Five years ago, Diego Marlar, co-owner and founder of Stone Lizard Hops Farm in Belen, was enjoying a beer at a local brewery when he asked the bartender where the brewery sourced its hops. To his surprise, the answer, as it is for most New Mexico breweries, was the Pacific Northwest. Although the craft beer industry has been built, and depends on, the aesthetic of staying local and responsive to its community, many New Mexico breweries continue to source their ingredients from outside the region.
Marlar, along with his sister Alyssa Marlar, had recently returned home and they were looking to revamp the asparagus farm their grandparents had owned since the 1950s. With over eighty breweries in the state, Marlar instantly recognized the potential niche.
Around the same time, Matt Oler, who was raised on a ranch near Magdalena, was a few years into serving as foreman for the Crossed Sabers Ranch on the outskirts of Cerrillos. For decades, the ranch had grown alfalfa, but in the mid-1990s, the owners ceased production after operation costs, including equipment and labor, began to exceed profits. They were looking around for a new, small-scale crop that had outlets beyond local farmers markets and could be profitable on limited acreage.
Another friend, Rich Headley, had recently planted a single Cascade hop plant, one of the most common and widely employed varieties, in his backyard in Santa Fe. The hop plant naturally inspired Headley to take-up homebrewing. As hobbies often do, this one snowballed and eventually led to Headley and their other partners convincing Oler to plant a small test plot on the ranch. With support from the local brewing community following favorable reviews of a test batch of beer, three years later Crossed Sabers Hop Company was born.
The farm has since expanded to four acres, representing more than a quarter of the fifteen and a half acres of hops being grown across the state on seven registered farms from Belen to Chama. With the state closing in on being home to one hundred breweries, current production represents a mere drop in the keg relative to breweries’ need. This means nearly unlimited opportunity, but as New Mexico’s brewing industry continues to mature, hop growers have a steep learning curve. Penetrating the tight schedules, systems, and expectations that brewers demand will require not only making a quality, consistent product, but understanding and learning to complement the industry they aim to serve.
Despite seemingly limitless growth potential, the cost of entry for a commercial hop farm is high. Like many perennials, hop plants take three to five years to mature. As the saying goes, the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap. For a backyard gardener, this may be just part of the process, but for a commercial hop farmer trying to get off the ground, it means at least three years before seeing the first significant harvest.
Although relatively short compared to the lead time for crops like pecans or almonds, this wait means farmers must pay significant up-front costs for three years before any profits are realized. In addition to investing in irrigation systems and the trellis and cables required for the hop vines to climb, farmers must also navigate the uncertainty surrounding which varieties to grow and how best to irrigate fields. “You have to be prepared to put in a lot of work in the beginning and not see many benefits for the first few years,” warns Oler.
However, once established, hops become much easier. They generally require less water than most other crops grown in New Mexico, maintenance is limited, and there’s no need to purchase and plant seed annually. “It should become more of a turnkey product once you put in the time and energy on the front side,” continues Oler.
Even so, farmers still have a lot to learn about growing hops in New Mexico. Although the only subset of hops native to western North America is called neomexicanus and is most commonly found in New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona, how the domesticated version of the plant will fare in the state’s unique climate remains to be proven.
Typically, the fourty-fifth parallel is considered the ideal latitude for growing hops due to the long summer days. At thirty-five degrees, Albuquerque is at the southernmost latitude where growing hops is considered feasible. But thanks in part to New Mexico’s elevation and warm climate, so far, farms have done well. Hops are also susceptible to seasonal variation, and figuring out how to deal with a warm, dry year such as 2018 versus a colder, wetter year like 2019 has kept growers on their toes.
Yields have generally been less than in the Pacific Northwest, but the New Mexico climate does provide some advantages. The intense heat of New Mexico has led vines to produce multiheads, a phenomenon where multiple cones will grow off a single tip and thus increase yields. Additionally, the warm climate has allowed some growers to experiment with growing for multiple harvests in a single season. And when it comes time for drying, the arid climate requires less equipment and cones can be thoroughly desiccated more easily prior to storage. The desert climate also decreases the risk of pests and viruses that are frequent in more northern regions.
Additionally, growers have witnessed their hops expressing a degree of terroir in which common varieties assume unique qualities, thanks in part to the growing conditions. Many hops have produced higher alpha acids—the compounds responsible for bitterness—and, to a certain degree, have also generated higher beta acids as well, which help beers maintain flavor as they age.
