Here in New Mexico, we like our hops. In a land where spicy food is king, powerful flavors rule. When it comes to our beer, hop-forward IPAs are a statewide favorite. So it seems only fitting that New Mexico should grow its very own native hop variety, the Neo-mexicanus 1, and that New Mexico hop farming should be pioneered by New Mexico’s first brewery, Santa Fe Brewing Company.
But let’s rewind for a moment, back to 2003 when a local Rinconada man named Todd Bates began a singular project. He frequently hiked through the New Mexico mountains identifying and gathering native wild hop plants. He then isolated and cultivated the varieties at his farm and eventually created a hop that was desirable for brewing. The result was the Neo-mexicanus 1 (Neo-1 for short) and Amalia hop varieties. In about 2010, Todd sold the fruits of his labor to a Washington-based commercial hop farmer, Eric Desmarais, at CLS Farms.
When Santa Fe Brewing Company owner Brian Lock heard about the unique New Mexico hop variety, he was immediately enamored with the idea of growing his own hops. “That really interested me,” he says, “because No. 1, it was a new hop variety that no brewer had tried to brew with before, and No. 2, it was native, so I knew if I put that particular variety in the ground that it would do well, because they are native.”
Brian continues, “I was really excited about taking on the challenge to grow my own hops.” He found a beautiful location near Blue Heron Brewery in Rinconada. The 7.5-acre farm is right on the Rio Grande, which is ideal, not only for its natural beauty, but also because it has plenty of water available for agriculture. Santa Fe Brewing Company purchased the land in December 2013, and Brian began planting the unusual Neo-1 and Amalia rhizomes (bought from CLS Farms) in July of 2014.
Many companies grow or use locally sourced ingredients, but this takes it to a whole new level. These hops are naturally more adapted to the New Mexico climate, so they’re more sustainable and, best of all, they’re unique. They are ours.
Adding to the exclusive quality of the hops, Santa Fe brewing bought CLS Farms’ entire stock of Neo-1 and Amalia rhizomes, and the farm no longer sells those varieties for cultivation. Brian is excited that his farm will start producing rhizomes in the next year, meaning he can expand production of these now-very-difficult-to-come-by hops.
Brian started by planting a small two-thirds-of-an-acre plot, to test the area and the success of the hop varieties, to make sure the soil is healthy and that the water source is adequate and reliable. Brian personally did most of the labor for the first two years, and the crop yields represented a very small contribution to the brewery. They didn’t have enough to brew even one 30-barrel batch, so they used the hops in a Randall—basically, a beer infuser—to make the most of the tiny yield. Anyone who attended last year’s WinterBrew may remember the playfully-named R2beer2 Randall filled with these homegrown hops.
Santa Fe Brewing Company’s hop farm may be small now, but it’s grown consistently each year. They’ve recently been able to hire one part-time laborer, and this year, Brian expects they’ll have enough hops to send finished flowers out for lab analysis. This is a critical point in the farm’s development, because it will allow the brewery to measure alpha acids to see what kind of oils are present. As Brian explains, “Then we’ll know more what are the positives and negatives of each variety”—information that’s crucial in determining the direction the farm will take over the next several years. The farm has two acres prepped for next year, and they will choose which varieties to plant after they get the lab results back.
Now that the farm is ready to expand, it will face new challenges. The biggest challenge at the farm is harvesting. As Brian explains, “Most hop farmers grow on trellises 20 feet in the air, so you need some kind of lift mechanism or cherry picker to harvest or tie the coir.” (Coirs are the ropes that hops climb up as they grow.) The required equipment isn’t available in New Mexico currently, so Brian has plans to bring that equipment in.
Once the harvesting hurdle is overcome, the next challenge is processing the hops. Commercial brewers routinely use hops that have been dried and pressed into pellets for uniformity and storage, but no one in New Mexico pelletizes hops. Another option is drying the hops, but that requires a large space in which to dry them. In all likelihood, Santa Fe Brewing will opt to brew with them right away in a wet-hop brewing process.
Whatever the future holds for Santa Fe Brewing Company’s foray into hop farming, it will undoubtedly be something extraordinary. As Brian points out, “Hops are such a crucial ingredient in beer, and have been for so long. With the popularity of craft beer in general, and the excitement of the general public with this movement towards IPAs and more hoppy beers, it’s only made me more enthusiastic about this project.”
Hops are important, indeed. After all, hops are what make beer beer. But the variety, quantity and timing of the hops contribute in large part to the flavor variations in different brews. New Mexico having its own native hop variety means the potential for brews that are distinctly local. As the budding Santa Fe Brewing Company hop farm blooms and thrives, the result will be something truly, undeniably New Mexican. I think we can all drink to that.
Story by Melyssa Holik