Article

Neomexicanus Hops

Hops are the defining ingredient of the American craft beer movement. But most of the popular aroma varieties that define styles and set trends originated in Europe, and though now grown here, are not true American hops. Humulus lupulus var. neomexicanus is a genetically distinct sub-species of hop that has been growing wild in the dry mountain regions of New Mexico for the last million years. This unique sub-species offers brewers the first opportunity to brew with what meets the definition of pure American hops, as neomexicanus does not trace its heritage back to the European hop lineage. Not only does neomexicanus’ roots run deep in the American West, but it also perfectly embodies the American craft brewing spirit: Wild, rambunctious, and ever pushing the boundaries of the brewing frontier.

HOPS IN THE NEW WORLD

All brewing hops fall under the Humulus genus and are in the broad Cannabaceae family, which ranges from flowering plants like Cannabis to some trees like Celtis. Additionally, there are three species of Humulus (japonicus, yunnanensis, and lupulus), but the first two have no brewing value. Humulus lupulus, also known as the common hop, is the hop that brewers and beer lovers are familiar with and dates back to a common ancestor in Mongolia about six million years ago. From there, the hops spread out, through natural dispersion and animal assistance, and settled into five main growing regions in the Northern Hemisphere1. The major genetic distinction to be made here is between the Old World hops, in Europe and Asia, and the New World hops, which came to the Americas over the Bering Strait.

It took 4.5 million years for the plants to make their way from Mongolia to Europe, where these Old World varieties went on to become the oldest cultivated group of hops, commonly referred to as Noble hops.1 Noble hops typically have a lower alpha acid percentage and have been carefully selected and grown for centuries to impart a mild bitterness with some soft spice or floral aromas. There was no recorded purposeful cross-breeding in the Old World gene pool and open pollination was the major driving factor. However, hop farmers did select varieties for hardiness and resiliency to disease and pests as well as the flavor and aroma they contributed to the final beer. This practice thinned out the gene pool to just a handful of varieties that catered to the traditional styles of the day.

It took another 500,000 years, after Old World hops had settled in Europe, before the separate lineage of hops, and still direct descendants from Mongolia, made it over to North America. This group now goes by the designation H. Americanus and over the years, they have run wild in the United States, settling in three main growing regions (Northeast, Midwest, and the Southwest). When the first European settlers arrived on the East Coast, they started brewing with the local wild hop variety lupuloides, but quickly imported rhizomes from Europe. The very first commercial hop farm in the United States was started in 1629 by the Massachusetts Company, and used imported, Old World hops. This started to blur the lines between the Old World and New World varieties as genetic traits were shared through open pollination. New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts continued to be the major hop producers over the next two centuries with the top harvest coming in 1836 and bringing in a total of 1,441,936 hand-picked pounds (~650,000 kg).2

A major aphid outbreak through the 1850s and a series of bad hop harvests meant the crown for top hop production passed to Wisconsin. This again blurred the lines between the varieties as the native variety in the Midwest, Humulus lupulus var. pubescens, mingled with the Old World hops brought in for cultivation.1 “As it is, the few examples we have — which are, after all, crosses themselves — help us imagine what the ‘American’ side of any crosses contribute to New World hops,” said Stan Hieronymus, author of For the Love of Hops. The hop industry in the Midwest, fueled by the growth of big breweries out of Milwaukee, also got boosted by the end of the Civil War when approximately 40,000 Wisconsin soldiers returned home to their farms. Wisconsin’s hop production topped out in 1867, with over 11 million pounds (~5 million kg), but decreased quickly due to market pressures and an influx of supply from New England hop farms that were recovering from the aphid outbreak. By 1880, Wisconsin only harvested 2 million pounds (900,000 kg) of hops and this output continued dropping over the next two decades until it was virtually nonexistent by the turn of the century.2

The search for the perfect hop-growing region ended in the Yakima Valley, Washington. In an effort spearheaded by Alexander Graham Bell, the Moxee Company, named after the area of the Yakima Valley, was incorporated on June 28, 1886. The venture was a diversified farming operation that had about 1,000 acres under cultivation by 1888, including barley, wheat, corn, oats, alfalfa, tobacco, sugar beets, and 35 acres of hops (from Old World rootstock). After the tobacco crop was decimated by leaf blight, the Moxee Company, in tandem with the Northern Pacific Railroad, recruited French-Canadian farmers from northern Minnesota to come grow hops in the Yakima Valley. Thirteen families came in two waves, first in 1897 and again in 1902, and formed the backbone of the area’s hop industry.3 Hops flourished in the Yakima Valley due to the 300 days of sun, rich volcanic soil, and the extensive irrigation system. The Yakima Valley also benefits greatly from being located on the 47th parallel north, close to the same latitude that the Noble hops were accustomed to back in Europe. Due to the combination of all these positive factors, the Yakima Valley accounts for 72% of the acreage in the United States (the top hop grower by acreage in the world — Germany is the top producer, with the US being a close second) and almost 80% of the total yield, as of 2017.

