In Search of the Great American Beer
Once considered unfit for brewing, wild American hops are making their solo debut on the beer market. Will it change the way we think of American beer?
When Todd Bates moved to a patch of land near Taos, New Mexico, in 1991, he had no grand visions of changing the American beer industry. After pursuing a degree in applied math and biology in Ohio, followed by stints as a designer and builder, Bates, then a 28 year-old man with more background in woodworking than beer-brewing, had accepted a job running a quiet guest ranch in the New Mexico wilderness. Tucked in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and settled by Pueblo people over a millennium ago, Taos is a place of older sensibilities, where Pueblo and Spanish culture mix and endure, so when Bates mentioned to a friend from an old Spanish family that he was suffering from digestive problems, his friend's mother didn't mince words.
"My friend's mom looked at me and went, 'Ah, you people! You move here and you don't know how to take care of yourselves! Our grandparents and tíos and tías would go to the mountains and collect herbs and we'd never get sick. The only reason you go to a doctor is so that they can help you fit in a box.'"
So for the next summer, Bates learned how to collect medicinal herbs from the area residents—an array of more than a dozen different herbs used by Native Americans and descendants of Spanish settlers for medicinal purposes. Throughout the summer, one of the crops that kept coming up again and again was something called lúpulo—the Spanish word for hop and an echo of "lupulin," the plant's active ingredient. But the hops they were collecting weren't used for brewing beer.
But Bates, now 50 years old with a carefree lilt to his voice, was never fearful of venturing into new territories. So he started brewing beer, crudely at first, with the wild hops he was harvesting. He had some previous experience with brewing beer—he'd been known to home brew a little during high school and college—so he was capable of making a simple, no-frills brew. Even from his bare-bones recipes, Bates discovered that the beer he was brewing with the wild hops ended up being more flavorful and enjoyable than any commercially available beer he could find. And that gave Todd Bates an idea.
The common hop, Humulus lupulus, dates back about six million years, to Mongolia. Dispersed by wind and animal carries, some of those hops migrated to Europe about one-and-a-half million years ago, and 500,000 years later, some migrated to North America. Throughout much of history, hops were split into two categories: Old World hops—those of European heritage—and American hops, known as H. americanus. In the early 1900s, hops growing in the wild throughout the American Southwest were deemed morphologically distinct enough to merit their own sub-species group—H. lupulus var. neomexicanus. Though some argue that American hops can be split into three varieties (those that grow in the Southwest, those that grow in the East and those that grow throughout the northern Great Plains), the truly important distinction is still between European hops, whose genetic material comes from hops that have been grown and cultivated for centuries in Europe, and American hops, whose genetic material comes from hops that grow in the wild throughout the United States.
"The difference between the American and European varieties is that there are certain compounds in those American varieties, such as geranial, which gives [the American hops] a floral quality, often a citrus quality," explains beer writer Stan Hieronymus. "The fruity quality and the varieties that people like now—gooseberries and melon and all kinds of citrus—were not [always] desirable. That's totally new."
When it comes to a beer's taste, hops work in two ways—they add bitterness or they add aroma (some hops, known as purpose hops, do both). The oldest hops, known as Noble hops, have been cultivated for centuries in central Europe and impart a smooth bitterness and spicy or floral aromas. On the opposite end of the spectrum are American hops, which have normally high concentrations of alpha acids—the class of chemical compounds responsible for a hops bitterness. Noble hops are used, primarily, in lagers. American hops, on the other hand, are often used in more bitter beers—the American pale ale or an IPA. But pure American hops have gained a negative reputation among hop growers and brewers; as Patrick Reeves and Christopher Richards note in their 2011 discussion of wild North American hops, "Wild North American hops cannot be directly used in brewing because of undesirable chemical properties that produce excessive bitterness and objectionable aromas." Until Bates introduced his pure American hops to commercial hop growers, any beer brewed with American hops used a hybrid hop—a genetic cross between a European hop and an American hop.
But even hybrid hops are a relatively recent addition to the brewing landscape. Though hop cultivators in Europe were certainly selecting for certain growing characteristics—taste or hardiness, for example—there's no evidence of purposeful crossbreeding, especially between European hops and their American cousins. In 1892, an article in the Edinburgh Review made clear how Europeans felt about American hops: "American hops may also be dismissed in a few words. Like American grapes, they derive a course [sic], rank flavour and smell from the soil in which they grow, which no management, however careful, has hitherto succeeded in neutralising. There is little chance in their competing in our market with European growth, except in season of scarcity and of unusually high prices." Then, in 1904, E.S. Salmon, a professor at Wye College in the United Kingdom, did something rather revolutionary: he crossed a wild American hop with varieties of European hops growing in Great Britain. By combining an American hop with a European hop, Salmon discovered that he could coax certain desirable characteristics from the American hop (its bittering properties, for example) while maintaining the popular aromas of a European hop. His crosses quickly became darlings of the hop world, and would remain the most widely used hop varieties through the 1970s.