New Mexico State University is in the process of setting up a beer analysis center that will include research into hop varieties, and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture has also expressed an interest in supporting the industry, but for the past several years, Stone Lizard Hops has provided all the research and development for New Mexico hop growers. “People call us the mad scientists,” notes Marlar, proudly.
Almost immediately after planting their first crop, Marlar dove headfirst into experimenting with breeding new and different varieties of hops. Using neomexicanus as the basis for all his breeds, he has bred more than forty different varieties, employing more common hops like Glacier, Mount Hood, and Columbus to stabilize neomexicanus strains. That means they will be better suited for a wide array of beers while also remaining ecologically suited to be grown in New Mexico. Currently, he is breeding a hop designed for each of the seven farms so that all of them will have a unique product. “My goal is to be able to create only New Mexican breeds for New Mexicans to enjoy in New Mexican beers,” says Marlar.
Growers will undoubtedly continue to face challenges, especially as they scale up, but the past several years have been instructive, and growers like Stone Lizard and Crossed Sabers have been able to impart some of that knowledge and experience to newer farms like La Capilla Hops Farm in La Cienega and Sherrog Hops in Pecos.
Being able to turn out consistent quantity will be key, but if the past several years have taught growers anything, it’s that growing a good product isn’t the only key to success. When Crossed Sabers and Stone Lizard started growing, each of them believed they were the only hop farm in the state. Tom Brewer, who founded Red Hat Hops in Albuquerque in 2016, thought the same thing. It didn’t take long for these growers to meet, and once they did, they all recognized the need to organize themselves and work together. “We’ve got each other’s backs,” says Brewer. “We help market each other’s products, we help with field work, we help each other harvest, all kinds of stuff.”
Compared to places like the Pacific Northwest, where hop farms cover thousands of acres, this spirit of camaraderie is unique and has inspired growers to form the New Mexico Hop Growers Association (NMHGA), which should receive its 501(c)3 status early next year.
As president of NMHGA, Brewer’s most pressing task is making sure farmers are able to get their product in the hands of brewers. “Some of these folks don’t have any marketing skills,” he notes. “They’re just really good farmers.”
Last year, one hop farm was forced to throw away hundreds of pounds of hops they hadn’t been able to sell. “Not only did they not have the capacity to dry, but they didn’t have them sold,” says Headley, who in addition to serving as vice president of NMHGA is also one of the founders of Beer Creek Brewing Company on the Turquoise Trail. “They didn’t have the relationships with the brewers.” Additionally, not all farmers are fully knowledgeable about the brewing process and aren’t able to communicate to brewers about how and in what kinds of beers a hop might be used to its greatest effect—something Brewer and Headley have been pressing members to do. But this is also where they have an important role to play.
Although most brewers are excited at the prospect of sourcing their hops locally, there continue to be barriers. New Mexico growers aren’t yet producing enough hops to cover the needs of larger breweries. Because of the smaller scale, New Mexico hops are more expensive, and New Mexico hop growers are selling their hops as whole leaf cones—as opposed to the pelletized version that most brewers are accustomed to working with.
These factors can all be obstacles, but they’re also opportunities for growers to educate brewers. “Most brewers are very cognizant of wanting to advertise how they do things, and if that means using local ingredients, they’re all about that,” says Brewer.
New Mexico growers may not produce enough hops for large breweries to offer an entire batch using solely New Mexico hops, but dry-hopping (adding a relatively small amount of hops at the end of fermentation) is ideally suited for the scale of New Mexico growers. Additionally, dry-hopped beers highlight the hops’ aromatic flavors and present a good opportunity for a fresh, local product to shine.
But according to Leah Black, executive director of the New Mexico Brewers Guild, working with small brewers can be a good fit. “A lot of these smaller breweries are doing these really neat experimental one-offs,” she says.
Despite New Mexico grown hops being more expensive, experience has demonstrated that customers are willing to pay more for them. Brewer has sold hops to both Toltec and Red Door Brewing, and in both cases, those beers, which the breweries advertised as featuring New Mexico grown hops, sold out within weeks.
Some brewers also have been nervous to work with whole leaf hops. Although whole leaf requires some additional equipment, Brewer and Headley insist it’s easier than some brewers believe. Using whole leaf hops also requires brewers to adjust their recipes, since hoppy beers like IPAs require significantly more whole leaf hops than pellets to achieve the same effect.
