Grabbing the cat by the Tail
Beer writer Hollie Stephens has a good article just out, “The Rise of Neomexicanus” in Craft Beer and Brewing. She draws attention to systematic development in recent years of the wild American hop known as neomexicanus, found not unexpectedly in New Mexico, often along rivers and streams.
The hop is native to the Rocky Mountain states, and has long been known by hop scientists and hop breeders. What seems actually new, as described in the article, is development of stable breeds derived from the “mother” plant by rigorous selection to maximize desirable characteristics.
Hop breeding—growing seeds from male and female plants—can be an arduous process. [New Mexico-based Todd] Bates says that he began by growing them in five-gallon buckets, 200 or 300 plants at a time. It took time to develop a winning breeding group …
Culture was later extended to Washington State, famed as a hop growing region. As I understand it, these hops are not crossed with a domesticated, or non-wild hop variety. Rather, seedlings are developed from male and female plants to get a stable breed with good brewing characteristics.
Medusa, described well in Kegerator, is considered a particularly successful result of such work.
As Stephens noted, some years ago Sierra Nevada Brewery innovated by using neomexicanus when some became commercially available. I tasted its Harvest Wild Hop IPA back then, and it was extremely good. It is not currently brewed, but Sierra Nevada’s website states it might be again.
This description in the webpage accords with my memory of the taste, and with statements in Stephens’ article:
HARVEST WILD HOP IPA – NEOMEXICANUS VARIETAL ….
The finale in our Harvest series features Neomexicanus, a wild hop native to the U.S. that imparts striking melon and apricot aromas as well as a floral undercurrent and citrus-like flavor.
It is of interest to note that American neomexicanus was long the subject of a hop breeding programme at Southeast Agricultural College at Wye, Kent, U.K., or so I have concluded from what follows.
Professor Ernest Salmon, long-time director of the programme, wrote up the “‘Cats-Tail'” hop in 1935 in the journal of the college, see summary in a 1936 American publication, Experiment Station Record, Volume 74, by United States, Office of Experiment Stations.
In August-October 1941 a multi-instalment article by J.D. Harlan of the “Geneva [New York] Experiment Station” was published in The Waterville Times. It reported on various metrics of early and late Cluster, but also lesser-known types, Cats-Tails among them, and a (Czech) Saaz variety. An extract:
Soft resin data, green weight, dry weight as a percentage of green weight, and other characteristics were compared among the hops.** Note the term neomexicanus is used clearly to show an American, Rocky Mountain hop entered into Cats-Tails.
An English male hop, presumably a landrace such as Golding or other (one would need to read Salmon’s full 1935 article) was crossed with neomexicanus to raise the Cats-Tail seedling. The hop is referred to regularly in issues of the U.K.-based Journal of the Institute of Brewing from the late 1930s until about 1950.*
The alpha-numerical designation was OZ79 but Journal reports written regularly by Salmon suggest numerous variants were developed each with its own number.
Cats-Tails had high wilt resistance but disclosed some flavour of its American origin, not always liked by those used to landrace flavours in British brewing.
One can see an analogy here to Salmon’s better-known work crossing a Manitoba wild hop with British landrace varieties, to produce especially Brewers Gold, Bullion, and Northern Brewer (all-1930s-’40s).
The Manitoba cutting was another in the family of wild hops distributed around the world. Whether it is technically neomexicanus or not I am not certain, but it seems clear Wye College and a station at East Malling in Kent used both the Manitoba and (U.S.-origin) Rocky Mountain wild hops to develop hybrid hops.
In 1940 Wallerstein Communications in New York, a brewing consultancy, summarized some interesting data on both neomexicanus and Manitoba hybrids of Wye College, see here.
Emerging from the 1930s-’40s as well were the Keyworth varieties, both “midseason” and “early”. They were named for a scientist in East Malling, Kent who selected Salmon hybrids for field development. These were I understand, like Cats-Tails, a cross between English landrace and Rocky Mountain neomexicanus, not landrace + the Manitoba hop.
A July 1936 article in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing refers in a table to two hops trialled in brewing, one clearly a hybridized Manitoba hop, the other which bears a different number apparently a cross with Rocky Mountain neomexicanus:
Ian Hornsey’s 2nd. edition (2013) of his book Brewing appears to draw a similar distinction between the Keyworth hops that incorporated “American female H. lupulus var. neomexicanus” and (for Bramling Cross, he states) “‘Bramling x a wild Canadian hop‘”. See pp. 77-78.
It can get confusing because the Manitoba hop is sometimes loosely called neomexicanus.*** Conversely, some sources, including this one of the British Hop Association, state Keyworth – some is still grown – has “‘Manitoba'” character. It appears nonetheless that hybrid hops from both these sources, not just the Manitoba one, emerged from the Wye programmes.
The webpage of the British Hop Association places the Manitoba in quotes as well. This may suggest it is using the term in a general sense, not literally to suggest Manitoba lineage. Clearly there is some link in the respective aroma and taste although it is interesting that the Rocky Mountain one, from that standpoint, seems preferred in the July 1936 table.
This may feed in to the quality evidently recognized today from bred examples of New Mexico origin.
As far as I know, Cats-tails aka (OZ79) is not raised today. But the point being, brewers interested to use Rocky Mountain neomexicanus might inquire of hop suppliers whether a hybrid with such neomexicanus in the lineage is available, of which it appears both Keyworth types are examples.
Given the small amounts available of 100% neomexicanus, this may be a more practical way for many brewers to access the character.
*See e.g. Salmon’s “Thirtieth Report on the Trial of New Varieties of Hops, 1946” in Jan.-Feb. 1948 the Journal of the Institute of Brewing. “‘Cats-Tails'” is identified as “(OZ79)”. A list of variants follows, each bearing its own code, e.g. OC5, AII16. The group is identified as “Seedlings raised from the wild American hop (Humulus americanus var. neo-mexicanus)“.
**Harlan was a hop specialist at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station based in Geneva, New York. In the concluding part to this post I will reference all parts of the study I found. It appears from one that the neomexicanus in “Cat’s-Tails” came from Colorado.
***Loosely in the sense that the sources mentioned seem to reserve “neomexicanus” for the Rocky Mountain, American-origin hop while “Manitoba” or “Canadian” describes another hop from North America. While classification as such for regional examples of North American wild hops is beyond my scope here, it might be noted that location – terroir, if you will – plays an important role for all hop attributes, even relatively locally as Stephens explains in her article.
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