Bolstering a budding industry - Albuquerque Journal

Bolstering a budding industry

Hops growing at El Rancho de Las Golondrinas. Beer Creek Brewery will use the hops to make a beer for the natural history museum. (Eddie Moore/ Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A few years ago, it was difficult to find New Mexican beer made with local ingredients.

Growing hops wasn’t really something New Mexico farmers had done before and not a lot was known about growing the crop at a 7,000-foot elevation.

The partners at Beer Creek Brewing – Ryan McArdle, Matthew Oler, Kelly McGuire and Rich Headley – did not let that dissuade them from dipping their toes in hoppy water.

With encouragement from Headley, Oler used some acres on the ranch he runs to plant hops, historically grown in such U.S. regions as Washington and Idaho. But, now, the high-desert climate of northern New Mexico was being tested as a growing ground for the magical beer ingredient.

It takes about four years for hops to reach a maturity where they can be harvested for beer, Oler said, so, the payoff on the hop-growing gamble wouldn’t come for quite some time. Such was the infancy of Crossed Sabers Hop Co., which has been harvesting its hops for the past few years.

But this wasn’t enough for the partners. After seeing a need in New Mexico for farm-to-tap hops for beer, more needed to be done to bolster the budding industry.

As Headley, Oler, McGuire and McArdle ventured into new territory for New Mexico, they discovered other farmers were getting similar ideas about growing hops in the state’s mountainous terrain, but didn’t know where to start.

Thus, the New Mexico Hop Growers Association was created as a way for emerging farms to share resources and knowledge, and create legitimacy for New Mexican hops.

“We had a product (beer) that (used) nothing … from New Mexico,” said Oler, who has a background in ranching, and there are many mom-and-pop farms throughout the state that don’t think they could make a living from their five acres of water rights. And, traditionally, with crops such as alfalfa, they couldn’t.

However, as hops came onto the scene, Oler said people were able to make money from the crop with little acreage and water. Hops also use less water than other types of crops and, at $35 to $45 a pound, can yield profit for smaller farms.

“We’re here to show you that you can make money for your family … off five acres. That’s not seen in New Mexico farming,” he said.

The partners ordered farming equipment from New York to harvest hops, and they share that equipment with the 13 hop farms in the state. This helps cut costs for the small farms that might not be able to afford expensive pieces of equipment.

Headley said the association is still working on its 501c3 “charitable” designation, but, once it does, it will be able to carry enough legitimacy to help get assistance for the hop farms.

Even as the association worked out these logistics, the partners were able, in 2020, to brew the first beer using all-New Mexican ingredients. Now, the brewery has four beers on tap that are made with 100% New Mexican ingredients and is adding a fifth.

Down the road from the brewery, El Rancho de Las Golondrinas is one of the most recent farms to start growing hops.

Sean Paloheimo, director of operations and assistant director of Las Golondrinas, said the ranch has partnered with Beer Creek in its hop-growing venture. The ranch and the brewery first started chatting about growing hops in 2019, but plans were postponed due to the pandemic.

Then, in 2021, Paloheimo decided it was time to begin planting hops at Las Golondrinas and, in an unusual turn of events, he was able to harvest them the first year. Paloheimo said the first week they planted the hops, they got two hailstorms.

“We don’t know if that stress created a diamond because they came back with a vengeance,” he said. “And we just have really good dirt out here.”

Paloheimo added that the ranch fields have been cultivated for hundreds of years and are right off an acequia that dates to the 1700s. He also noted the element of luck.

These hops created the Las Golondrinas Gold, which launched this Friday at Beer Creek Brewing and is made with New Mexican ingredients. A portion of the sales of each pint is going back to the ranch, which is a living museum that promotes the history of 18th- and 19th-century New Mexico, according to its website.

As the ranch joins the hops scene, Oler said that, over the next year or two, the state will harvest the most hops it ever has as plants from the early hop farms reach maturity. Paloheimo said the ranch also plans to make its hops harvest a yearly occurrence.

The future of New Mexico hops and beers seems safe as Headley says he anticipates that they will have a tremendously beneficial impact on the New Mexican economy as the industry continues to take off. He said he would love to see every brewery able to use New Mexican hops in every beer.

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