Barbara Lawlor, Nederland. All summer long, residents have watched the little plants along the southeast facing wall of the Hop Inn Hostel inch their way up the string trellises to the roof.
At first the plants were reluctant to come into the world as summer came late, and snow stayed long, then around the end of June, it seemed as if they grew half a foot every day. They were racing each other to the top. Soon the leaves created a slanted green wall. And slowly yellow flowers began to reveal their bright faces.
A week ago Sunday morning, September 10, Jeff Green, owner of The Very Nice Brewing Company in Nederland, and a bunch of friends and helpers gathered at the hostel to harvest the hops that have ripened on the vines. They went up a ladder to cut the twine and let the vines and flowers fall to the ground where those below could snap off the fruit.
“This is really satisfying,” said one of the volunteers. “And it smells so good, like fresh cut grass with a hint of bitter in it.”
Growing and building beer with hops has been a part of mountain mining town history. In Central City in the mid-1800s, local breweries predated Adolph Coors Brewer in Golden. They brewing boom took place in 1865 and the decade following that with seven breweries operating simultaneously.
The stone ruins west of the Central City business district housed the Mack Brewery which operated from 1862 to 1898. The Humulus Lupus hop vines have naturally regenerated for the last 150 years in Gilpin County, Nederland and Gold Hill, and stemming back from the early days of Dostal Alley Brewmaster Buddy Schmalz the breweries have traditionally hand-harvested every year, in late August or early September when the volunteers are paid with a pint.
Hops are coming back into vogue. Since the craft beer popularity has expanded since the 1970s, this easy to grow crop spread its roots into local landscapes, its vines twining its way up the trellises and into the hearts of brewers.
Hops are the perfect do-it-yourself plants. Once they are established they require minimal attention.
The first step is finding rhizomes that available at low cost or free from local extension offices. Hops are in demand so order your plants long before planting. There is hop that is perfect to just about every environment.
Usually the vines reach over 12 feet tall so plant accordingly. In early spring, bury the rhizomes two inches from the ground and three to five feet apart. Make sure the shoots are pointed upwards. As the rhizomes begin to grow, train the strongest shoot to climb a trellis by cutting away the smaller vines.
Ripeness must be determined by squeezing the fragrant cones. It they stick together, wait awhile before picking. Ripe cones are dry and papery and send out the sticky, yellow lupulin that makes beer taste so good.
Hops grow so easily, so aggressively that they often leave civilization and move into surrounding neighborhoods. The flowers are essential to beer because they add flavoring and a stability, imparting bitter, zesty of citrus flavors. They also have an antibacterial effect over less desirable microorganisms and balancing the sweetness of the malt with bitterness. It is said beer brewed with hops is less prone to spoilage.
Each fall, Very Nice Brewery harvests about 50 pounds of hops from Ron Mitchell’s plants at the Hop Inn Hostel on the Peak to Peak going through town. The hops are dried before going into the brewing process.
The high concentration of alpha acids are responsible for the majority of the bitter flavor. Aroma hops are added to prevent the evaporation of the essential oils.
Jeff says the fall ale will be ready in about a month and available until it is gone; unfortunately it is wildly popular and goes fast.
The hop pickers, however, say that the best part of each fall’s brew is the harvesting of the hops with comrades, under the canopy of the leafy vines on a warm, late summer day.