Amarillo. Cascade. Centennial. Simcoe. These American-grown hops varieties have become stars over the past decade and are most commonly associated with the big, brassy IPAs brewed in Colorado, California and the Pacific Northwest. But none of them is actually indigenous to the United States. In fact, almost none of the hops varieties found in the tens of thousands of beers brewed in the U.S. are native to this country.
Which is what makes Neomexicanus Native Pale Ale, a new beer from Crazy Mountain Brewing in Edwards, so unusual. It's one of only two commercial beers made from humulus lupulus neomexicanus, which is native to Colorado and New Mexico and is an entirely separate species from its European cousin, humulus lupulus lupulus.
"It had been kind of like an urban legend," says Crazy Mountain co-founder Kevin Selvy. "People knew about it, but it wasn't being grown commercially."
But three years go, Selvy was meeting with hops farmers in Washington and noticed a row of humulus lupulus neomexicanus growing at CLS Farms in Yakima. "I was really surprised," Selvy says. CLS had "found rootstock from a small farmer in New Mexico. They didn't have a ton of it, but we said we'd buy everything they had."
In fact, CLS owner Eric Desmarais was growing eight varieties of neomexicanus, but hadn't done much, if any, lab work on the alpha acid content in the hops. "All we had to go off of was sensory analysis, so it could have turned out badly," Selvy says.
It didn't. Instead, the beer sold out in just a couple of hours when it debuted in Crazy Mountain's taproom last January. "It's a pretty cool hop," Selvy says. "It smells of intense guava, passion fruit, lemon lime and alfalfa notes."
Desmarais confirms that the hops have a unique aroma, but he says it's not one that would have been acceptable in the beer-brewing world a few years ago.
"Other growers poo-pooed this, but it caught my interest because 100 percent of my farm is dedicated to craft brewers and I knew they would be open to it," he explains. "The explosion of craft beer in the U.S has brought about brewers who are willing to try new things -- to try anything, basically. The doors opened that way."
Desmarais believes he is the only hops grower working with neomexicanus, something that came about when he met a man who lives near Taos, New Mexico, who had collected eighty different genetic lines of the plant that were growing wild.
"He lives off the grid a bit," Desmarais says. "Hops have been known to have medicinal qualities, and he was looking for plants for that purpose... He's been collecting them for the better part of a decade. He also noticed that they were fine for making beer."
The variety Desmarais is using -- which he hasn't named yet -- is one of eight with which he is experimenting, and although it would be easier to grow in its native habitat in New Mexico and Colorado, the plant is doing fine in the Yakima Valley.
It's also just a small part of his operation. Of the farm's 700 acres, neomexicanus grows on just four -- all of which are dedicated to Crazy Mountain and to California's Sierra Nevada, which buys the rest for an experimental version of its Wild Harvest IPA.
The variety is low in oils and alpha acids, Desmarais says, which makes it different from the bigger, juicier varieties that many breweries use for big IPAs, but he thinks it will find its niche with lower-alcohol "session" IPAs and pale sales.
Crazy Mountain's Selvy says it took a lot of guts for Desmarais and CLS to take a financial risk on the variety, and he's happy they did. "I think this will become really big in the craft world. It's been fun to be on the ground floor," he adds.
Desmarais agrees that the variety has potential, and says it makes particular sense for a Colorado brewer to be involved at the beginning: "Kevin is in the middle of where the humulus neomexicanus home range is. That sends a powerful message."
Coming in at 6 percent ABV and 46 IBUs, Neomexicanus Native Pale Ale has been on tap in a few places in the Denver metro area since January. It hits again this week at Jake's Brew Bar and the High Plains Tap House, both in Littleton; Oskar Blues Homemade Liquids & Solids in Longmont; Barrels and Bottles in Golden; World of Beer Cherry Creek in Glendale; and Kaos Pizza and Park Burger, both in Denver. (Call first, though, to make sure it is on tap or still on tap before you go.)
Selvy says the beer will be fairly limited in 2014, but he hopes to bottle it in 2015 when he will have enough hops to make it more widely available.
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