"Historically, new hop varieties were bred as replacements for those already on the market," says Shaun Townsend, assistant professor of Hop Breeding and Genetics at Oregon State University. "When a brewery identified a cultivar that worked well for their beer recipes, they were reluctant to change out that cultivar for fear of introducing undesirable flavors in the final product." Bringing a hop to commercial production is a lengthy process, taking at least eight to ten years of careful breeding and testing. Such a reluctance to experiment meant that, in the years following Salmon's cross, there wasn't much innovation in the hop world. Hybrid hops were used in Europe and in America, but mellow European flavors still reigned supreme. Even as the craft beer revolution of the late 20th century began to expand the beer drinker's palate—favoring unique flavors over the traditional pilsner or lager—hop varieties were still mainly crosses between European and American hops. Any beer currently available on the commercial market, from a Bud Light to a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, is brewed with hops that are either pure European stock or some hybrid cross between European and American—none are brewed with pure American hops.
While the American beer market sold massive quantities of light lager, Todd Bates was busy making medicine and homebrews from the wild American hop plant he found growing behind his mountain home. But in the mid-1990s, drought hit New Mexico's mountains, and Bates' preferred hop plant disappeared along with the rain. So he began to expand his search for wild hops, canvassing the mountains for days at a time in search of different types of neomexicanus. If he found a variety that appealed to him—whether because of aroma or growing quality—he would bring it back to his house and plant it in his backyard, for easy access. After a while, Bates had amassed a collection of more than a dozen wild hops, and he began breeding his varieties together, trying to create a pure American hop that grew well and brewed even better. "I'd grow thousands of plants and kill most of them," Bates says. "I'm the opposite of most farmers." When he found a hop that he especially liked, he would try to make a beer out of it, learning the ins-and-outs of brewing from masters like Ralph Olson (of Hopunion) or Brad Kraus (a New Mexico-based master brewer) along the way. Bates, with his biology background, treated the breeding and brewing almost like a science project, which his brewing-mentors advised against. "Ralph pretty much hammered me down and said, 'Listen Todd, the only thing that matters is that it makes good beer.'" But Bates didn't trust his palate alone—he gave samples of his beer away for free, asking anyone from close friends to nuns at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert (a New Mexico monastery which Kraus is associated with) what they thought of his fully American-hopped beer. "Everyone kept saying 'You should have a brewery! Best beer I've ever had in my life!'" he explains. "And I got excited about it and said, 'Well, let's try it for the whole hop industry.'"
It was 2007, and the United States was witnessing a nationwide craft beer boom—between 2007 and 2012, craft beer sales would double from $5.7 billion to $12 billion. But even before 2007, taste in beer was evolving, and 1,300 miles away, in Yakima, Washington, fourth-generation hop farmer Eric Desmarais of CLS Farms was watching it happen. In the 1980s, the majority of beer consumed in America came from brands like Budweiser and Miller and Coors—intense marketing in the 1970s had practically wiped out any style of beer other than a light, low-calorie lager. Bitter beers were still popular elsewhere, especially England, which pioneered breeding hops with high alpha acid content (though rejected flavors like fruit and spice) but in America, the light lager reigned supreme. It was a bleak time for innovation in American beer, and industry experts estimated that by the end of the 1980s, there would only be five brewing companies left in the United States.
Defying the homogeneity of the American scene, a small cadre of rebels began brewing beer more closely aligned with European varieties. Hoppy and aromatic, these beers signaled the beginning of the craft beer movement, first defined by Charlie Papazian, author of The Complete Joy of Home Brewing and current president of the Brewers Association as "any brewery using the manual arts and skills of a brewer to create its products." In 1980, Sierra Nevada, then a nascent Northern California brewery, released its Pale Ale—a hop-forward ale brewed with Cascade hops, an experimental hop bred in the United States from a European female and an unknown male. The resulting hop is known for its bitter, citrus flavors, and while it's impossible to say whether or not Cascade hops contain some American hop stock, Townsend notes that it's possible (Bates, for his part, is convinced that Cascade has some neomexicanus genetics). Cascade, and Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale, essentially started a brewing revolution, proving that hops with bitter, fruity qualities could produce a beer that sold well. With that single pale ale, Sierra Nevada created what Steve Hindy refers to in his history of the craft beer movement The Craft Beer Revolution as "the hop rush," the decades after the release of the Pale Ale that saw an intense proliferation of heavily-hopped, bitter pale ales, IPAs and double IPAs. The palates of American beer drinkers began to expand; in 2007, Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale was the top selling craft beer, followed by Sam Adams' Boston Lager, Blue Moon's Belgian-Style White beer (then considered a craft beer; now, not so much) and a Sam Adams seasonal release. For craft breweries, flavor options were widening—and for hop growers, this meant the opportunity to try different, unique hops.
