Cascade. Nugget. Mount Hood. CTZ. Vanguard. Centennial. There are hundreds of hop varieties, but these are among the 11 harvested recently near Hesperus.
Volunteers gathered at Old Fort Lewis to collect handfuls of hops midway through a three-year agricultural research project aimed to determine the crops’ potential in the area’s arid, high-altitude climate.
“It’s a three-year study,” said Amber Beye, who helped secure the $40,000 grant. “We’re testing 11 different hop varieties.”
“We’re not growing any of the noble hops, because we know for a fact they don’t do that good out here,” she said.
Advocates hope a Four Corners hop co-op could be launched to help offset supply needs of craft and home brewers. Last year, the average U.S. hop price was $3.59 per pound, according to the Hop Growers of America. Hops, or humulus lupulus, are one of four basic ingredients of beer.
On the south side of the quarter-acre research plot with four trellis rows, the vines grew more than 20 feet high. On the north end, with less shade, the vines were substantially shorter. Soil samples and temperatures readings are part of the 230-vine project.
“We don’t understand why,” said Beye. “We don’t know if it’s a soil thing or a sun thing.”
The project requires 200 grams, about a half-pound, of dry hops to be laboratory tested. Any excess hops have been promised to local craft and home brewers who complete research surveys.
Since researching and launching the grant, Beye’s interest in hops led her to join the Animas Alers Homebrew Club in Durango. She now serves as the club’s secretary and treasurer. Club member Michael Burr volunteered to help with Sunday’s harvest.
“I’m a home brewer,” he said, placing a handful of hops in a brown paper bag.
His first time in a hop field, Burr said the opportunity afforded an added perspective to his hobby of crafting beer.
“My favorite are hoppy beers, like IPA,” said Burr. “I’m in heaven.”
Last year, the project didn’t harvest hops, but scores of vines loaded with fragrant flowers called “cones” were harvested on Sunday. Hops produce sticky oils that impart flavor to beer and serve as a natural preservative. But even under ideal conditions, it can take plants years to mature.
“This is year two,” explained Beth LaShell, coordinator of the Fort Lewis College agricultural research center. “Year three, four, five – that’s when you start to see good production.”
Project manager for the Colorado Department of Agriculture specialty crop grant, LaShell is optimistic the hops can be sent to the lab within a week. Priority is given to commercial operations in the Pacific Northwest, the largest hop-producing region in the U.S.
Old Fort Lewis, six miles south of Hesperus, sits at 7,600 feet above sea level. The center receives an average of 18.5 inches of precipitation annually. The research plot is irrigated. A few of the hop plants that went into the ground last summer didn’t return this year.