Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Growing Hops for a "Native Lager" by Duane Davidson

Jeffco and other area gardeners who enjoy a cold brew on a warm day must have been intrigued by an article in the Denver Post recently. The headline and sub-head: "People's beer: AC Golden asks customers to grow hops and contribute them to its Colorado Native Lager, and 373 fans jump on board." Read it at http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_16851639 .

The article explains that AC Golden Brewing Co., a small-batch unit of MillerCoors, brews a beer called Colorado Native Lager, "ostensibly made with all Colorado ingredients." But in truth it is only 99.89 percent local. Missing is enough locally-grown hops, which gives the beer its bitter taste.

To solve the problem (and just possibly – in my opinion – do a little product promotion) AC Golden is inviting customers to grow the hops and donate their harvest to the brewery. They announced this project on their Facebook page, and apparently drew a lot of response. The original deadline was November 15, but posts on Facebook indicate they were still accepting volunteer growers at mid-December.

The Post article explains that the brewer expects this program to yield only a small fraction of the 6,000 pelletized hops it expects to need in 2011. Colorado Native presently obtains 86 percent of its hops from Colorado, mostly commercial growers on the Western Slope. The rest comes mostly from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

Last summer I saw several rows of hops growing at CSU's Horticultural Research Center. They were part of the Specialty Crops Program shown to those attending the annual Turf and Horticulture Field Day. The Organic Hops Research project is testing twenty varieties of hops for their winter hardiness. There is also a study concerning hops plant disease.

I learned a little about the hops plant (Humulus lupulus) after I purchased one in a 3-inch pot several years ago. It is an easy vine to grow. It is quite hardy, but dies back to its rhizome root each year. Once mine was established growing on a yard fence, I gave it little extra water and no special care. Even so, I found it aggressive, its vines attaching themselves to nearby plants and its suckering roots invading adjacent plant beds. The flowers, which provide the beer flavoring, are a delightful surprise. They are described as cone-like spikes. Mine were up to two inches long, consisting of overlapping scales attached in whorls to a central core stem. There are some species of ornamental oregano bearing a similarly shaped flower. The scales are light green to yellow, fading and drying to a pale straw color. They are an interesting addition to floral arrangements, both fresh and dried. The standard leaf color is green, but a golden-leafed variety is considered more ornamental.

Why did I want to grow hops? Some years ago, when I had been asked to judge herbs at the Golden Garden Show, I was startled to find the show handbook listed a class for hops. I had never categorized this plant alongside thyme, rosemary, oregano, and the like. Then I realized that I was, after all, in Golden. There were no entries in this class, fortunately, as I wouldn't have known what to look for.

Later, when I came upon a plant at the Denver Botanic Gardens plant sale, I decided I should get to know it. Since that time, several local garden writers have mentioned it, particularly the golden-leaf version. They also cautioned that it's not the vine for every location.