While perusing an online brewing forum, Desmarais came across a man claiming to have cultivated over 80 varieties of wild American hops seeking a commercial hop grower to help him expand his operation. Desmarais was intrigued. "The story, to me, was very compelling. It's a native, wild grown, U.S. hop," he explains, "and the U.S. craft industry is leading the word in brewing in terms of being on the cutting edge."
Desmarais is familiar with pushing the boundaries of the hop world, having cultivated the El Dorado hop, a fruity hop with high bitterness and aromatic qualities (descriptors range from watermelon candy to fresh cut grass). El Dorado itself is a hybrid hop, a combination of European and American hop stock. Bates had heard of El Dorado before, so when Desmarais responded to his posts, he knew he had found his match. "I wanted someone to take it for a home run," Bates says.
Hop growing is a fickle business plagued by disease and weather-sensitivity, so even though Desmarais wanted to try growing the wild New Mexico hops on his own farm, he wasn't sure how they would respond to the change in environment. Tentatively, he began moving a few of Bates' plants north, planting them in Yakima. What he found was a vigorous hop that grew like nothing he'd ever seen. Hop growers often talk about "internode distance" when discussing their hop plants, which refers to the distance between the hop plant's main stem and lateral offshoots that produce the cones. A traditional commercial hop plant might have an internode distance of 18 inches; many of Bates' wild hops had internode distances of only three to five inches, meaning they produced three or six times the cones, resulting in higher yields for the grower. After a few successful growing seasons, Desmarais and Bates worked on moving all of Bates' wild varieties—80 of them—up to CLS Farms. Of those 80 varieties, Desmarais identified at least two that grew well enough that he thought that they might appeal to brewers.
And appeal they did, especially for brewers who had heard of wild hops but never been able to get their hands on them, like Kevin Selvy of Colorado's Crazy Mountain Brewery, a microbrewery outside of Vail. For five years, he and his team scoured the American hop scene, hoping to get their hands on the ever-elusive, commercially-viable wild American hop. "We started asking around," he explains. "We called all the different hop distributors and hop brokers, and they'd never heard of it. Then we called almost every hop farmer in the country, and they'd heard of it, but weren't growing it. We tracked down some small-scale farmers who thought they had planted it in their backyard, and we'd go check it out, but it'd turn out not to be that. It was kind of an urban legend. We knew it existed, but it was hard to find."
Finally, by chance, Selvy found himself at CLS Farms, picking hops for their next contract. Desmarais showed Selvy the pure American hops, and Selvy was instantly sold. He agreed to work with Desmarais to brew the hops into a beer, a process that took about two years from start to finish. "It was a little bit of a leap of faith," Selvy points out, "because there was no real lab work done on this hop. We didn't really know much about it, or how it would taste or smell." By the end of 2013, the wild hops Selvy had chosen were ready for brewing. When the neomexicanus beer made its debut in Crazy Mountain's taproom in January of 2014, it sold out in a couple of hours.
Crazy Mountain's Neomexicanus Native Pale Ale, Selvy says, presents an intense spectrum of aroma, from guava, passion fruit, lemon lime citrus to alfalfa notes. "It's an interesting hop," Selvy says of neomexicanus varieties, "because it's presenting flavors and aromas that are unique in the hop world."
But while CLS Farms is the only commercial hop farm growing pure American hops, Crazy Mountain isn't the only brewery making beer with them—Sierra Nevada, the largest private craft brewery and seventh-largest brewery in the country, also managed to get their hands on some of Desmarais' neomexicanus hops—and their raw materials man, Tom Nielsen, thinks they can do something really special with them.
