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How terroir influences the flavors in hops, told through a tasty Colorado beer experiment

Comrade Brewing in Denver, one of the state’s hop kings, brewed two batches of the same beer featuring hops from different Colorado farms

A unidentified worker gathers hops plants from bines on trellises at Misty Mountain Hop Farm near Olathe on Sept. 9, 2014. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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This fall, a robust hop harvest in Colorado left David Lin at Comrade Brewing with a dilemma.

Two Western Slope farms approached him with hops fresh from the bine for the Denver brewery’s award-winning Superdamp IPA.

The beer — known as a wet hop or fresh hop — arrives once a year at harvest time when cones are picked at farms and rushed to breweries, where they are put into the beer in less than 24 hours.

It’s a significant undertaking, but Lin embraced the bounty. “I said, ‘Let’s make two this year and see how they turn out,’” he recalled. 

The two batches represented more than a beer lover’s dream — it served as one of the only Colorado brewing experiments in hop terroir.

The green cones that add bitterness, flavor and aroma to beer can display different characteristics based on the region where they are grown, according to an emerging body of scientific research.

Terroir is a concept more often attributed to wine grapes, but studies suggest hops are similarly affected by climate, soil, terrain and farming practices. “With any kind of crop, your soil and just your overall environment can affect it,” said Ron Munger at Misty Mountain Hop Farm in Olathe, one of the state’s oldest growers.

Bines of cascade hops hang at Misty Mountain Hop Farm near Olathe. Misty Mountain is one of the state’s oldest growers. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

To define terroir, look to geological and atmospheric conditions

In Oregon, the nation’s second-largest hop producer, researchers are studying the concept in the Willamette Valley and finding a relationship between the farm’s location and the perceived flavor and aroma. 

For generations, hop farmers have known that some varieties grow better in certain parts of the world than others. But the latest research goes a step further to show that the same hop variety can put forward different aspects based on where it’s grown, even within close proximity. More specifically, the resin in hops — lupulin — can have different levels of alpha acids that contribute bitterness, flavor or aroma to beer.

The climate in the Pacific Northwest — where 96% of the nation’s hops are grown, according to a trade association — is far different than in Colorado. 

On the Western Slope, where most of Colorado’s hops are grown, the intensity of the sun is stronger, but the days are shorter with greater temperature swings. The farms also tend to be smaller and the growing methods rely less on pesticides. The soil is more acidic, too.

So it makes sense to Colorado growers that the hops showcase different characteristics. “There’s a lot of variables that contribute to that terroir concept,” said David Warren at High Wire Hops in Paonia, which supplies fresh hops to Comrade Brewing. “There are certainly geographical aspects, what the water is like, what the soil is like, but it’s also with the grower.”

Much of the comparisons are anecdotal at this point, and the characteristics that define Colorado hops remain unclear. But Audrey Gehlhausen at Billy Goat Hop Farm in Montrose is looking for answers. 

For the past two years, the farm has sent hop samples to a researcher in Canada who is taking a scientific approach to determining hop terroir. It’s more than a curiosity for Billy Goat. A terroir also offers marketing opportunities to Colorado hop growers in an era when brewers are looking for certain flavors or aromas for their beers.

“This year, we asked for more testing and little more breakdown to see how it compares to other places because I think it’s really interesting,” Gehlhausen said. “Already, we’ve had brewers tell us that our cascade (variety) seems more citrusy and grapefruity than the Pacific Northwest (crop), which is a little more lemongrassy.”

A worker gathers bines of hops at Misty Mountain Hop Farm. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Comrade puts two Colorado hop farms to the test

How different Colorado hops present in beer is a question that Comrade Brewing wanted to explore. 

The brewery is known for its hop-forward beers and won the small brewer of the year award and two gold medals for IPAs at the Great American Beer Festival in October. Its fresh-hop beer — a variation of its popular Superpower IPA — won back-to-back GABF silver medals in 2014 and 2015.

The prior versions featured fresh hops from High Wire. This year, Lin also made a version with Billy Goat, a newer hop farm. The experiment kept as much constant in the brewing process as possible. Both beers used the same base recipe with the same hop varieties (chinook, cascade and nugget) in the same quantities (more than 400 pounds each). And both farms picked the hops about 18 hours before they were put into the beer.

This means the major difference is the hops. Both farms are blessed with rich soil thanks to their location and past lives as low-impact farms or grazing areas that left higher organic matter. “Certainly the whole Western Slope valley was ancient river bend,” said Gehlhausen, who runs Billy Goat with Chris DellaBianca.

To the north in Paonia, High Wire Hops began in 2011 and now covers seven acres with four varieties that contributed to 10 beers with major awards. Warren, the farm’s owner, said the same qualities that make the North Fork Valley a great place to grow fruit contribute to more vibrant hops. The huge temperature fluctuations between day and night help set the sweetness level in fruit, and “for hops, I imagine that plays a pretty big role, too,” he said.

Billy Goat Hop Farm is located south of Montrose but enjoys similar weather and geological factors. The farm is larger — covering covers 30 acres with 11 different varieties — but it’s also newer. The 2019 harvest was only its second. The cold and wet spring helped lead to a high-performing season, but it didn’t help newer plants that were just getting established.

A bine of cascade hops hang at Misty Mountain Hop farm. Hops grown in different regions show different flavor and aroma characteristics, studies show. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun).

The verdict: A taste test of the two fresh-hop beers

At Comrade, Lin wanted to brew the different beers within two days of each other, but the crop didn’t cooperate. High Wire delivered near Labor Day, but Billy Goat’s hops needed a little more growing time and arrived 10 days later.

So one beer came out a bit fresher than the other, Lin cautioned when we met weeks ago for a sensory tasting at the brewery on Iliff Avenue in southeastern Denver. 

Both editions of Superdamp IPA hit the style marks, demonstrating a hint of the green vegetal aspects in the aroma and flavor of a fresh-hop beer. The High Wire version came across a little smoother and balanced, we agreed, with a stronger piney hop flavor. The citrus qualities to the beer were present but not as bold as when it first debuted.

The Billy Goat edition tasted fresher, due to its brew date, and featured a fruitier quality. “Billy Goat has a Flintstones vitamin thing going on,” Lin said. He also sensed a little more bitterness in this one with a stronger presence of sulfur compounds, though it wasn’t overwhelming.

In the end, Lin summarized the taste test: “Billy Goat is fresher, and the fresher beer always wins out.” But overall, Lin prefers High Wire because he feels the maturity of the farm’s hops gives the beer a little more nuance.

As for customers, they were split. “It’s been totally mixed,” Lin said. “It’s been half and half.”

The verdict is not a surprise. For each beer drinker and brewer, the flavor — and terroir — in a beer will taste a little different.

Rising Sun