The Hunt for Wild Hops | Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine
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The Hunt for Wild Hops

For most brewers, hops are typically purchased through massive multiyear contracts from far away farms in the Pacific Northwest. But for one rugged brewer in New Mexico, hops harvest is time to hit the trails and canyons of the state’s high country.

Jamie Bogner August 16, 2017

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The email came out of the blue in late July. “The time draws near. I’ve been scouting multiple locations and attempting to coordinate a team to pick … The females aren’t showing their sex quite yet, so we are a couple weeks out.”

Brewer Kyle-Bartholomew Yonan began his yearly tradition of brewing a commercial batch with foraged fresh hops several years ago, and each year his work hunting down hops in the New Mexico backcountry has yielded bigger payoffs. This year, his goal was a 15 bbl batch for Enchanted Circle Brewing in Angel Fire, New Mexico, where he recently took the reins as head brewer.

Three weeks later, it’s on. An email arrives with the warning “DO NOT SHARE THIS DOCUMENT.” Confidentiality is expected—as for a Western prospector in the 1800s gold rush, locations of these hops claims are shared on a strictly need-to-know basis. Yonan has put years and years of work into identifying these pockets of brewing gold, returning week after week during the season to check on their progress, and timing the pick for the peak of the hops cones’ potency. The email ended with a quote from Gandalf—“Keep it secret, keep it safe.”

Humulus lupulus var. neomexicanus grows wild in New Mexico. While not as highly prized or cultivated widely for brewing as the more common Humulus lupulus var. lupulus, certain varieties of this wild hops have found their way into smaller-scale commercial cultivation. Crazy Mountain Brewing in Denver brews a pale ale with Neomexicanus hops grown by CLS Farms in Yakima, Washington. The root stock for those hops originated in New Mexico with Neomexicanus breeder Todd Bates who has bred and hybridized various native hops on his farm outside Taos for a couple of decades. Sierra Nevada Brewing also released a beer made with these hops that CLS has dubbed “Medusa” for its tendency to grow multi-headed cones.

But the plant itself is only one aspect of the flavor—factors such as where they’re grown, soil composition, heat and rain conditions, and more impact hops just as much as they impact the flavor of other crops such as wine grapes. Neomexicanus hops grown in Oregon don’t taste the same as Neomexicanus hops grown in New Mexico. Heck, Neomexicanus hops grown in one canyon can offer flavors very different from the wild hops growing one canyon over. And even within a single picking spot, wild hops growing on one bush might taste and smell very different from the ones on the bush next to it. But more on that later.

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Our rendezvous point for the first day of picking was the venerable Tesuque Village Market, a few miles outside of Santa Fe. A crew of five (all friends of Yonan) is waiting when I arrive. We consolidate into two vehicles and caravan to the first picking spot—no GPS coordinates are shared—and I’m sworn to secrecy on the actual locations. Yonan is not going to blow up his spots.

Our first harvesting zone is actually private property. Yonan noticed it while hiking in the area years ago and struck up a friendship with the landowner. Now, in return for trimming back overgrown willows on the drive in, he’s allowed to take all the hops he wants. We park and head out to the picking spots with empty malt bags in hand while thunderheads roll in further up the canyon. The air is abnormally cool and slightly humid, defying expectations for this high desert.

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We’ve found a small, cool microclimate along a creek that supports a significant riparian zone, despite the dry hills and cliffs around us. Looking up at these hills from the valley, you wouldn’t know this was here, but here we are, surrounded by willows … willows absolutely dripping in hops bines with enormous 2–3" cones hanging off them everywhere we look. This place really is a gold mine, and we all start laughing giddily while yanking the bines from the host plants then hand harvesting the cones from the bines.

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An hour later, we’ve discovered the red-ant hills, climbed up dodgy ancient tree trunks to get at hops bines 15 feet off the ground, and weathered a few small rain showers; it’s time to move down the riparian line. We follow the creek, finding smaller hops plants intertwined on willows and other bushes along the way. We pick cones larger than about a half inch—cones with visible hairs on the ends of the petals are too young and will typically produce vegetal flavors from the green matter without enough of the oils that produce desirable hops flavors—but bits of “rust” spots mean they’re fair game to pick. We try to keep leaves and stems out of the bags, but a few will inevitably make their way into the brew. That’s the nature of foraging.

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The next big spot is even more amazing than the first—a small clearing surrounded on all sides by wild sage, sumac, and rose bushes. The hops grow so thick it’s hard to imagine us picking them all in one afternoon. We carefully pick through the rose bushes, trying in vain to avoid thorns. When we reach the sumac, Yonan warns us to avoid those hops. “For some reason the hops that grow on the sumac here have a Pinesol-like solvent note to them,” he says. The ones growing on sage next to them have an almost soft melon aroma. Every once in a while, we’ll rub a cone in our palms and sniff to confirm that what we’re picking has the aroma we’re looking for. Over time, our hands take on the telltale golden yellow hue of hops oils. Our bags grow fuller, and by the time we’re done at this location, we’ve filled five bags with maybe thirteen pounds of hops each. Sixty-five pounds of wet hops total so far, for nothing more than our time. Thinking about how much we’d pay for these at a homebrew shop makes our collective heads spin.

