’Sullivan of 21st Amendment are up first. Shawn promises to tell war stories. I’ll stick to hops, probably rambling on about recent research related to dry hopping and about why the Cascade grown here doesn’t taste like the Cascade grown there.

A tip for those heading the Great American Beer Festival before the World Brewers Forum: swing by Crazy Mountain Brewing (K20) for their Neomexicanus Native Pale and at Abbey Brewing (I4) ask for the reserve versions of Monk’s Dubbel and Tripel ales. Those Monks’ beers are brewed with neomexicanus varieties grown on the Monastery of Christ in the Desert property near Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Hops: Now you see them, now you don’t

No, this post is not about the impending, or not impending, hop shortage. One of the reasons I went to Michigan over the Labor Day weekend was to see the three-level drying system at Hop Head Farms in action. As far as I know it is the only German-style one being used in the United States.

Not every farm in Germany employs this system (some have belt dryers, more common in the Czech Republic), but it works well on smaller farms. The average farm size in Germany is about 34 acres, compared to more than 500 acres in the American Northwest, and considerably more in the Yakima Valley. (Roy Farms and Wyckoff Farms each grow hops on more than 3,500 acres, each producing more hops than all but four countries.) The first two levels of the kiln have louvered floors, so hops drop from one level to the next. Fresh hops are loaded onto the top tier (shown in the video) each time that dry hops are removed from the bottom tier (a drawer that pulls out).

German hop kiln
Illustration courtesy of The German Hop Research Center Hüll

The drying system at Hop Head can process about 80 to 100 acres a harvest season (Jeff and Bonnie Steinman have 30 acres on their property and will dry about another 30 acres of hops for other farmers, so it will be another season before Jeff can be certain about the capacity). Kilns are much different in the Northwest, where farmers may process 100 acres in a day. They are basically giant sheds with multiple sections, called floors.

Yakima Valley hop kiln

Hops are spread 8 to 14 inches deep in the German system, 24 to 36 inches deep in the U.S. Heated air, forced through the bed from the bottom, dries the hops. Tom Nielsen of Sierra Nevada Brewing writes about kilning in the September issue of Beer Advocate and the new attention on preserving the quality and quantity of essential oils for brewers, and ultimately beer drinkers. Bitch all you want about the IPA-ing of America, but this emphasis is improving the quality of hops used in all beers.

How do I ‘adopt’ a row of hops?

Top photo from Oregon, bottom one from England (via Twitter). Goschie Farms is a prominent hop grower in the Willamette Valley, supporting its community in a variety of ways. As noted just yesterday, British hop acreage has long been shrinking. It will take the support of the British brewing community to change that.

Goschie Farms 'Adopt-A-Road'


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