Part 1 of my series on neomexicanus hops.
Humulus lupulus: the brewer’s favorite flowering plant. Its pungent flowers, commonly referred to as hops, are responsible for the signature bitterness in beer and contribute a complex bouquet of flavors though concentrations of myrcene, humulene, xanthohumol, myrcenol, linalool, tannins, and resin. Though the lupulus variety takes up the lion’s share of the homebrewer’s attention, you might be surprised to discover there are actually five distinct varieties of the plant (six, if you include hybrids):
- cordifolius – Eastern Asia and Japan
- lupulus – Europe, Asia, and Africa
- neomexicanus – Western North America
- pubescens – Midwestern US
- lupuloides (aka americanus) – Eastern and northern North America
As a follower of Stan Hieronymus’ blog I was recently tipped-off to the fact that a monastery in New Mexico has successfully cultivated and is selling homebrew-sized batches of neomexicanus hops from their website. Though they are perhaps the most expensive hops I have ever purchased–$50 for six ounces–like any good homebrewer my desire for experimentation knows no limits! I’ll be writing more about the beers I make with the neomexicanus hops, but since the variety is new to the homebrew and even professional brewing scenes I thought I’d do a bit of research and share the details.
A Brief History of Humulus
It is reckoned that Humulus, the progenitor of the modern hop plant, originated in Mongolia roughly six million years ago and split off into two distinct subsets: European and American. Roughly one million years ago the European variety diverged from the Asian group while roughly five hundred thousand years ago the American variety found its way across the Bering Strait. From there, the European group split into cordifolius and lupulus while the American variety split into lupuloides (also known as americanus), neomexicanus, and pubescens.
Of all the varieties, lupulus was the first to be identified as producing outstanding beers and was cultivated into many of the traditional varieties such as Saaz, Hallertauer, Kent Goldings, etc (the noble varieties). As the New World began to be colonized and the first settlers arrived in North America, the colonists were forced to brew beer with the wild lupuloides hops they found, only later getting access to lupulus hops imported from Europe. In the great words of Ian Malcom, “life, uh, finds a way,” and soon enough the native and imported hops began cross-breeding, producing the signature landrace hops for which America is renowned; Cluster being one of the early standouts. Today, most American varieties are hybrids of both North American and European genetic material.
In the early 1900s, Ernest Stanley Salmon, a professor at Wye College in the UK, crossed a wild American hop with varieties of European hops growing in Great Britain, creating what would eventually become Brewer’s Gold. This event is renowned as the trigger that finally sparked worldwide interest in native American hops. As research expanded in America, wild hops growing throughout the American Southwest were deemed distinct enough to merit their own sub-species: Humulus lupulus var. neomexicanus.
Flash forward to the early 1990’s, a man named Todd Bates moves from Ohio to New Mexico to run a guest ranch in the New Mexico wilderness. Encouraged by the locals to forage for local herbs, Bates begins collecting and cultivating varities of wild hops that he finds. 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 breed the varieties together in an effort to create a pure American hop that grew well and made great beer. Meanwhile, in Yakima, Washington, hop farmer Eric Desmarais of CLS Farms (cultivator of the the El Dorado hop) was on the lookout for the next big thing. A chance encounter on an online brewing forum connected Bates and Desmarais and they worked together to eventually identify two neomexicanus varieties that grew well enough that they might appeal to brewers.
One of the varieties, Medusa, has already found commercial success in Sierra Nevada’s Harvest Wild Hop IPA – Neomexicanus Varietal as well as Crazy Mountain Brewing’s Neomexicanus Native Pale Ale. Those two breweries account for virtually all of the neomexicanus crop, with the rest being grown by the bothers at Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico (and are available to homebrewers).
A Bright Future
One of the key discoveries of the neomexicanus hops is their increased hardiness as compared to their European cousins. Traditional hops require heavy irrigation while neomexicanus responds aggressively to even small amounts of water. Additionally, neomexicanus plants produce three or six times the cones as traditional hop plants, resulting in higher yields in smaller plots of land. The hops’ hardiness could also expand the hop industry into places like Colorado, New Mexico, and California, places that traditionally do not have much success growing hops.
- In Search of the Great American Beer, Natasha Geiling. A great in-depth article chronicling the history of neomexicanus and other American hop varieties.
- For The Love of Hops, Stan Hieronymus. A good primer on the history and application of hops; lupulus is the primary focus, but neomexicanus gets a few mentions.