Despite their ubiquitous use for centuries in places like Germany, France, and Belgium, these delicate and subtle Noble hop varieties have been eschewed recently in the American craft beer scene that rewards brash, heavy-handed, and hop-forward beers. But even the citrusy and juicy hop varieties that are so popular now, and thought to be quintessential American hops, can trace their heritage, at least in part, back to these Noble European hops.

Even Cascade, which is arguably the hop that launched the American craft beer craze and made Sierra Nevada Pale Ale one of the most popular craft beers in the country, has a European female for a mother, despite being born in the United States and being touted as the flagship of New World hops. “It’s well known what latitude hops will get the best yields,” said Hieronymus. “Further, hops have been bred and selected that perform best in traditional growing regions.” So even though the presumed divide between Old World hops and New World hops seems so vast, they all come from virtually the same gene pool and are simply selected for different tastes.

NEOMEXICANUS TODAY

Neomexicanus remained largely isolated until Todd Bates moved to a ranch in the New Mexico wilderness in 1991. Bates originally foraged for roots and medicinal herbs in the area around Taos, New Mexico, but soon started homebrewing batches of beer with the wild lúpulo he found. Lúpulo, as it was locally called, is the Spanish word for hop and sounds like the Latin name lupulus, which means small wolf. The Latin name refers to hop’s voracious bines that, in the wild, can climb up other plants and trees, eventually strangling them. For this reason, hops have also been nicknamed willow wolf, as the tall willows were favorites for hops to climb up.

This is in stark contrast to the rocky and relatively treeless region that neomexicanus calls home, which has not given neomexicanus the same opportunities to learn how to climb throughout the generations. This is one of the reasons that early commercial cultivation of neomexicanus has proven difficult. “Growing it is definitely a labor of love,” said Reid Lundgren, operations manager at CLS Farms in the Yakima Valley. “Sometimes it will get half way up the wire and just fall off. It didn’t really have anything tall to climb in its natural habitat so it doesn’t know how.” This literally goes against the hop name since the word itself is derived from an old Anglo-Saxon word “hoppan,” which means “to climb.” “But some of these plants are now into their fourth and fifth year up here and they are starting to get it,” continued Lundgren. “You can really see how much they’ve already learned.” To help train the bines, the farmers select the best ones (usually 3 per line) and assist their growing with the proper rotation, and then cut or burn back the other bines.

The neomexicanus being grown at CLS Farms came from the collection that Todd Bates has been accumulating. Bates partnered with Eric Desmarais, owner of CLS Farms and fourth-generation hop farmer, to bring the neomexicanus varieties north to the Yakima Valley. Desmarais is from one of the original 13 families that moved from Minnesota and still works some of the same land in Moxee. Not only is Desmarais now the single largest grower of Centennial, but he has already developed and grows his own proprietary dual-purpose variety El Dorado®. This pioneering spirit led Desmarais to the hills of New Mexico to hand-select the first 100% neomexicanus rootstock and bring it back to the Yakima Valley. Eighty varieties of neomexicanus were brought to CLS Farms at the start and after multiple growing seasons two varieties are on track for
commercial release.

The first 100% neomexicanus variety to be released commercially was named MedusaTM and is aptly named because of its multi-headed cone that looks entirely unique in the world of hops. Sierra Nevada featured MedusaTM in the first edition of their Harvest Wild Hop IPA, but it has been used in very few other commercial beers due to the limited supply. MedusaTM is a low alpha acid hop that ranges from 3.5–5%, but has a myrcene content pushing 30% of total terpenes, which lends bright flavors and aromas of tropical fruit. Recent harvests of MedusaTM commonly get described as sweeter fruits such as watermelon, guava, and apricot. MedusaTM has an underlying spice and dankness that makes it instantly recognizable in the world of hops and can only be described by its wild nature. Not only is its appearance one-of-a-kind, close to 30% of MedusaTM’s terpenes are, as of yet, unidentified, which leaves a lot of territory left to explore. “Of course we could know a lot more about them,” said Hieronymus. “And as research on the hop genome continues I think we will.”

