Pikes Pub: A tale of three hops

By Stephanie Earls Updated: September 14, 2017 at 10:29 pm • Published: September 14, 2017 0
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Humulus lupulus is thriving in the foothills of the Front Range.

The perennial plant whose flowers provide the defining, bittering ingredient in beer - a viney, rhizome-born growth whose Latin name translates to mean "small, humble wolf" - has been sprouting up alongside the U.S. craft beer craze at a rate that last year surpassed that of Germany, historically the top hops-producing country in the world.

Most commercial hops in the U.S. are grown in the Pacific Northwest, specifically Washington's Yakima Valley. But smaller-scale farms and backyard grows are on the rise nationwide at elevations and in climates once thought to be unfavorable, if not inhospitable.

Colorado is among those stereotype-busting locales. According to the Washington-based trade group, Hop Growers of America, acreage dedicated to hops production in the state increased 166 percent between 2014 and 2016.

Where there's a will ..

The hops patch where I found myself on a morning in late August - on the grounds of Chapel of Our Saviour in Colorado Springs' Broadmoor neighborhood - likely is one of the state's smaller: a modest grow hosting three better-known varieties: Cascade, Centennial and Chinook.

When church warden and St. Arnold's Acolytes of Ale brewer Birdie Lowery put out a call for volunteers to help harvest the bounty, I figured it would be a fun way to spend a Saturday morning with beer, giving back, and paying it forward.

What I got was a hands-on micro-lesson about the sticky botany - and somewhat mysterious dynamics - at the heart of my favorite adult beverage.

Now in their third growing season, the 15 hops plants - which are pruned to the ground in winter and begin sprouting in May - originally were planted on a northwest section of the property near the chapel's columbarium. Last year, they were moved to a spot slightly south, a new home in which they've thrived for the most part.

"It was better out here, and we wanted to built the trellis," said Lowery, gazing at the mounds of looping bines that until a few minutes ago had spiraled to the sky around long lengths of twine.

Still, Colorado's unique "microclimate" can be a random mistress.

"When the whole wall was up, with the three different types, the one that did the best was the Centennial," said brewer and fellow Saturday morning harvester Fred Slane. "That had a couple of plants that went all the way to the (16-foot-high) wire, nice and robust."

The Cascade variety wasn't quite as fruitful, but almost.

The Chinook, however, "has always struggled, and we're not quite sure why," Slane said. "We're going to try some different things, such as fertilizing, to see if that helps."

Overall, though, the chapel's 2017 hops harvest yielded an abundance of blessings.

A 5-gallon batch of beer needs only a handful of hops, so the crop is more than enough to keep suds flowing at the Acolytes' homebrewing fellowship, which pours for the greater public at the annual Feast of St. Arnold in late spring.

"This is, I bet, 10 times the size of the harvest last year," Lowery said. "It's more than we can use, which is cool because we'll be able to share."

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