FARMINGTON — Growers in New Mexico and Colorado are increasingly expressing interest in planting hops, a fast-growing plant used in brewing beer.
Test plots are growing at Navajo Agricultural Products Industry south of Farmington and at Fort Lewis College's Old Fort campus in Hesperus, Colo. Extension agents report numerous calls from people wanting to grow hops.
"Hops is the new romantic crop," said Ron Godin, a Colorado State University extension agent based in Delta, Colo.
Godin said hops have supplanted wine grapes as the hot crop among hobby farmers. He said he discourages farmers from investing in the labor-intensive and expensive crop unless they're serious.
Three Rivers Brewery hosted a symposium on hops Friday that drew growers, brewers and agriculture officials.
The plant grows in vines about 20 feet high that necessitate elaborate trellis systems. A perennial, hop plants can live 20 to 30 years. There are some small hop farms in Colorado and New Mexico, but the market is dominated by growers in Oregon's Willamette Valley and Washington's Yakima Valley.
"It's an emerging crop, and there's local interest," said Kevin Lombard, a New Mexico State University horticulturist based in Farmington.
Nearly all beers use hops, which add flavor, contribute bitterness that balances the sweetness of the grains and acts as a preservative. Brewers use different varieties of hops, with names like Cascade and Amarillo, to achieve certain flavors. Hops are especially noticeable in some craft beers, such as the popular India Pale Ale style.
Hops are typically sold in dried pellets. But during harvest time in August and September, many craft breweries purchase fresh hops for small batches of beer.
Using regionally sourced ingredients is a common marketing tact for breweries, said Godin. He pointed to Colorado Native, a brand made by a Molson Coors subsidiary that uses only Colorado ingredients and is sold only in that state.
Abbey Brewing Co. in Santa Fe has its own hop farm. General Manager Berkeley T. Merchant said the brewery grows native hop varieties and has managed to keep the crop free of pests or diseases since it was planted four years ago.
Ska Brewing Co. in Durango, Colo., brews a "wet hop" beer with freshly harvested hops each year. This summer, the brewery will use hops from High Wire Hop Farm of Paonia, Colo., said Dave Thibodeau, Ska's president.
Ska markets the annual beer as a "wet hop" ale in part to inform customers that it may vary from year-to-year, Thibodeau said.
"We put it right out there that we don't know what we're doing," he said.
Bob Beckley, co-owner of Three Rivers, said in an interview before the symposium that a handful of major hop distributors have too much control over pricing and supply.
"The middle man has started to control the supply and demand in the market," he said.
Linda Clossum, co-owner of Ubru, a Farmington homebrewing supplies shop, said her ability to get certain varieties of hops in stock is similarly constrained.
"It's an availability thing for me as well," she said. "Citra, people just snag 'em up as fast as they can snag 'em up. They're like Cabbage Patch dolls."
Some companies are creating and patenting designer hop varieties on which they have a monopoly. Godin said farmers can't simply begin growing these varieties, which include Citra and Simcoe.
Hops tend to reach maturity in their fourth year, Godin said. It can take five or six years before growers returns their investment. Start-up costs are about $25,000 per acre for materials alone.
Godin said he's found that American varieties of hops, such as Cascade and Crystal, tend to produce better yields here than hops of European origin.
"Hops are a lot of work," he said. "If you're willing to put in a lot of time and money, you can grow hops and make it profitable."