Last summer, I met the godfather of neomexicanus at his home in New Mexico. “They evolved here,” says Todd Bates, who bred locally foraged wild hops from the dry mountain terrain to create varieties such as Zappa and Medusa.
Bates says that neomexicanus hops behave differently from others. “They don’t want that much water, they don’t want that much fertilizer. They’re sensitive to some chemicals.”
Neomexicanus is a genetically distinct subspecies of hop plant that has been growing in the American Southwest for perhaps a million years. All hops originate from Asia, but neomexicanus took a different, and much older, route to get here via early migration. European landrace hops—namely, Noble varieties such as Saaz, Tettnang, Fuggles, and Goldings—are the parents of most of the hops grown in the United States today. The lineage of neomexicanus is different.
While many of the hops that we enjoy in our favorite IPAs came out of the USDA hop-breeding program, the available neomexicanus varieties had humbler beginnings—in Bates’ greenhouse. Hop breeding—growing seeds from male and female plants—can be an arduous process. Bates says that he began by growing them in five-gallon buckets, 200 or 300 plants at a time. It took time to develop a winning breeding group, and for a while he was struggling to breed anything that turned out better than the parent plant. He had “two years of having to kill everything because nothing was better than Mom.”
Eventually, though, Bates bred some winners. He was eager to get them out into the world, but he also knew that getting the hops into the hands of brewers would be challenging. “Brewers have to like it, and we, the consumers, have to love it,” he says.
Bates worked with Eric Desmarais, owner of CLS Farms, to bring his neomexicanus hops to a wider audience. Tom Nielsen, a researcher of flavor and ingredients at Sierra Nevada Brewing, also was involved in singling out the Zappa hop. The brewery has since released single-hopped neomexicanus beers, including a special version of its fresh-hopped Harvest IPA. The brewery describes its character: “striking melon and apricot aromas, as well as a floral undercurrent and citrus-like flavor.”
Taming a Wild Hop
Based in Washington’s Yakima Valley, CLS Farms has been growing Zappa and other neomexicanus varieties commercially for a few years. Currently, these varieties make up about 3 percent of their total acreage.
Reid Lundgren, production manager at CLS Farms, says that there are similarities in how they approach any new hop. “The plant and row spacing is the same, trellis is the same, even though they can be dwarfing, and string density is the same,” he says.
Most of the differences in growing neomexicanus hops are on the agronomy side, he says, citing pests and disease management as particularly challenging. “Being native to the Southwest, they are very susceptible to the European strain of powdery mildew. We are constantly scouting the fields to monitor this and help mitigate it. But it’s a battle we wage throughout the whole growing season.”
For hop farmers, choosing the right window for picking is key to a great harvest. It helps to ensure that the hops retain the same flavors and aromas from one year to the next. “Typically, we have found later is a little better for Medusa,” Lundgren says. “Zappa doesn’t seem to have that issue, but [it] expresses in fewer, but much larger and robust cones. It is a bit more like Noble hops in its reproductive window and how it grows up the bine.”
However, he says, neomexicanus hops are not the most natural climbers, and that causes logistical challenges when grown commercially. “Instead of wanting to go vertical up the string, they want to crawl on the ground or really dwarf out when going up the string,” Lundgren says. “We theorize that after evolving over thousands of years in the desert, there just wasn’t much to climb, so growing in a helix vertically isn’t conducive to their nature.”
Another challenge: They’re not used to the extra summertime daylight in Yakima, as compared to northern New Mexico. “Being a photoperiodic plant, that many changes can really goof them up,” Lundgren says.
Their Natural Productivity
Neomexicanus hops have some distinct properties that give them a higher efficiency. For example, a neomexicanus plant will typically have far fewer leaves than a hop plant of European lineage. “The ratio of leaf to flower is vastly different,” Bates says.
While most hop plants have more rounded, opaque leaves, neomexicanus leaves are translucent, with slender, fine fingers similar to those on a marijuana plant. There’s also what Bates calls the “doublet gene.” For the Medusa variety, this takes the form of multi-headed hop cones.
The quirks of neomexicanus can be tricky to manage from a commercial propagation standpoint, Lundgren says. “Once [Medusa] goes into reproductive mode, it seems very hard to turn that off,” he says. “So, [the hop plants] just keep producing more and more cones up until harvest time. Sounds great, but it can create a little bit of a difference in cone maturity throughout individual bines.”
Are there reasons for brewers to be excited about experimenting with neomexicanus? Yes, Lundgren says. “They have so many exciting, unique characteristics that are very favorable.”
Bates describes them as extremely fruity with a clean taste. “That doublet gene not only went to the roots for rhizomes, [but it also] went to the strig, which is the center of the cone,” Bates says of the Zappa hop. “That’s where all the oils are.”
These hops can be flavorful and intense even in smaller quantities, which suggests that their natural tendency toward high efficiency can benefit brewers as well as growers.
However, it isn’t just the flavors that make these hops special. As the sustainable sourcing of raw materials becomes increasingly important to brewers, drought-resistant hops such as neomexicanus could be game-changers. These varieties could make it possible for hop farms to be established in arid climates, without the need for intensive irrigation.
“If we can learn how to best irrigate them, it would help a lot in being even more efficient with our water, which seems to be more and more important every year,” Lundgren says. “Any possible ways we can be more efficient, the better … especially in drought years, [which] will inevitably show up in some of the future growing years.”
Naturally, it can be hard for farmers such as Lundgren to adapt their processes to a plant that is so different from those that they are used to working with. “So far I am too scared to drought them enough to find their happy place,” he says. “Irrigation is the lifeblood of the farm.”
But he enjoys the challenge. “It is still very much a work in progress,” Lundgren says. “I learn more and more every year.”