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Braving the cold to learn more about what makes hops tick

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Franklin Jason Thomas, left, and John Lyle, center, listen to Beth Lashell, coordinator of the hops project at the Old Fort Lewis Campus, talk about hops irrigation systems, weed management techniques and trellising on Friday at the growing site south of Hesperus.

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

HESPERUS – Twenty-three hop growers and aspiring hop growers braved 40-degree weather and residual snow Friday to learn more about cultivating the plant used chiefly to make beer.

The open house was held at the Old Fort, four miles south of Hesperus, where 11 varieties of Humulus lupulus are being tested for compatibility with the local climate and soil conditions.

Companion experiments using the same 11 hop varieties are being carried out by a New Mexico State University researcher at Farmington and Las Cruces.

Hops belong to the Cannabaceae family of plants, which is composed of about 11 genera and 170 species, including cannabis used for hemp, seed oil and a recreational drug.

Beth LaShell, coordinator of the Old Fort research project, co-hosted the gathering with Kevin Lombard, a researcher at the Agriculture Science Center at NMSU in Farmington.

The Four Corners is not the ideal place to cultivate hops, but it can be done, experts say. Lombard said the elevation, climate, soil pH and length of growing season vary widely among the three test sites.

“Hops are not a widely known crop,” Lombard said. “So the turnout Friday, I think, is indicative of interest.”

Paul Black, manager of a ranch near Bayfield, is a second-year hop grower. He has 1,600 plants on 1½ acres that he intends to sell commercially. To meet the specifications of area craft brewers, he is looking for ways to pelletize the hop flowers, called cones.

John Lyle, who lives near Cortez, has brewed beer as a hobby for 18 years. For five years, he has cultivated seven varieties of hops on a 50-by-25-foot plot.

Carl Newman, a retired National Park Service employee, who lives near the Rafter J subdivision, took an interest in hops by accident.

“It was serendipitous,” Newman said. “We found hops growing in the backyard last summer. They came out of nowhere, because they weren’t there before.”

Newman is going to see where the discovery leads. He has friends who brew beer at home, so the cones won’t go to waste, Newman said.

Visitors at Friday’s open house enjoyed a lengthy discussion of hop trellising and irrigation in the field where LaShell has six hop plants of each of the 11 species. The plants were put in the soil this past summer and will be introduced to trellises next spring.

Hops planted four years ago produce a few cones, she said. It takes about three years for hop plants to reach full production.

Later topics of discussion included soil sampling and where to acquire disease-free rhizomes – underground stems that put out shoots.

daler@durangoherald.com

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