For thousands of years, herbs and spices were used to preserve beer and balance the sweetness of barley malt. These days this role is played by hops which has natural anti-bacterial properties, appealing aromas, and a bitterness that helps counteract malt’s sweet flavors. The hop plant has been known since (at least) Roman times. The earliest mention of hops are in Pliny the Elder’s monumental work, Naturalis Historia. There is some debate as to whether he was actually referring to the hop plant since it is only mentioned in passing as a novelty food item. However to this day young hop shoots are still cooked and served as a delicacy in Belgium so it is considered likely that it was the same hop plant. Although hops had been known about for a while, it wasn’t until the 9th century AD that we see a mention of monks using them in brewing. The acceptance of hops in beer is a tale of power struggles and socioeconomic influences that is far too long to tell here but by the time the Bavarian Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) of 1516, which limited brewers to using only barley, hops, and water (yeast hadn’t been discovered yet), was implemented, it was clear that hops were becoming a prevalent ingredient in beer.
Today, hops have helped beer’s popularity reach new heights with IPAs and other overtly hoppy brews being many breweries most popular beers. As hops have become a prominent interest among brewers and beerdoes, we are seeing hop farmers exploring new varieties and even craft hop farms (known as hop yards) popping up around the country. Travel to Lompoc and you will find our very own local hop yard, Pacific Valley Hops. I recently met up with owner Brian DeBolt at his hop yard to talk hops and see how they were coming along. But first, a little bit about our favorite plant.
Hops are an aggressively-growing climbing plant, essentially they are a weed. They are dioecious plants meaning that there is both a male and female form. In brewing, only the seedless female hop plants are used. The base of a hop plant is its rhizome, which is a perennial, subterranean rootstalk that stores food and nutrients for its root system during the winter, when the surface plant dies off. As spring arrives the rhizome sends shoots and roots out of its nodes and the plant emerges from the ground to grow until harvest time in the fall. Hops are a bine, meaning they grow in a helix and use rigid, hooked stem hairs known as trichomes to hold onto their surroundings. This is different than a vine which uses tendrils to climb. If this sounds eerily similar to the marijuana plant then you are not mistaken, they are close cousins and both belong to the Cannibinaceae family.
In brewing, only the hop flower, or cone, is used. The hop cone is technically known as a strobile, or seed cone (think pine cones both in shape and function). The central stem is called the strig and holds approximately twenty to sixty small petals known as bracteoles. The larger and hardier bract petals provide an outer covering for the cone. Near the base of the bracteoles lies the golden-colored lupulin glands, which contain essential oils that provide its characteristic aromas and resins that consist of multiple types of bittering acids. Each hop cone will have a different composition of acids and essential oils based off of its variety, location on the vine, and growing location and conditions. Hops have often been referred to as beer’s terroir. The balance of resins and oils allow hops to be classified as either a bittering or aroma hop. Some varieties have a well balanced character and are considered dual-usage.
Walking the yard
It was to discuss this enticing plant that I recently met with Brian. I waited for him on the side of the road so that he could direct me to the farm. Following his car in my own, we headed down long, winding roads to reach his small hop yard, a half acre plot nestled among the rows of chardonnay and pinot grapes of Cebada Vineyard & Winery. We walked the yard in the steady sun, a hawk soaring overhead on the soft morning breeze. His two children playing in the dirt and bringing us the occasional blueberry from a patch nearby.
As we walked around, Brian described the layout of his yard. Hops are grown on a trellis system, usually arranged in rows or a checkerboard pattern. In this case, Pacific Valley Hops are arranged by rows, which is better for growing multiple varieties. Hop plants of the same variety are typically spaced about five feet apart. When different varieties are being planted, more space is given between the two so that their root systems stay separated. Right now Brian is experimenting with different hop varietals to see which ones grow best. He currently has eight different species of hops: Centennial, Columbus, Chinook, Cascade, Crystal, Nugget, Magnum, and Yakima Gold. Brian is devoted to growing only organic hops and uses a fish emulsion as a natural fertilizer. The yard is in its third year and future plantings will be based off of which varieties thrive in this particular environment. Although the current hop yard is a half acre in size, Brian has the ability to expand the hop yard a few more acres.
The Latin name for hops is Humulus Lupulus, roughly translated this means “a low [slinking] little wolf,” which describes the hop plant’s aggressive growing behavior. In the height of the season, a hop vine can grow up to a foot a day and reach a height of about fifty feet by the end of the season, however twenty to thirty feet is more common. Throughout the yard, Brian has placed twenty foot tall poles fifty feet apart and connected them with heavy cables. Twine is fed down to each plant and gives the bines a place to climb. They will continue to grow through the summer and will likely be harvested mid-August. Right now, Brian doesn’t have access to drying equipment (which is incredibly expensive) for the harvested hops which means they will have to be used fresh. He already has a lot of interest from the local breweries so keep an eye out this fall for wet-hopped beers that use his cones.
For now, Pacific Valley Hops is a side project for Brian, who is an electrician by trade, but he is hoping that it will become a full time career and even talked about eventually having beer dinners in the hop yard. It is people like Brian who devote their free time to providing local brewers with local ingredients that continue to make this industry thrive. If you would like to know more about Pacific Valley Hops, or even growing your own hop plant, you can reach Brian DeBolt at email@example.com.
Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, July 27, 2016