On a recent afternoon, the back part of Rubicon Brewing’s pub was awash in small, bright green cones alive with aroma. To those who brew beer, these compact buds are things of beauty. This batch, picked the day before near Winters and delivered to the midtown brewery within hours, will be used to brew a special seasonal “wet-hopped” beer.
The flavors of these beers tend to be a little less restrained than their counterparts brewed with the standard kiln-dried hop pellets. Wet-hopped beers can drink a little like a salad. There can be vegetal notes, fruit notes such as mango and peach and pear, hints of grass clippings on the nose, and more.
With all of the Farm-to-Fork festivities this month, it’s worth noting that we are in the throes of our local hop harvest. A century ago, the Sacramento region was one of the great hop capitals of America and the largest brewing center west of the Mississippi River.
For various reasons, the hop industry moved on to the Pacific Northwest, where thousands of acres account for 98 percent of the U.S. hop market. All of California grows about 80 acres of hops, according to J-E Paino, owner of the Ruhstaller brewery and its hop farm. Locally, we’re making a comeback, though it’s too soon to tell if enough area breweries and farmers are committed to making this a legitimate hop-growing region once more.
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Two dozen miles away at the Ruhstaller farm near Dixon, they’ve just finished harvesting the hops that Paino planted two years ago. Workers are running them through a hop machine to separate cones from the stems and leaves. Paino’s mission: Grow good beer. It’s beer with a sense of place.
Inspired by supergrocer Darrell Corti and the region’s brewing legacy, Paino became so passionate about ingredients that this beer company owner with an architecture degree from Princeton and an MBA from UC Davis became a farmer by default.
“We tried to find farmers to do it, but we couldn’t find them, so we went into it ourselves. Now there are others into it, so it’s kind of an exciting time,” Paino said. “Not only can we grow hops, but we potentially have the highest-quality hops in the world.”
Some varieties of hops – Cascade, Citra, Simcoe, and now Mosaic – are rather famous and, with the explosion of new craft breweries, a challenge to get. Think of hops as the spice rack of the brewing industry. Some are used for bittering. Others are used for aroma and flavor. Like a good chef or winemaker, a skilled brewer can use several varieties in the same beer to give it nuance, range, complexity and, when all goes well, a huge dose of wow!
At Rubicon, pub brewer Chris Keeton is fond of using local ingredients when possible, and on one recent afternoon he was especially enthusiastic about making a beer with hops delivered by United Hop Farms to his back door just a few hours before.
Keeton held a cone of the hops and spread the leaves to reveal the stash of bright yellow crystals called lupulin. That’s where the flavor comes from.
“There are some vegetal, grassy notes, but that’s all part of the fun of the beer itself,” he said. “It’s better to use dry hops. There is a lot of vegetable matter to these hops, a lot of things that are going to give us these vegetal tones. If we balance that with the beer properly, we can counteract for a lot of that. It’s a lot more fun because these were picked last night and they were brought to us late last night, so it’s as fresh as it gets.”
Fast forward three weeks and that beer, a California Common ale dubbed “On The Grid,” is now ready. Keeton plans to filter it over the weekend, and it’ll be on tap at the pub on Monday.
Asked how the beer finished, Keeton answered, “It actually tastes like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” In a good way.
He said the hops imparted plenty of fruity, marmalade-like flavor notes, while the malt, made with California-grown barley, has a pleasing nutty sweetness. Unlike wine, beer doesn’t really have a terroir, but if you’re interested in what local tastes like, give this one a try.
Over in Dixon, Paino used the fresh hops to make the latest version of Hop Sac, which has just been bottled. The rest will be dried in the kiln on site and used to brew beer in the months to come.
So don’t forget about beer’s place in farm-to-fork. The harvest has been so successful this year, Paino said, that Ruhstaller has had to boost its brewing output to keep pace.