Above: Tom Brewer. Photographs by Douglas Merriam.
ON A SMALL FARM in the town of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, a wet year has led to an early emergence of one of New Mexico’s newest crops. Everywhere I look, hop vines creep up on string trellises, their narrow, lobed leaves unfurling. The hop flowers, green and aromatic and bursting with the flavors that give beers their bitterness and IPAs their piney scent, have not yet bloomed, but farmer Tom Brewer expects a bumper harvest this year. He leans over and lifts the leaves of one of the plants. “This a neo,” he says. “You can usually tell by the five lobed leaves. They’re very happy this year.”
The Humulus lupulus var. neomexicanus subspecies of hops has always grown wild in the American Southwest, but it wasn’t suitable for beer-making in its natural state. In the 1990s, New Mexico herb forager Todd Bates selectively bred the neomexicanus into a family of brewing-hop varieties with names like Multihead, Neo1, Willow Creek, and Amalia—each with a unique flavor profile.
It took a few decades, but these New Mexico–cultivated hops are seeping into the mainstream craft beer movement. In 2014, Sierra Nevada Brewing, a California company, released Harvest Wild Hop IPA, the very first commercial brew to feature a variety of neomexicanus. Brewers across the country took note, and two New Mexico companies, Santa Fe Brewing and Abbey Brewing, began farming the hops for their beers.
In 2016, Brewer, a military veteran and former Intel employee, found himself at a crossroads. “I was going through some life changes. Retired from the military, got a divorce, and my kids were grown up and out of the house,” he tells me over a pint at a bar near his farm. “I’ve always liked growing things, and I’m a craft beer fan.” Although he had no experience as a commercial farmer, hops seemed like a natural fit, and, unlike Santa Fe and Abbey brewing companies, he saw an opportunity to farm the crop as a venture unto itself.
“It turned out that there were three or four other farmers in New Mexico that were looking into hops at the same time,” Brewer says. He linked up with them, and they worked to get their nascent industry off the ground. The result was a sudden flowering of hop farms, including Brewer’s Red Hat Hops, Cerrillos’ Crossed Sabers Hop, Pecos’ Sherrog Hops, Alcones’ White Crow Hops, and Belen’s Stone Lizard Hops, as well as the New Mexico Hops Growers Association, of which Brewer is president.
“We help each other, share information,” Brewer says. “There’s no competition.”
Brewer says it takes hops about three years to become established as a viable crop. With luck, 2019’s harvest might become widely available to both commercial and home brewers.
Bob Haggerty, head brewer at Steel Bender Brewyard, also in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, is one of the local beer makers who’s excited at what this year’s crops may bring. “I hope to be using some neomexicanus by August,” he says.
Haggerty has already experimented with neomexicanus hops, some of which came from Brewer’s farm. Last autumn, he used fresh Multihead in Steel Bender’s signature New Mexico Lager. “I thought that the Multihead was the most interesting I’ve ever smelled,” he says. “It smelled like breaking into a fresh, ripe melon. Straight-up honeydew. Sweet and fruity.” Customers seemed just as excited: The lager made with the Multihead was gone within a day.
That instant demand was fortuitous, Brewer says, because, as of now, the infant New Mexico hop farms don’t have the means to preserve the hops they grow. While growers await the development of infrastructure that will let them pelletize for years of storage, brewers interested in their crops have to use the whole hop flower, fresh off the vine.
The upside, says Haggerty, is that “whole-flower hops have the benefit of not being crushed or manipulated in any way, so you have all the flavor. The downfall is that a bale of fresh hops starts degrading as soon as it’s picked.”
For now, that means that New Mexico–grown neomexicanus will be a strictly seasonal treat, available soon after harvest at local breweries for a limited time in late autumn. Haggerty recognizes this as a necessary stage of growth for the industry. “They’re doing everything they can to get a product that brewers can use,” he says. “If brewers are willing to spend a few extra bucks on locally grown ingredients, we can start boosting up the producers of these ingredients and get a cottage industry here.”
He intends to be a part of that shift. “We need some more little fish to start growing,” Haggerty says. “I’ll use every New Mexico–grown hop I can get my hands on.”