Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Should Northeast-Grown Hops Be Renamed? / Brewing an IPA with Century-Feral New York Wild Hops



Running a brewery on a real actual operating farm, complete with its own hop yard, I'm very much interested in the quality of local (northeast) hops, and putting them to the best possible use. I can't wait to see what comes of the resurgence of the industry in this region. Of course, the quality of the local hops that I've brewed with so far can vary widely, which is to be expected. I don't take that as a knock on local growing: many of these are from incredibly small operations, basically hobbyists, and local hops are much like a fledgling homebrew scene: some surprisingly good, some need some troubleshooting. But done right, I've seen promising cones.

And generally, where it gets really interesting is that everything I've tasted, when turned into beer, is quite different from its namesake varieties grown in the northwest. So here's something that I think will become a major question in the beer community in the near future: should hops from new regions like the northeast, which diverge dramatically from the character of their western counterparts, be renamed as something new and unique? Are these the same hops? When is Cascade no longer Cascade?

I'm not quite bold enough to raise such a question and then try to answer it myself right now, but I do hope to see some discussion on this subject soon. It is the time to start thinking about such things. Hop farms, particularly in New York, are teetering at the threshold. Right now, many of these farms are prepping for their third-year harvest, an important milestone in the lifespan of a hop yard. Hops generally require a few years before they hit peak maturity, and you'll often hear that the third harvest is the one where they really come into their own. Very few serious operations in New York have been around much longer than this. The same, I imagine, is true for New England in general. As far as we know, the hop farm at Kent Falls Brewery on Camps Road Farm is the only commercial hop growing operation presently in the state of Connecticut (we're also the first farm brewery in the state of Connecticut). Our hops are, in fact, entering their third year. I'll be very interested to see how they perform in 2015. (No pressure whatsoever, Farmer John).

But what's really, really cool and exciting to me is that there are hops growing in the northeast which have been around for far longer than any of the modern batch of hop farms. Decades before farm bills were being contemplated, decades before the craft beer movement was even a twinkle in Ken Grossman's eye, hops were growing wild in the Northeast. Because as you probably know, New York used to be hop growing capital of the Americas... before Prohibition tripped it up, and blight clotheslined it in a vicious and unfair tag-team. All across this region, derelict hop farms were abandoned, hops left to grow feral. This is fascinating to me: all over the state, and nearby states, potentially grow hops that have been wild for almost a century. Hops that may in fact be hundreds of years old, all-told. Hops that have absorbed the character of the land and made it their own. Truly unique, more-or-less native hops. Forgotten, and awaiting rediscovery.

Obercreek Farm, in Wappingers Falls, NY, found such hops growing on their property. Obercreek is one of the many small farms / growers in New York to put in just an acre or few of hops, but these weren't part of the business plan: they were already there, for what Farmer Tim estimates to be about a century, if not more. And with a hundred years to acclimate to the soil, it's no wonder they're the strongest and most aggressive growers of Obercreek's lot. Besides them growing well, I was hoping for stronger flavors than I've gotten from immature local hops, too. And in this aspect, they showed what unique regional hops are capable of. The IPA that I brewed with these New York feral hops may not be game-changing for a contemporary IPA, but it shows off the varied potential for a little-explored type of hop. The flavors were indeed stronger than other local hops I've used, and far more complex. Unique, too.

While the general framework of the recipe was that of an IPA (nothing fancy, there), this doesn't quite taste like any IPA I have ever had. The primary character is something like orange marmalade, but with less citrus. It's rounder, smoother, softer; more suited to a well-balanced pale ale than an IPA, perhaps. The flavor isn't necessarily as striking as some really juicy hop varieties, but it also fills out a spoke on the flavor wheel that I've not exactly encountered — and that sort of uniqueness is always welcome. Smooth orange marmalade: I can work with that.

And who knows what hops this wild variety originally descended from. A safe guess would be that Cluster or perhaps Brewer's Gold might be involved. Another safe guess would be that these hops were not descended from Mosaic. And in any case, they do shelter a hint of the English ancestry that might have preceded them, or at least influenced popular hops at the time, but with that 'American tang' shaping most of what's there. And whatever their background, if we brewers end up using more hops like these, we're going to need to start brainstorming some new names. East Coast Cascade or something a century older: they're just not the same.

A school near the brewery is said to have hops that have been growing wild for 300 years. Now those I really want to brew with.



4 comments:

  1. It is fairly amazing to see what kind of differences growing conditions and climate does to hops. I grow Chinook in the Willamette Valley in OR, and my Chinook is super tropically and fruity with a mild resinous quality. It is nothing like the heavy pine and mild grapefruit that I get from commercial growers.

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  2. For me (and I believe for scores of others) an awareness of the names of the hop varieties in the beer I was drinking really didn't matter until I Sierra Nevada Pale Ale arrived in my hands. At some point in those early days of craft beer, I became aware of the Cascade hop being the signature flavor and aroma to my favorite new find. I suspect defining new names or varietal designations for hops from a certain place won't be all that necessarily until one of them becomes the signature of some commercial beer somewhere. I also believe that it won't necessarily arrive in a hop-forward style that are all the current rage. It will arrive in a beer in which the brewer dedicates herself (or himself) to the hops at hand and doesn't consider Cascade hops a relic from "the 1990s" (as one local Vermont IPA brewer stated a while back). I grow a dozen cultivars and one feral hop for my own brewing in Vermont and have largely abandoned commercial hops in my beer for the challenge of it.

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  3. Ultimately I think that local ingredients are the one thing that can help lead to truly regional beer styles in North America. The whole West Coast IPA vs. East Coast IPA thing is cool, but it's rather made up and not necessarily rooted (no pun intended) in those regions. Local hops that can't be replicated because they are unique to the place that they are stuck in the ground is something that can help to create beers that really define local (unless those local hop growers go big and send their hops all over the place). I'm excited for this aspect of brewing in the future as more homebrewers and commercial brewers embrace local ingredients. As you said "I can work with this" is a good attitude and one that will help fledgling hop and malt operations to grow.
    As my backyard Centennial plant reaches maturity this year (and takes over half my garden) I'm eager to see what type of flavors it brings to my beers. Maybe it won't make the Centennial IPA that I'm used to, but that's the point!

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  4. While building our 1/2 acre hops yard in northern NJ we discovered a wild daughter in a patch no larger than 30' in diameter, growing amidst the overgrowth and sumac. Shallow roots spread all around just under the natural leaf mulch. Fearing the presence of a male we transplanted much of this patch miles away but now as the season nears the end, the cones have shown themselves. While not yet an expert on hop characteristics I would definitely say that it has a distinct, unique scent. I will leave it to an expert brewer to help us define its best use when the time comes. For now we plan to propagate it in our hops yard and also home brew with it.
    We have lived on the farm for 37 years and the place that this wild hops was growing was so far out of the way, in the hedge of a cow pasture that had been a pasture before we bought the place. The plant predates the craft beer revolution and hobby growing as we know it today. It must be from an earlier time when there was a brewery in the town, a brewery that closed its doors around 1850.
    We are excited that this hops plant has survived and thrived for us to find her in our expanding hops yard. Because it has survived through the years, it may become the best growing plant for our yard. The 6 pieces that were transplanted this spring, grew to 14' before putting out many cones. That is unusually good growth for year one.

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