It’s easy to miss the small “HOPS” sign to the side of the road through Embudo, and the driveway to Todd Bates’ and Stiv Johnson’s Tucker Farms isn’t marked. The Rio Grande canyon widens here into a fertile valley surrounded by rugged hills, and from Bates’ house you can catch a glimpse of the river. Growing hops, the ingredient that gives beer its distinctive bitter flavors and complex aromas, is a small part of the partners’ certified organic business. They grow heirloom tomatoes in 4,000 square feet of greenhouses and have five acres of vegetables and orchards. They sell through Community Supported Agriculture and farmers’ markets, as well as to La Montanita Co-op and restaurants.
But it’s the hops that give them a unique twist. “We’re fools for doing it,” say the long-time friends. Not that growing hops is difficult. Stiv, a veteran farmer, has greater challenges on the farm. Todd, an independent plant researcher for many years and the originator of the hops project, found them growing wild in northern New Mexico. Todd gauged the level of interest of neighboring farmers in growing them. “The number one response,” he says, was “‘Why would I want to grow that stuff? It grows all over my fence anyway.’” Even one of the top hop researchers in the country ridiculed his experiment in cultivating New Mexico hops. “Why would you want to do that? You want people to brew a beer that no one will want to drink?”
The first recorded use of hops in beer was in Germany, in 1079. Nowadays, with thirty to forty varieties commonly available, Germany leads the world in production, followed by the United States. All commercial varieties come from European stock. What Todd discovered, when he sent his wild plants to Oregon for genetic analysis, was that New Mexican hops are a completely different variety altogether, Humulus lupulus (the hops species) variety, neomexicanus. Whereas the hops industry looks upon wild hops as an unwanted weed that should be eradicated, he reasoned, why not breed the native plants for desired characteristics?
Wild plants, whether wheat or chiles, never have all the traits needed for a good domesticated plant. Beginning in 2000 Todd and Stiv began cultivating hops for plant architecture (size, shape, and number of laterals), yield, flower to plant ratio, chemistry, drought tolerance, cold tolerance, pest resistance, and ease of picking, among other traits. By 2004 they had something worthy of making beer, and today they have around ten varieties, each having its own flavor and aroma profile.
Todd, devoted to Pito “the wonder dog” after the end of a twenty-year relationship, brews his own excellent Iconoclast Ale and Maverick Ale, among others. The names reflect the partners’ standing with the hop-growing community. As Todd puts it, “Now that we’ve come up with varieties and flavors, who cares? Who wants to use them?”
Answer: Brad Kraus, the superb brewmeister at Blue Corn Café at the corner of Rodeo and Cerrillos. Todd and Brad met several years ago at a New Mexico conference on alternative crops. Brad, who grew up in Las Cruces and Albuquerque, began brewing his own beer in college and has been doing it professionally for the past nineteen years, most of his adult life. “I’m one of those fortunate people who’s found his passion in life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” He’s won a number of medals at the Great American Beer Festival, with attendance of up to 46,000 and which over the past few years has had two to three thousand beers entered into competition by roughly 450 breweries. He began his relationship with Blue Corn as a consultant, and still consults to client breweries as far away as Bogota, Columbia.
For Brad, brewing beer is part of his interest in slow food and agriculture. He prefers to buy organic and local, and in the summer lives mostly on food purchased at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. For beer, “I wanted to be able to source ingredients close to me, something that really was from here. The winemakers are growing grapes here. I want to do something similar with beer.” So he found the idea of New Mexico organic hops appealing. “I like the fact that they’re a native species that’s acclimated to here. They’re more drought tolerant. They have a pronounced citrus aroma that works somewhat with what we’re doing at Blue Corn.”
The hops from Embudo store well, have adequate alpha acids (giving them good bittering potential), and, most importantly, the end product appeals to customers. He pulls out a bag of the dried local variety, which has a weedy grassy smell, nothing that would let you know what it does to beer. But he’s excited, pointing to orange resins that contain the aromatic oils. “They produce more flavors than commercial varieties.”
Currently, limited production prohibits their use on a regular basis, but this past winter Brad brewed an organic ale that customers liked so much it quickly sold out. By the time you read this he’ll have another special available: a Belgian style wheat ale that will be spiced with things like coriander (also grown by Todd). Ask for Atzlán, which is the name he’s given to the line of beers produced with Tucker Farms hops. He got the name from the eponymous treatise by New Mexican territorial governor Ritch, a reference to the mythic Aztec ancestral homeland, which mentioned local hops, wheat, and barley back in the 1800s.
Todd and Stiv have found another brewer in Colorado Springs who uses their product as a finishing hop for draught beer, and who reports great success with customers. As they continue to develop varieties and to experiment, they’re looking at what they need to make their product commercially viable. Hop plants, like vines, need to entwine around something. Long vertical poles, connected at the tops by a wire grid, make up the basic structure of their hop field. The hop plants are trained onto vertical strands of string suspended from the ropes and, during growing season, quickly climb them. Harvesting involves cutting the string and severing the plant above the roots, then removing the aromatic flowers from the plants. Then the hops are dried. Doing this by hand is so time consuming that it limits the number of plants they can grow. So they’re breeding their plants for machine harvesting. But a hop harvester costs about $30,000, beyond practicality for their size. A possible goal, then, is to sell rhizomes (the root structure) to large growers in the Pacific Northwest and receive an annual fee for their use. The question is will they grow in other places?
One aspect of their ongoing experimentation, in addition to refining their varieties, involved recently sending hops to various growers all over the United States, from New Hampshire to North Carolina, from Michigan to Oregon and Washington, to determine where and how they’ll grow. But even if they work — and they’ll know soon — to date, growers express the fear that if they produce them, there won’t be a market in the competitive hops business.
Stiv’s small farm doesn’t make much money, and with a child in the family, he couldn’t survive on farming if his wife didn’t work as a real estate agent. In the short run, Todd and Stiv are likely to continue finding other small brewers who can make relatively small batches with hops grown on their farm. They’re faced with a Catch 22 that they need to solve: A large brewer won’t be able to test their product unless it’s being grown commercially, and a commercial producer won’t buy and plant it unless there’s an established market. Ten years after their first experiments they’ve gotten this far, and they’re taking it one step at a time.
Ask for Atzlán wheat beer at Blue Corn Café and Brewery off Rodeo Road at the corner of Cerrillos. Look around — you’ll probably see sacks of barley on the floor. Check out the brewery, visible through the large windows at the rear of the dining room.
Photos by Molly Wagoner