Going wild for hops

For adventurous brewers, the cultivated beer ingredient is great, but the foraged kind is unpredictably enticing

Ruth Martin, a research analyst at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., in the thick of a patch of wild hops in Whitmore.

Ruth Martin, a research analyst at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., in the thick of a patch of wild hops in Whitmore.

Photo courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

Walk on the wild side:
Sierra Nevada will serve beer made from Whitmore hops at the Single, Fresh, Wet & Wild Harvest Festival. The second annual event is Oct. 18, 1-6 p.m., at the brewery’s hops field.

For Tom Nielsen, a distinct variety of hops can be as good as gold. He might share his discoveries, “but that would be like giving you my girlfriend’s phone number.”

Nielsen is Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s technical lead for raw materials, so hops are his bread and butter. Sierra Nevada maintains its own hops yard but also has had the good fortune of finding hops growing in nature. These are known as wild hops. They don’t pop up everywhere, so in a sense they’re like hidden treasure.

“There are tremendous flavor differences [between cultivated and wild hops],” Nielsen said. “Typically these wild hops have not been bred for certain parameters that commercial hops now seem to have, number one being bittering potential…. They also have different aroma properties—they really do.”

Sierra Nevada has harvested wild hops in Whitmore, near Shingletown, for the past two years, after receiving a tip by mail. A customer of the Home Brew Shop in Chico came across a wild growth while hiking around Mount Shasta; he shared his find with the store owner, Dawn Letner, who hasn’t uncovered any herself but heard of a patch in Stirling City. (It’s there, confirms Charlotte Ann Hilgeman of the Stirling City Hotel.)

“True wild hops are pretty rare,” Letner said. “There are North American wild hops, but it would take someone who knows how to identify those to say, ‘Yes, this is the true wild hop that is native to this part of the world’—versus hops that were brought here a hundred years ago by some gold miners who wanted to have hops growing where they were staying.”

Whether the Whitmore hops are truly wild depends on how you define “wild.”

Their lineage, as best as Sierra Nevada can trace it, goes back to the turn of the 20th century, when a German family settled the area and grew hops for breweries. Anti-German sentiment surrounding World War I led the family to abandon the farm; their plants remained, though, and a flood in the mid-1920s washed hops into the Cow River basin.

That’s how they wound up in their Whitmore location, a forested region, where they remained unnoticed for almost a century. A property caretaker sent a handwritten letter to Sierra Nevada two years ago; Nielsen and a colleague went up to see them.

“These hops were growing without any human influence—just cows,” Nielsen said. “They basically survived on their own. They had enough irrigation for 90 years and really took over the landscape; they’re very aggressive, growing laterally and horizontally and vertically, just climbing on everything.”

After waiting a week for the hops to mature, Sierra Nevada sent a crew to harvest some. They gathered 140 pounds, which is not much by commercial standards, but it yielded enough wet hops for a batch to serve at the inaugural Single, Fresh, Wet & Wild Harvest Festival. The haul this year was 324 pounds, and Sierra Nevada brewed 40 barrels for the second festival, Oct. 18.

The Stirling City hops have been harvested by a Bay Area craft brewer, Sean Lightholder, as well as by hotel visitors using them in tea. For the past 15 years or so, Hilgeman said, she’s put up strings on which the plants grow—“sometimes as much as 12 inches in a 24-hour period”—providing a sun cover on her porch.

“They are pretty much done for this year,” she said, “but they are definitely a conversation piece and I love having them here.”

Wild hops may not be everyone’s cup of tea—or mug of ale. Nielsen explained that cultivated hops have a higher concentration of alpha acids, which impart bittering properties, than indigenous European or North American hops, and have different aromatic notes.

Letner doesn’t sell wild hops because, she says, “typically my customers want hops that are known with known characteristics. It’s so common to have it as part of a recipe that if there’s something they don’t know, it makes them nervous.”

Indeed, said North State hops grower Jeff Glaspy of Elder Creek Farms, “the hops today are so bred for a particular taste that I doubt any wild hops would match what everybody is looking for today, because it’s very specific—the citrusy tone they have now.”

Still, some brewers and drinkers are adventurous, and Nielsen said wild hops represent “a new taste experience for beer lovers.”

For home brewers who come across wild hops and are intrigued to experiment, Letner suggests first consulting a reference guide. (UC Davis and hops companies such as Hopunion LLC produce them.) Compare leaves and cones to those of known varieties. There should be no fear of toxicity “unless the person has no clue what a hops plant looks like.”

Added Letner: “It’s not like going out and picking mushrooms…. Hops, as far as I know, don’t have a poisonous relative that would confuse somebody.”