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NMSU studies Four Corners region hops production for San Juan River Valley microbrewery industry

FARMINGTON, N.M. - As the microbrewery industry thrives in the San Juan River Valley of northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado, a researcher at New Mexico State University is studying the feasibility of raising hops, a primary ingredient of most beers and ales, in the Four Corners region.

A field day visitor and Mike Kelly, Farmington Agricultural Science Center staff member, look at the hops flower cone to see if the lupulin glands have formed. NMSU is conducting a variety trial, including native Neo Mexicana, to determine if hops can grow in the Four Corners, San Juan River Valley region. (NMSU Photo by Geraint Smith)

Kevin Lombard, NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences horticultural researcher at the Farmington Agricultural Science Center, is conducting a multi-year variety trial of the plant that provides the aroma and bitter flavor of beer. He began the study in 2008 when he learned of trends in the brewing industry that were affecting the region's five microbreweries.

"During the winter of 2008, I started hearing and reading reports that the hops prices were spiking," said Lombard. "There was a shortfall in the crop in Washington's Yakima Valley and the Pacific Northwest, which is the biggest hops producing region in the United States. As a researcher I felt we needed to be ahead of the curve and see if this could become an alternative crop for small-acreage farms in our region."

The brewmasters in Farmington and in Durango, Colo., agreed it would be interesting to see what flavors would come from hops grown within their region since soil and climate are known to affect hops flavor.

"Historically, hops was added to ale when it was shipped from England to India for the British troops stationed there. When the soldiers returned home they had acquired a taste for the Indian Pale Ale, now commonly called IPA," said Ryan Thompson, brewmaster at Three Rivers Brewery in Farmington and formerly with Ska Brewing Company, a large microbrewery in Durango. Hops has since become widely used in the brewing process more for its flavor than for its preservative properties.

During the first year of the variety trial in 2009, Lombard raised six varieties of hops that he obtained from the United States Department of Agriculture hops germplasm center in Corvallis, Ore.

"We planted the Cascade, Columbia, Crystal, Hallertauer, Newport and Northern Brewer varieties," Lombard said. "The head breeder in Corvalis, John Henning, formerly with NMSU's agronomy department, was interested in the concept of us doing a variety trial since the climate of the Four Corners area is similar to the Washington Yakima Valley."

Lombard's first research question has already been answered: Hops will grow in the Four Corners region in a drip irrigated environment.

"We learned that Cascade was the best variety for this region in both yield and chemical compounds, which were comparable to the same variety grown in the Pacific Northwest," Lombard said. "The European variety Hallertauer, a noble hops that is raised in the Czech Republic, did not grow more than three feet and suffered from iron chlorosis, a yellowing of leaves related to our high pH soils."

The second stage of the trial involves assessing the taste of products brewed with the locally grown hops. Three Rivers Brewery produced 150 gallons of specialty beer using the harvested hops cones and featured it on its specialty batch menu, called Cascade Ale, during the winter of 2009. "It had a good flavor and was popular with our customers," said Thompson.

During the 2009 growing season, Lombard learned of Embudo farmer Todd Bates' work with native wild hops. For the second phase of the variety trial, he approached Bates for cuttings from his plants to see if native hops, Neo mexicana, found in the Rio Grande Basin from Colorado to Mexico, will grow in the Four Corners region.

The plants were planted in 2010 and became established during the season. Data from the plants will be gathered after the 2011 season and harvest.

"Todd Bates has been cultivating native hops for many years for medicinal essential oils and home brewing," said Lombard. "He has gone through all of the trials and tribulations of bringing plants from the wild and cultivating them in a field setting. During that time he has taken hops plants through a natural selection process to find plants that grow well in that location's soil type and climate."

Bates discovered hops in various canyons and arroyos in north central New Mexico while harvesting native medicinal herbs for his personal use. Called lupulo by the early settlers, the Neo mexicana variety Bates found is genetically unique.

"People thought the plants we found had been planted by early settlers, but they were not in areas where humans would go. They were at high elevations where they suffered extreme conditions that hops elsewhere do not experience," Bates said.

Bates sent plant samples to Corvallis for genetic testing to determine if in fact they were transplants from Europe or native to the region. "The genetic testing of the Neo mexicana is nothing like anything in the whole USDA germplasm records," Bates said. "That's when I knew we had something special."

In his research, Bates has found reference to the native hops by U.S. General Surveyors in the 1800s, speculating that the plant might become a viable agricultural crop. Now, nearly 200 years later, Lombard is waiting for next summer's harvest to see if the prediction will hold true for the Four Corners region.

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