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With that spot thoroughly harvested, we make the call to move on to the next spot—marked by a similar secrecy— about an hour away near Abiquiu. We drive past Georgia O’Keefe’s home and studio en route, and lest you think our destination is the Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert, which we profiled in the October/November 2015 issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® for their cultivation and sale of Neomexicanus varieties, rest assured it’s not. There are hundreds of small canyons in the area, and we head up one that Yonan discovered off a tip from a homebrewer in the area. That brewer took a rhizome from a hops bine in the canyon that he particularly liked and cultivated and trellised it in his yard. Now, when he harvests and brews with those hops, Yonan says it reminds him of the commercial variety Azacca with gorgeous creamy strawberry notes. Hops are so abundant in this area that there’s plenty to go around, and we start to suspect that this tipster probably has additional caches that he hasn’t told us about. We venture up the road until we round a corner and witness hops that have overtaken a tree on the side of the creek bank. Yonan measures one of the biggest cones from this bine against the hops tattoo on his left forearm based on an accurately scaled Cascade hops cone—these Neomexicanus cones are almost twice the size.

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Golden cliffs tower above us, and one picker mentions that ancient Anasazi ruins sit atop the mesa to our right. It’s not hard to see why they might have taken up residence in the area—despite the dry desert conditions further down the canyon, up here it’s cool, moist, and an ideal environment for living things.

Over the next couple of hours, we ford streams, bushwhack across marshy fields, pull more bines out of precarious places, impale our hands on thorns, and watch the sun set while we keep picking. There are still hops everywhere, and it would be a shame to leave with less than we could. But eventually common sense sets in and we head back to the cars—tired, sore, and satisfied with the immensity of our bounty. Our haul for the day weighs out to one hundred pounds of hops—all gathered from the wilds of New Mexico.

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The following day, Yonan leads another expedition to a remote spot outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Again, the location is secret, and the only thing he’ll hint at is that it was a location where the 1980’s movie Red Dawn was filmed. The hops themselves grow largely in apple and chokecherry trees, and the flavors and aromas are incredible. This day is a bit less productive than the previous, netting forty pounds of Neomexicanus, but who could complain about 140 pounds of hops in two days? Even after converting to an equivalent dry weight (hops can lose as much as 80 percent of their weight as they’re dried), that’s still the rough equivalent of twenty-eight pounds of hops for a 15 bbl batch—roughly 2 pounds per bbl. Just enough for a beer that showcases the soft melon and peach flavors of these wild foraged hops.

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Yonan’s planned brew is a hoppy amber, which he’s designed with just enough malt sweetness to pull the fruit flavors from the hops.

Inspired by winemakers, a number of brewers today increasingly strive for a sense of terroir—a sense of place—in their beer. Sour and wild brewers can achieve that by fermenting with a culture of local microflora; others do it by using hops or fruit grown by local farmers. The wild hops we picked with Yonan create a similar story and connection to place for the beer he’ll ultimately brew—a taste that’s as unique and inspiring as the mesas, cliffs, and hidden canyons around us. A taste of Neomexicanus, provided to us by the wild and rugged countryside of New Mexico.

Pick Your Own Hops

Hops grow wild in many parts of the country, making it possible for brewers in many places to forage and brew with them. Here are a few tips on hunting for the precious cones.

1. Hops like water, but not too much.

You’ll likely find hops around water, but not in water. They love and need sun and prefer well-drained soil, but they like the cool evenings that come from being streamside in an otherwise dry environment.

2. Follow the line.

If you find one hops plant, there are almost certainly more of them around, and they will most likely follow the line of whatever water and host plants they’re clinging to.

3. Learn to identify hops plants without their cones.

Because hops die back in the winter and only produce cones for a short period each August and September, it can be difficult to identify consistent stashes. Learn to identify the leaf patterns of hops and spot the bines growing in the spring and early summer, then crank up your hunting in mid to late July as cones start to appear.

4. You don’t need a whole field.

The benefit of brewing at homebrew scale is that one or two bines can easily provide enough hops for a 5–10 gallon batch.

5. Converting your recipes for wet hops is as much art as science.

You won’t know how much alpha acids the wild hops contain, but a general rule of thumb is to use 5–8 times (by weight) as much wet hops as you’d use of dried hops. Most recipes call for wet hops in a hopback or whirlpool. And with that quantity of wet hops, you’ll need to devise a much larger hopback or make sure there’s enough extra space in your brew kettle to accommodate the wet hops as the wort chills. A 10-gallon (37.8 l) kettle for a 5-gallon batch should work well.

6. Don’t harvest too young.

You might be tempted to grab some hops just because you’re out and find them and might not have time to come back and pick them at peak time. Don’t do it. Young hops don’t contain the same concentration of flavor compounds, and you’ll just end up with a grassy, vegetal mess of a beer.

Wet Hops Recipes

Whether you’re stalking wild hops or harvesting your own, here are links to 5 recipes that use wet hops.

Jack’s Abby Mom & Pop’s Wet Hops Lager Recipe

Comrade Fresh Hops Superpower IPA Recipe

Crazy Mountain Brewing’s Sticky Fingers Harvest Ale Recipe

Fort George Fresh IPA Recipe

Enchanted Circle Brewing Wet-N-Wild Harvest Ale Recipe

In Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®’s online course, Brewing New England–Style IPAs, Steven McConnell, co-owner and head brewer for Wild Bones Brewing Co. in Morriston, New Jersey, covers the ins and outs of making the hottest style to hit the market in years. Plus, you'll get 4 recipes from the pros to get you started. Sign up today!

PHOTOS: JAMIE BOGNER

Jamie Bogner is the Cofounder and Editorial Director of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email him at [email protected].

Have you brewed this recipe? What did you think?