The second 100% neomexicanus variety to see commercial release — which has been playfully referred to as Zappa, but has not, as of yet, been formally named — was originally supposed to see its first commercial release after the 2017 harvest, but there is a recent rumor that the entirety of the crop has been scooped up by Sierra Nevada. The brewery does have a fair claim to the crop since it was one of their guys, Tom Nielsen, who hiked around in New Mexico with Bates and Desmarais, foraging for these precious roots.

Lundgren explained that current neomexicanus yields per acre are only about half of what they get compared to a variety like Centennial. This means that these 100% neomexicanus varieties will be scarce, but Desmarais said they are planning on meeting this pent-up demand by increasing acreage and releasing new 100% neomexicanus varieties in the future. He also said that as the plants get established and acclimated in their new home, yields will continue to improve. Even with limited quanities, MedusaTM has already become available on the homebrew market, and Zappa is expected to be available for homebrewers soon.

One of the bigger adjustments the plants needed to make for their new northern home was related to different daylight hours. Hops are photosensitive and flower based on the hours of daylight they are exposed to. The move north means longer days in the summer that are much earlier in the growing season. “They can get up to an additional two hours of sunlight up here than what they are used to in New Mexico,” said Lundgren. “They just get so much sun up here, this kind of confuses them and they start flowering earlier than they should. And then they just keep popping out cones and popping out cones all summer. So sometimes you can find huge, mature cones right next to little spurs that have barely started budding. But you can tell the more established ones are starting to get it.”

Across all varieties of neomexicanus, there are a few of the common characteristics, including long, spindly leaves that are not unlike the leaves of the cannabis plant. This tends to make neomexicanus plants look scrawny when growing next to their domesticated cousins, who are big and bushy, but might eventually lead to better yields. Another natural benefit for neomexicanus hops is that their “internode distance,” which measures the distance on the bine between the points where the flowers or cones form, is much shorter (5–8 inches/13–20 cm apart as opposed to 18 inches/46 cm average on Old World varieties). This means that neomexicanus hops potentially can yield almost three times more hops, but this is not yet the case with commercial harvests.

Another predominant visual characteristic of neomexicanus is that their hop cones are not as dense and compact as their Old World relatives. Lundgren explains that the hop’s bracts, or the small outer leaves that make up the outside of the hop flower, are flared out on neomexicanus and makes the cones look bushier. “You take a look at the Citra® cone and they look exactly opposite,” said Lundgren. This means that after harvest, neomexicanus cones can be kilned (the drying process used to help preserve the hops) in almost half the time. Kilning practices vary from farm to farm and depend on the variety of hop, but typically the fresh-picked cones, after being separated from the rest of the bine, are laid out in layers and dried for 10–12 hours at around 130 °F (54 °C). This process reduces the moisture content in the cones to 9-10% of the original and prepares the hops to be baled up for transportation.

THE FUTURE OF NEOMEXICANUS

Neomexicanus hops are now a big family with hundreds of distinct varieties and some of the genetic lines are starting to blur again between Old World, New World, and neomexicanus. This is due to cross-breeding with European heritage hops in an attempt to improve the agronomics for neomexicanus commercial varieties. The Hop Breeding Company (HBC), a joint venture between John I. Haas and the Select Botanicals Group, have a number of experimental varieties blending neomexicanus traits with more traditionally-grown varieties to coax out the best aspects of each.

Desmarais believes that 100% neomexicanus varieties are important because it preserves that wild American heritage. “These hops weren’t crossed with conventional varieties by early settlers, or developed by white coats in a breeding program, they figured it out all on their own, in the Wild West right here in the real world.”

Not only does the introduction ofneomexicanus offer exciting new varieties for brewers and beer lovers to enjoy, but this re-enforces the possibility of commercially growing hops outside of traditional areas. Neomexicanus seems to thrive in arid climates or without intensive irrigation. This has opened the doors to growing hops in places like New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona, which have not been able to support local commercial hop farms. “The hops that have proven they can survive in other areas have the potential to do better in non-traditional regions. But it is only potential, and maybe the answer isn’t neo-only, but neo from those regions crossed with other varieties,” said Hieronymus. “Again, hop genome research is going to open a lot of doors.”

Hop farmers and breeders are constantly trying to find, crossbreed, or develop the next superstar hop variety, but many more things than just flavor and aroma need to be taken into consideration. Every variety of hop has its own strengths and weaknesses across a wide range of categories such as resistance to disease, mold, and mildew, yield per acre, and storability of the crop. It takes the perfect convergence of all these different factors to bring a new hop variety to the market, but the whole process from seed to sipping on a pint takes close to a decade. Even if an experimental hop variety does get a commercial release, then it is up to the consumer, ultimately the beer drinker, to decide if the variety has any staying power.

