There’s not much that gets the beer world buzzing quite like new hop varieties.
New types of those tiny little cones of bitter deliciousness drive innovation in the India pale ale — the style that’s driven a huge share of the gangbusters growth of craft beer.
Most of these newer hops hail from Washington and Oregon, but the latest sexy new hop comes straight out of Sun Prairie and its conveyance, a hot-selling new IPA, from La Crosse. And it’s got a wild backstory to boot.
The hop is called Northern Discovery, and while its true history probably goes back 150 years, its more immediate story begins in 2007 when Elden Stang decided to move his driveway.
The new route was to cut through a woodlot on his farm near Sun Prairie, said Stang’s son, Paul. While clearing that path, Elden Stang happened to notice a sprawling, prickly-vined plant growing on a tree high above him.
In an enormous stroke of luck for Wisconsin beer drinkers, Elden Stang knew this was a hop plant, and knew what to do with it, because he was a professor emeritus of horticulture at UW-Madison.
Late that summer, Stang harvested the wild vine’s cones for Paul, a homebrewer who did some test batches. “I’d never tasted anything like them,” Paul Stang said. A homebrew club near the Texas military base where Paul was stationed at the time agreed.
Emboldened, Stang’s father set about doing what horticulturists do: propagating plants. Using the woodlot plant’s root stock, he eventually built up an 11-plant trellis on the farm and kept expanding their cultivation as the hops kept coming out tasty and, even more importantly, unusual. In a field where citrusy grapefruit and orange peel, dank resin and pine were the industry standard, Stang’s hops were coming out loaded with lilac, pear and apple-like character. Paul Stang, whose business was sales and marketing, sold those small early harvests to brewers in Texas and Italy. Some were delighted; some were perplexed.
In 2010, the Stangs called their nascent business Silver Hops and christened its centerpiece hop Northern Discovery. By 2012 — about a year before Elden Stang died at age 73 — the family committed to commercial production. They had been testing the basic metrics of the hops — alpha and beta acids — for a while but sent some cones to labs in California and Washington for more detailed analysis of some of the nearly 100 compounds that are found in hops.
“We knew we had something interesting and different, but we didn’t really know what we had,” Paul Stang said.
The tests turned up high levels of cohumulone, Stang said, consistent with a wild hop, but the number that “leaped off the page” was that of the compound linalool. The hops they had sent for testing came back with nearly 2.5 times more linalool than is consistently found in the next-highest commercially available variety, according to Stang.
Linalool is a compound that naturally occurs in plants including lavender, basil and cannabis and is a common additive to soaps, perfumes and other things people want to make smell nice.
Northern Discovery does have skeptics. Two hop experts I contacted about Northern Discovery note that it’s impossible to know if it’s truly an original hop without DNA analysis that Stang says Silver Hops hasn’t done yet. The soil and weather conditions in which hops are grown can be large variables in the amounts of compounds like linalool, so it’s possible that Northern Discovery is just a name for an already existing hop that adopts unusual characteristics because of Sun Prairie’s local terroir.
While he hasn’t yet done testing to verify it, Stang believes the plant is descended from the short-lived Wisconsin hop boom of the 19th century. Eastern Dane County had plenty of hop yards from 1860 to about 1880, Stang said, before blight and a price crash put nearly every Wisconsin hop grower out of business by 1900.
But plants persist, and it’s feasible that a hop vine worked its way from an abandoned hop field into the sanctuary of that woodlot many decades ago. Amanda Gevens, a plant pathologist at UW-Madison, noted that the same compounds that make Northern Discovery appealing to a modern IPA drinker also might help it survive the selection pressures — insect and disease resistance, particularly — of more than a century in the wild.
Northern Discovery’s backstory — not to mention its unique flavor and aroma profile — hooked Joe Katchever, owner and brewmaster of Pearl Street Brewery in La Crosse.
He started brewing small batches of beer with Northern Discovery hops in 2013, learned a lot about linalool and this year committed to buying the entire yield of the Stangs’ hop yard, which has grown to about an acre.
He experimented with different styles, including a pale ale from last year’s harvest, before settling on an IPA — called Linalool, of course — for statewide release this year. The first batch was packaged in early October and hit bottle shops in Madison a couple weeks later.
“The best way to showcase the hop is to make a beer where there’s not a lot of other flavors and aromas getting in the way of that character,” Katchever said.
He also tweaked his brewing techniques to preserve as much of the linalool character as possible. Stang said his crew worked to that end, too, plucking the cones at a date coinciding with peak linalool potency and drying them at a lower temperature.
Katchever initially figured his stash of Northern Discovery might last all year, but the “fantastic” reception it’s gotten upon release has him thinking he’ll now brew his last Linalool batch before 2015 is out. When I talked to him, he’d already made four batches totaling 160 barrels.
“Once we saw the excitement over this beer, we rearranged the schedule and brewed three more batches,” he said.
Katchever said he’s locked in to buy the entire 2016 harvest, too: “Our intention is to brew lots and lots of this beer, but at this time our production is going to be limited by the amount of hops they can grow for us.”
Style: American IPA
Brewed by: Pearl Street Brewery, founded in La Crosse in 1999.
What it’s like: The hop I most associate with Northern Discovery’s characteristics is Equinox, a newer variety that’s been seen around here in a pair of 2014 fresh-hop beers — Sierra Nevada’s Harvest Ale and Schell’s Fresh Hop lager — and Black Husky’s excellent Howler imperial IPA.
Where, how much: Pearl Street six-packs are moderately plentiful at Madison bottle shops, and becoming more so with Linalool’s early success. They run around $8-$9.
The beer: Linalool pours a standard IPA light gold but announces its identity right away with a heady aroma. There’s a modest bitterness there but also a ton of secondary characteristics fruity (I got pear and sweet apple), floral and also dank. There’s also a slightly soapy character I presume is also from the linalool. While he declined to name them, Katchever said there are other hops in Linalool, to stretch the supply of Northern Discovery, and I suspect that’s behind the touch of dry, grapefruity citrus and classic IPA bitterness that is particularly noticeable on the finish. It has a soft, somewhat enveloping body that fits the overall flavor and aroma profile. I don’t say this often, but Linalool is a truly unique beer.
Booze factor: Pearl Street doesn’t disclose Linalool’s ABV; the typical IPA range is about 6.3 percent to 7.5 percent.
The buzz: One further unusual attribute of Linalool, Katchever said, is that, because of its titular compound, it is the rare IPA that actually ages well. Fast-decaying hop compounds almost always make fresh IPAs better, and those do fade in Linalool, but Katchever said the linalool character really emerges after about six to eight months.
He said the brewing process attaches the linalool molecule to glucose found in the malt, but those bonds deteriorate with time, further unleashing the hops unusual aromatics in a bouquet of pear, bruised apple, plum and lilac. He said diminishing returns start to take over around nine to 10 months, so stashing a few bottles away for next summer sounds like a worthy endeavor.
What happens to Northern Discovery as Silver Hops ages is less certain. The reception of Linalool figures to play a large part in what happens. If the demand is there, the family could grow the farm into the exclusive dealer of a hop sought after across the country, a la Amarillo. It could license growers elsewhere to grow it. Or, perhaps, this business isn’t what the remaining Stangs want to be in and Northern Discovery could fade back into the wild from which it came.
“My dad started this, and it’s still a family operation,” Stang said. “You reach a point where it’s not that anymore and it’s something else. I don’t know if that’s what we want to do.
“I don’t know that I ever envisioned being an international hop broker. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Bottom line: 4 ½ stars (out of five)