Conversely, Brewer and Oler both insist that whole leaf hops, which haven’t been subjected to any processing, boast far more complex and intricate flavors and aromas. Hops contain more than two hundred different oils, many of which are are lost once heat is added and cellular walls are broken down during the pelletization process. These include earthy, grassy tones as well as floral notes that give wet-hopped beers their characteristic nose burst. Additionally, there’s a good chance that hops coming from the Northwest are from last year’s harvest, whereas all New Mexico hops being sold are fresh.
To help showcase these flavors, Brewer and Marlar will bring whole cones to breweries as toppers to be added to individual pints. Not only is it a chance to form a more direct connection with the end customer, but it also demonstrates some of that value to the brewery. “It’s important to keep the breweries engaged and thinking of the farmers,” says Brewer.
In October, NMHGA hosted a successful Hoptober Fest, featuring fourteen beers from ten breweries, including Beer Creek, all of which included New Mexico grown hops. In addition to featuring a number of really good beers, the event attracted brewers who had yet to work with New Mexico hops and provided a platform for the growers to start building those relationships. “There were some brewers that came to try some of their peers’ beers, and they didn’t even know these hops were available,” says Black.
For Oler, events like this help establish a dynamic where, as he describes it, “They come to us as much as we go to them.” Brewer shares a similar vision. “Even though we’re farmers and they’re brewers, it’s one industry,” he observes. “What I want to strive for most is for the brewers to not just look at us as farmers, but to look at us as partners.”
Black is on board with this vision, and as she visits breweries across the state, she’s been making sure brewers are aware that there are locally grown hops available to them. To further its marketing reach, NMHGA wants to attract more support from the New Mexico Tourism Department in hopes that the state’s “New Mexico True” ad campaign can elevate hops the same way it has served the state’s chile growers.
In the meantime, they’re getting creative with how they market their products. More than anyone else, Stone Lizard is leading the way in finding new markets outside the brewing industry. After having trouble selling to breweries, Marlar began thinking outside the box. “When we started, I looked at it and was like, cool, we have cones. Everybody’s got cones, everybody’s got pellets,” he recalls. “What else can we do?”
In addition to experimenting with different breeds, Stone Lizard has started to distill the different essential oils from hops to make salves, tinctures, and soaps. Because hops are related to cannabis, they contain compounds that are analogous to compounds found in hemp and marijuana. These extracts can be used for medicinal purposes similar to those suggested for CBD products, like relieving anxiety, insomnia, and pain. Stone Lizard has even started breeding hops specifically for their different oils better suited to medicinal applications than brewing.
While there are no scientific studies proving these benefits, Brewer has become a big advocate and is excited for New Mexico growers to embrace these alternative markets. “I use their salve,” he exclaims, “and it works!”
In addition to medicinal applications, Stone Lizard has also started selling the shoots after they emerge from the ground in the spring. Similar to other microgreens that have become popular among high-end restaurants, hop shoots can sell for as much as two thousand dollars a kilogram—a great high dollar market, especially for new growers.
Capitalizing on hops’ medicinal, sedative benefits, Stone Lizard has begun to use shredded hop vines to make pillows, which are designed to aid sleep. They have even started making jewelry out of hops, gilding them and turning them into earrings. “There’s a big market for hops,” notes Marlar. “It’s just untapped.”
If you ask any of these farmers, they’ll tell you that it’s an exciting time to be growing hops in New Mexico. “I don’t know how to put into words how cool it is what we’re doing,” gushes Brewer.
At the same time, as a number of farms are expecting their first full harvest in 2020, the industry has reached a point where it must produce the necessary quantity and sell to enough brewers to make a notable impression and demonstrate that they can contribute to the state’s craft beer industry.
But beyond beer, farming hops has the potential to be a significant outlet for small-scale agriculture in the state. “Hops is a beautiful thing on the small scale,” says Oler. “To be able to take four acres and turn some money on it . . . that’s where this industry can really grow and build.”
Brewer recognizes the importance of this next year for the industry. “If we can prove viability, we can bring more growers in,” he says. He acknowledges that a lot of that will fall to him to ensure farmers are equipped to sell their product, but he’s still looking to the future. Ten years from now, he hopes to see two hundred acres of hops growing across the state. “If I do my job right, we will be fully integrated into our industry,” he adds. When that happens, it will be possible to make a true New Mexico beer.
*This story comes to us from Edible New Mexico.