Love them or hate them, hops have been essential to beer brewing since the 8th century when it was observed that ale crafted with hops stayed fresh longer. Not only did hops stabilize the brew but they also balanced out the sweet and malty flavors with a spike of earthy bitterness. Brewers and drinkers across England and Northern Europe embraced the distinct pungent aroma and citrusy, grassy, spicy, and bitter flavors of hops. Originally, non-hopped grain ferments were dubbed ale, while beer contained hops. These days, most beer (ale and lager) is infused with hops but uber-hoppy aromas and flavors are a signature in pilsners and India pale ales.
The Mighty Hop
The hop plant, Humulus lupus, is a part of the Cannabaceae hemp family, making it a cousin to Cannabis. It possesses similar terpenes responsible for its all-too-familiar-in-Denver skunky aroma, yet most varieties of hops have low to no trace amounts of THC or CBD. The plant is high in various oils and waxes, including flavor-imparting oleoresin, caryophyllene, humulones, and lupulones, responsible for beer’s bitter and spicy flavors. It is the lupulones and lupulin oil, strong antibacterials, that attracted Medieval European brewers because killing excessive bacteria allowed the required yeast to flourish, encouraging fermentation while prolonging the life of the beverage. Studies show that hops possess a variety of antioxidants and polyphenols that provide wellness benefits and hops are found to reduce anxiety, induce slumber, reduce inflammation, possibly lower cholesterol, remove dandruff, boost hair growth and shine, and nourish the skin.
The Perfect Growing Environment
Hop plants need around 120 consecutive frost-free days, rich soil, and moist temperate climates to attain the desired phenolic maturity necessary for optimal beer quality. Because the plant needs 15 hours of sunlight most days, the bine (hops grow on a bine, grapes grow on a vine) is grown on wire or strong string trellis systems for maximum sun exposure. It excels at northern latitudes bathed in summer sunlight along the 48th parallel bisecting Kent, England, Northern France, Belgium, Hallertau, Bavaria, Germany, and the Czech Republic, each region known for its rich beer brewing history.
In North America, hop production is exalted in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, Yakima Valley of Washington, Canyon County in Idaho, parts of New Hampshire and Maine, and in Nova Scotia, Canada. Swaths of inner China also farm hops. According to beermaverick.com, Washington state produces 69% of all American hops and is the top producer of hops globally, with Hallertau, Germany coming in second. Only the female plant and its aromatic cone-shaped flowers are desirable for beer brewing so male plants are uprooted young. Most hops are harvested and dried in early autumn before being pelletized, bundled, and distributed to beer producers across the globe relying on imported hops from these regions. The competition for hops supply has been fierce since the advent of the micro and craft brew craze.
Colorado: A Beer Capital
According to the Colorado Brewers Guild, Colorado has 423 breweries, with 383 unique licenses and 40 ancillary locales. Some 50 breweries are in the planning phase. Colorado’s first brewery, the Rocky Mountain Brewing Company, opened its doors in 1859 to slake the thirst of the pioneering miners and entrepreneurs in the budding city. During the Gold Rush, Denver had nearly 130 breweries operating in its perimeter. Adolf Coors followed in 1873. By 1916, Colorado embraced the temperance movement, destroying the buzz beverage business until the late ’60s and early ’70s. It was then that Charlie Papazian, an elementary school teacher, and home brewing enthusiast, gave Colorado its first microbrewery. Along with a few partners, Papazian founded Boulder Beer. Incidentally, Papazian also founded the American Homebrewers Association and the legendary Great American Beer Festival, now in its 41st year, and continuing to attract hundreds of brewers and thousands of visitors from across the globe.
And Yet, No Hops. Until Now.
Colorado isn’t a natural hops-growing region. It falls hundreds of miles south of an ideal northerly latitude, lacks 15-hour blocks of daily sun exposure, and has an arid climate with a short growing season. Yet, daring hop farmers are carving out a niche, growing specific species of hop plants in the fertile regions around the Uncompahgre River Valley near Montrose and Olathe, Grand Junction’s Grand Valley along the Colorado River, and the Gunnison River’s North Fork Valley near Hotchkiss and Paonia. Producers include High Wire Hops in Paonia, Misty Mountain Hop Farm in Olathe, and Billy Goat Hop Farm in Montrose.
Chris DellaBianca and Audrey Gehlhausen of Billy Goat Hop Farm are changing the way brewers perceive Colorado hops. With a focus on Colorado terroir and the environment, Colorado’s premier hop farmers produce exceptional hops against all odds on their 32-trellised acre farm in Montrose. Nourished by Colorado’s high-elevation sunshine and silty clay loam soil, the duo grows 11 varieties of hops aided by a state-of-the-art drip irrigation system. In fact, Billy Goat Hop Farm’s crops are so good that they won the coveted 2023 Cascade Cup Champions, marking the first win for a hop farmer outside of the Pacific Northwest. By experimenting with classic varieties and clones suited to Colorado’s particular climate and regional environments, farmers like Billy Goat Hop Farm are changing the game for brewers in Colorado and beyond. With an eye on the environment, conservation, and regenerative agriculture, Billy Goat Hop Farm is paving the way for low-intervention hop farming in Colorado and setting a great example for growers across the country and beyond.
Explore Fresh Hop Brewing
What are fresh hop beers, you ask? According to Billy Goat Hop Farm, “Fresh hop, or wet hop beers are brewed with hops that go straight off the bine and into the brew within 24 hours, instead of being dried and pelletized. They’re special because they’re only available at harvest time and are best drunk immediately.”
Variety is the Spice of Life
Different varieties of hops impart signature aromatics and flavors to brews. There are four classic European noble hop varieties: Hallertau, Saaz, Spalt, and Tettnang. Through centuries of selective cross-breeding, 250-plus cataloged varieties are now available to brewers. Here is a list of a few popular varieties.
Hallertau Mittelfrüh is a classic German noble hop with a distinctive European earthy, woodsy, herbal flavor.
One of the four European noble varieties, Saaz is aromatic and spicy with herbal, woody subtle flavors. Think Pilsner Urquell.
Spalt dates back to 13th-century Bavaria and was the first hop to receive the German hop seal, a commitment to its unique designation. A classic in every way, it exudes floral, herbal, peppery, and woodsy aromas and flavors.
Tettnanger is a subtler hop than its noble cousins. Its soft floral and herbal aromatics and flavors are offset by a gentle bitterness.
Hybrid and Crossbred Cultivars
The wildly popular Centennial variety imparts citrus and pine aromas and flavors with rounded bitterness.
With its potent citrus aromas and flavors, and prized for its juicy tropical notes, Citra is the most used hop across the globe.
New on the scene and used primarily for bittering, Mosaic is known for its fruity, tangerine, berry, candied peach, fruit-forward aromas and flavors, and creamy mouthfeel.
Introduced in 1972, the Cascade hop, from Oregon, is legendary for its West Coast “Sierra Nevada” pale ale style and spicy herbal flavors. It is one of the most popular hops in the United States and around the globe.
A possible spontaneous clone, the Amarillo hop was discovered in 1990 in Washington. Perfect for bittering, the hop displays floral and fruity tangerine and melon notes.
Created by Yakima Chief Ranches in 2000, the popular Simcoe hop has complex pine, zesty citrus, and stone fruit flavors and aromas with a strong bittering component, making it perfect for IPAs.
Derivative of the Perle hop, Australia’s Galaxy hop balances bitterness with aromas and flavors of peach, guava, and citrus.
The dual-purpose Magnum hop not only imparts bitterness, it provides grassy, floral, and fruity notes of apple, pear, and lemon, alongside a refreshing menthol quality.