"The first time I saw them, I thought to myself, 'I want to do this project. We're going to do this. It's going to be done,'" Nielsen says. "So we got some samples in and we started brewing with it." What Nielsen found was a beer with aromas and flavors completely different from anything he'd ever tasted, with strong, fresh, almost fleshy fruit notes and spicy layers. Moreover, Nielsen found that the beer had a different effect on its drinkers, something he wasn't expecting. "I'm not saying it's like you're tripping on acid or anything," he explains, "but you just felt a little different. It was beyond the regular beer buzz."
When Sierra Nevada debuted their sample neomexicanus brews to the public, they were met with largely the same response that Crazy Mountain encountered. The beer had always been an inside favorite within Sierra Nevada, Nielsen explains, but at Sierra Nevada's Single, Fresh, Wet & Wild beer festival held in October of 2013, the keg of neomexicanus beer was gone in a half hour. Hoping to build upon that success, Sierra Nevada is planning a national release of a neomexicanus beer for later this fall. If the hops sell well, Bates will garner a modest recompense—10 cents per pound of hop sold, as per his agreement with Desmarais.
Not everyone shares Sierra Nevada's enthusiasm for pure American hops, however. The hop industry—though outwardly sexier than corn or soybeans—is still a product of modern industrial agriculture, where centralization and tradition reign supreme. The United States produces nearly one-third of all the hops in the world—of that, 79 percent is grown in Washington state. Nearly half of all hop varieties grown in Washington state fall into four hop varieties: Zeus, Cascade, Columbus/Tomahawk and Summit.
Hop crops are prone to disease—especially Hop Powdery Mildew (HPM), a serious fungal disease that contributed greatly to the decline of the New York commercial hop industry in the early 1900s. HPM didn't exist in the Pacific Northwest until the late 1990s, and there's no cure for it—growers have to use preventative fungicides in order to keep HPM from decimating their crops. Farmers are often wary of unknown hops—wild or feral hops that could carry diseases and fungi like HPM, so for three years in the late 1990s the Noxious Weed Control Board within Yakima's valley launched a campaign to raise awareness about feral hops—and to try and eradicate them.
Bates remembers seeing signs leftover from the campaign on a trip to Hopunion, a hop supplier in Yakima. "Sitting all through the offices are these election sign-looking-things, the kind you stick by the side of the road, and they say 'Eradicate All Wild Hops. Wild Hops Spread Disease. If You See Wild Hops, Call This Number.' And I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm trying to promote wild hops in Washington and they spend public money to eradicate them," Bates recalls. "I asked myself, 'What am I doing here?'"
When emerging research helped advance fungicide technology, the city abandoned the campaign, but hop growers still remain hesitant about introducing unknown factors into their hop fields. "I would think there are some hop growers that really detest what we're doing with neomexicanus, bringing this foreign material to neighboring fields and possibly infecting their whole crop with this stuff," Nielsen says. "But I think Eric has done his due diligence in the greenhouse and sprayed these with mildews and other stresses and seen how actually robust they are. They're not really very susceptible."
While Bates claims to have bred for hardiness, he also acknowledges that the plants themselves seem to thrive under adverse conditions—drought, for instance. Bates tells a story about his first wild hop plant—that neomexicanus that grew in the canyon behind his house, the one that he thought he had lost forever to drought. Three years later, Bates returned to the spot where the plant had once grown—and found it thriving once again. "It never died, it just slept during the drought," he says. "I had never seen any plant that could just hang out in the ground and wait for the right conditions and grow again. And that's when I got excited about these neomexicanus hops."
Desmarais agrees that the native hops have proven to be hardier than their European-stock counterparts, noting that while traditional hops require heavy irrigation, neomexicanus hops respond aggressively to even a tiny bit of water—making them ideal for places like Germany, whose hop crops suffer at times from lack of a formal irrigation system. As the world warms and water becomes an increasingly precious commodity, Desmarais thinks growing neomexicanus hops might become appealing to more growers.
The hops' hardiness could also expand the hop industry in the United States, by allowing places like Colorado, New Mexico, or even California, who haven't traditionally have much success growing hops, to gain a foothold in the business. "[The hop industry] are a little limited to a handful of varietals, a handful that come out of the Northwest or Europe that we know just can't do well in Colorado," Selvy says. "This new species might open up conceivably hundreds of new varietals that should grow successfully in this region, because it's native to here."
Whether or not neomexicanus ends up revolutionizing the beer industry, Bates is proud to have brought a wild plant to commercial production—something he calls one of his main passions. "A weed is a plant whose job is yet to be discovered," Bates says, "and this was truly being listed as a weed." Soon, it will be the American beer drinkers turn to decide whether or not this American weed can help brew the next great American beer.