Hop Hunting

Hop scientists, concerned about climate change and seeking genetic diversity, are hunting in Baja Arizona, one of the oldest hop growing regions in North America.

November 11, 2017

BuzzIssue 27: November/December 2017

High above Tucson, researcher Taylan Morcol steers an old Ford pickup over the roads of Mount Lemmon on a quest reminiscent of Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle. Armed with a GPS device, maps, and botanical records dating back to the 1800s, he’s on the prowl for Humulus lupulus L. var. neomexicanus, the wild hop of the West.

Of all the places to go hop hunting, why Arizona?

Despite the state’s strong craft beer scene, almost none of the hops used to brew those beers are grown here. Arizona’s hop industry is so small, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn’t bother to report on it. The Hop Growers of America, meanwhile, notes that only one acre of hops was grown here in 2015 and 2016. It’s tempting to think of “Arizona hops” as an oxymoron.

Except that Mount Lemmon and the other sky island mountains of Arizona and New Mexico are one of the areas where hops didn’t go extinct during the Ice Age. That puts Baja Arizona in the heart of one of the oldest hop growing regions on the continent.

Just like the Galapagos Archipelago where Darwin developed his theory of evolution, the sky islands have some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. For hop scientists, the isolated populations of neomexicanus that cling to these hillsides are like a treasure map.

Researchers suspect Arizona’s native hops, which are suited to a hot, dry climate, might provide important genetic diversity as the climate changes.

“These hops are special,” says Paul Matthews, a senior researcher with Hopsteiner, one of the global players in the hop business. Two years ago, Matthews began sending teams of researchers on wild hop hunts in the sky islands. He says that after 150 years of hop breeding, it was time to bring new genetic material in from the wild. If you want to diversify hops, this a great place to start.

“We’re always looking for new traits, things that are new and different,” says Matthews. “The origin of hops is in the wild.” He rattles off a list of what they hope to find in the DNA of neomexicanus—new flavors, aromas, and disease resistance.

One area of promise is the adaptability of Arizona’s native hops to hot and dry conditions, traits that will come in handy as the climate warms. In the Yakima Valley of Washington, home to three-quarters of the U.S. crop, farmers have been warned to expect less water for irrigation because of climate change. Two years ago, Germany lost 27 percent of its crop to drought and hailstorms. Climate change is a serious issue for hop growers everywhere.

Morcol, a student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, approaches his work with the ethics he learned as a wild crafter, someone who forages for food and medicine. They include always collecting less than 10 percent of a plant, leaving more than enough behind for it to survive.

“In the sky islands, these plants are fairly rare,” says Morcol. “We were at the largest known population in the Catalinas and there were maybe no more than 10 plants there.”

When USDA researchers came here a decade ago, wild hops were missing in about half the places where they had previously been found. Matthews suspects climate change as a cause. The irony is that, while Arizona hops have the potential to help their siblings further north adapt to a warmer world, they may not be adaptable enough to survive the changes underway in their native territory.

Despite being more than 1,000 miles from the major hop growing regions of the Pacific Northwest, the grassy plains outside of Elgin are home to Arizona’s first commercial hop farm.

The cones, seeds, stems and other material collected by the teams will be analyzed and tested for disease and the DNA sequenced before they’re added to the USDA Germplasm System. Once in the system, they become public, available to any researcher, breeder, and even homebrewers. The process takes years and Hopsteiner has to wait in line just like everyone else. “We’re anxious to use these hops,” says Matthews. “But we realize they’re a national resource.”

With research in Arizona winding down, one of the teams moves to Colorado next year while others continue hunting in the countries of Georgia and Kazakhstan. Eventually Matthews wants to collect samples of wild hops all over the globe.

If neomexicanus is to make a quick leap from wild hop into a hopyard, it’ll be because of growers like the Copper Hop Ranch in Elgin.

Mel and Tom Pyle settled on the grassy plains in a bright red farmhouse three years ago. Their dream was to open a farm brewery and grow their own ingredients. “We like beer,” says Mel. “I had a winery before and it was a good living. But I didn’t want to buy other people’s stuff. I wanted to take responsibility for what we grew.”

Elgin is more than 1,000 miles from the major hop growing regions of the Pacific Northwest. Mel and Tom heard from the naysayers. “They said you could not grow hops down here because it’s too far south,” recalls Mel. “I said ‘bullcrap.’ I like a challenge.”

Researchers with Hopsteiner have come to Arizona to hunt for Humulus lupulus L. var. neomexicanus, the wild hop of the West.

They constructed a hop trellis and planted their first crop, installed a three-barrel brew system, and converted a small barn into a tasting room. Neighbors drop in and help out with chores, while others come by with freshly picked fruit for the Pyle’s farm-made ciders.

Today, they grow nearly a dozen domestic varieties of hops as well as their beloved neomexicanus. It hasn’t always been easy. “You can grow them down here,” says Mel, referring to the hops they brought in from the wild. “But it takes a lot of work to make them produce well and be a healthy plant.”

The hard work is paying off. Mel shows off plants that, despite being late in the season, are brimming with cones. The Pyles want to grow more and plan to set aside an entire section of the hopyard just for the neomexicanus hop.

Craft brewers approach wild hops with a wary eye. Neomexicanus and the other wild hops of North America are viewed as unpredictable, with harsh flavors and strong bitterness.

One convert is Chris Squires of Ten 55 Brewing in Tucson. “It was delicious,” he says, describing the batch he and his business partner, J.P. Vyborny, brewed with wild neomexicanus that were picked by family friends. “They hand-picked several big garbage bags,” recalls Squires. “We wound up with eight or nine pounds of cones, enough for a pale ale.”

Squires and Vyborny were foodies and friends long before they became brewers. They cooked meals together and talked about food and where it comes from. “That fed our development as brewers,” says Squires. “We started asking ourselves those questions. Why can’t we make a beer with ingredients that a farmer has grown here?”

Mel and Tom Pyle grow nearly a dozen domestic varieties of hops, including neomexicanus.

Along with native Arizona hops, the recipe for their beer made with all local ingredients included barley grown at BKW Farms in Marana and malted at Hamilton Distillers in Tucson. The yeast came from a previous batch at the brewery. They called it Valentine, a love letter to Arizona. “Our intent was to show off the terroir of Arizona and to use the ingredients that the dirt gave us,” says Squires.

Patrons loved the story and Squires says the unique and complex flavors of wheat, grass, and citrus took everyone by surprise. Valentine sold out quickly.

“Customers appreciate local,” he says, “and that starts a conversation. ‘You mean no one grows hops here, or they’re hard to find here?’ It starts people asking those questions and that was the goal.”

In five years, hop acreage in the U.S. has doubled, largely because of craft brewing’s almost insatiable thirst for more hops. If that growth is to include Baja Arizona, it may depend on craft beer drinkers’ desire for local ingredients and if growers are willing to add acres and grow more varieties of hops. “I would like to see more Arizona hops on the market,” says Squires. “We would use them.”

“But we need to see diversity,” he adds. “One or two farms, I don’t know if that’s going to cut it. I think we need to see five, six, or seven. I’d love to see that.” ✜

Dennis Newman is a freelance writer in Tucson who has written extensively about farming and how crops become food and beverages.

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