“Short-term, the varieties (of neomexicanus) out there right now will fill a niche within a niche,” said Hieronymus. “Brewers are not going to use hundreds of thousands of tons of neo-only varieties. But that component changes the way we think about beer and has the potential to at least become at least a little bit bigger piece of the pie.”

NEOMEXICANUS RECIPE

BOMBING RANGE BREWING CO.’S MEDUSA DRY HOPPED PALE CLONE

(5 gallon/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.053 FG = 1.010
IBU = 56 SRM = 5 ABV = 5.8%

This beer from Bombing Range Brewing (Richland, Washington) had limited availability but was easily one of the best using MedusaTM that I personally had. Founder and Head Brewer Mike Hopp describes it as a smooth, easy drinker with huge stone fruit and apricot flavors and aroma.

INGREDIENTS

6.4 lbs. (2.9 kg) 2-row pale malt
3.25 lbs. (1.5 kg) white wheat malt
15 oz. (425 g) Maris Otter pale ale malt
8 oz. (227 g) caramel malt (20 °L)
4 AAU Columbus hops (90 min.) (0.3 oz./8.5 g at 13.5% alpha acids)
1.5 AAU Medusa™ hops (75 min.) (0.4 oz./11.3 g at 3.8% alpha acids)
1.9 AAU Medusa™ hops (30 min.) (0.5 oz./4 g at 3.8% alpha acids)
2.9 AAU Medusa™ hops (20 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 3.8% alpha acids)
3.8 AAU Medusa™ hops (10 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 3.8% alpha acids)
7.6 AAU Medusa™ hops (0 min.) (2 oz./57 g at 3.8% alpha acids)
4 oz. (113 g) Medusa™ hops (dry hop)
White Labs WLP001 (California Ale), Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), or Safale US-05 yeast
34 cup corn sugar (if priming)

STEP BY STEP

Mill the grains, then mix with 3.5 gallons (13.2 L) of 162 °F (73 °C) strike water to reach a mash temperature of 151 °F (66 °C). Hold this temperature for 60 minutes. Sparge grains with enough water to collect 6.5 gallons (24.6 L) of wort. Boil for 90 minutes, adding hops according to the ingredient list.

After the boil, remove from heat and add the final hop addition. Give the wort a long stir to create a whirlpool and let settle for 20 minutes. Chill the wort to about 68 °F (20 °C). Aerate the wort with pure oxygen or filtered air and pitch yeast.

Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C) for four days, then raise the temperature towards the end of attenuation. Add the dry hops and wait 4 days before packaging.

 

BOMBING RANGE BREWING CO.’S MEDUSA DRY HOPPED PALE CLONE

(5 gallon/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.053 FG = 1.010
IBU = 56 SRM = 5 ABV = 5.8%

INGREDIENTS

3.3 lbs. (1.5 kg) golden liquid malt extract
3.3 lbs. (1.5 kg) wheat malt liquid malt extract
0.5 lb. (0.45 kg) Muntons light dried malt extract
8 oz. (227 g) caramel malt (20 °L)
4 AAU Columbus hops (90 min.) (0.3 oz./8.5 g at 13.5% alpha acids)
1.5 AAU Medusa™ hops (75 min.) (0.4 oz./11.3 g at 3.8% alpha acids)
1.9 AAU Medusa™ hops (30 min.) (0.5 oz./4 g at 3.8% alpha acids)
2.9 AAU Medusa™ hops (20 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 3.8% alpha acids)
3.8 AAU Medusa™ hops (10 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 3.8% alpha acids)
7.6 AAU Medusa™ hops (0 min.) (2 oz./57 g at 3.8% alpha acids)
4 oz. (113 g) Medusa™ hops (dry hop)
White Labs WLP001 (California Ale), Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), or Safale US-05 yeast
34 cup corn sugar (if priming)

STEP BY STEP

Place the crushed grains in a muslin bag and submerge in 5 gallons (19 L) of water as it heats to 160 °F (71 °C). Remove the grain bag and allow to drip back into the kettle. Add the liquid and dried malt extract and stir until extracts are fully dissolved. Bring wort to a boil.

Total boil time is 90 minutes, adding hops at times indicated. After the boil, remove from heat and add the final hop addition. Give the wort a long stir to create a whirlpool and let settle for 20 minutes. Chill the wort to about 68 °F (20 °C). Aerate the wort with pure oxygen or filtered air and pitch yeast.

Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C) for four days, then raise the temperature towards the end of attenuation. Add the dry hops and wait 4 days before packaging.