Wisconsin’s Northern Discovery and the importance of wild hops

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Paul Stang discovered what are now known as Northern Discovery hops growing wild on his parents’ land in southern Wisconsin in 2007 // Photo courtesy of Silver Hops

Pearl Street Linalool

Pearl Street Linalool IPA is a showcase for Northern Discovery hops // Photo courtesy of Pearl Street

When La Crosse, Wisconsin’s, Pearl Street Brewery released Linalool IPA on October 16, they made history as the first brewery to use the Wisconsin wild hop, Northern Discovery, in a bottled beer.

Pearl Street’s brewmaster and founder Joe Katchever likes the idea of his brewery utilizing what is essentially a local hop. “The beer is basically a showcase for the Northern Discovery hops,” says Katchever, who describes the flavor as a piney, bitter punch complemented by Juicy Fruit gum, pear, and apple flavors.

Discovering Northern Discovery

The name Northern Discovery is a literal one. Paul Stang, cultivator of the hop and owner of Silver Hops hop farm, found the plants by chance on his parents’ land in southern Wisconsin.

While in the midst of constructing a new driveway, Stang’s parents noticed something peculiar when clearing part of the wooded lot. “He [Stang’s father, a former University of Wisconsin-Madison horticulture professor] was driving in one day and was like, ‘Holy crap, there are hops way up in the tree canopy, 30, 40 feet up,’” Stang recalls. “They’d been walking through and under them for years, and never even saw them until the forest got opened.”

That was in 2007. Naturally, Stang, a homebrewer since 1995, decided to brew a beer with the newly-discovered hops. “And I was amazed by how good the beer was that came from it; it really didn’t taste like anything I’d brewed with,” he says.

After getting lab tests done on the hops, he found out that they were indeed wild—and rich with a chemical compound called linalool. Whereas flavors and aromas in beer from more delicate hop oils fade rapidly, those from linalool can actually evolve and increase in potency as beer ages.

Stang propagated stock from the original mother plant, built an 8-by-11-foot trellis, and set about growing 11 plants. Today, seven years later, he has around 2,800 plants, and is growing more each year. He first shipped hops off to a commercial brewer in Italy in 2011. Other breweries like Day Block Brewing Company in Minneapolis have used the hop, but always at a smaller scale. Pearl Street bought all of this year’s crop, which totaled around 1,000 pounds.

Ramping up supply

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Row upon row of Northern Discovery Hops grow at Paul Stang’s Silver Hops // Photo courtesy of Silver Hops

Growing enough hops for Pearl Street has had its ups and downs. “Hop growing is easy, but it turns out you have to understand engineering to build a tall trellis to support 5,000 or 10,000 pounds per acre at times,” Stang explains. “You have to basically invent equipment to harvest this because the equipment that is out there is prohibitively expensive and built for much larger operations. And if something goes wrong, by the time it’s gone wrong it’s too late to fix it for that year, so you have to wait a year to fix it.”

Starting new plants from rootstock also limits how quickly the hop farm can expand, Stang says, but he has been expanding each year and plans to continue doing so.

“We ended up with a nice tough plant that’s a little evil,” Stang laughs, adding how it’s covered with “extra big Velcro hooks that will cut your arms open and make you bleed. It looks and feels wild.”

The importance of this hop’s sharp tendrils shouldn’t be understated: it means the plant can withstand the extremes of Wisconsin.

“If said wild hops are particularly well-suited in the Minnesota and Wisconsin climates, soils, and growing conditions,” says Jake Keeler, director of marketing at Brewers Supply Group, “they could help create a unique opportunity for farmers and local brewers alike.”

The future of wild hops

As a wild hop variety, Northern Discovery is also important to the whole plant species as they increase genetic diversity in cultivation, says Dr. Charlie Rohwer, a PhD in applied plant sciences who has been in charge of hop research plots at the University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, Minnesota, since 2010.

“There’s already some good diversity in the hops that are grown commercially, but wild-collected plants from our region have not been cultivated or used for breeding,” Dr. Rohwer says. “If we can find a useful trait in wild hops that does not exist in cultivated hops, perhaps we can breed a new cultivar with that trait. Also, breeding with plants that are distantly related from existing cultivars can increase the chances of finding good seedlings to select from.”

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A close-up of a Northern Discovery hop cone // Photo courtesy of Silver Hops

Another researcher, Dr. Angela Orshinsky, a PhD in plant pathology and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, has screened wild hops and progeny from wild hop crosses for a year and a half.

She collects wild hops across the Midwest because many of the available commercial cultivars popular among American craft breweries were developed in the Pacific Northwest, a hotbed for hop growing. “This means that the plants were developed for a completely different environment, and disease and insect pressures and populations,” Dr. Orshinsky says.

Her research hopes to provide an answer to whether wild hops have disease-resistance traits that could potentially keep plants like Northern Discovery and others flourishing. “This is particularly important for downy mildew and powdery mildew as these two diseases cause major losses in hop yards, and the Midwest environment is extremely conducive to downy mildew and powdery mildew disease development,” she explains.

Stang’s Northern Discovery has yet to run into any major trouble aside from not being able to grow quickly enough for demand.

“From a marketing perspective, wild hops can be a jackpot,” Rohwer says. “Who wouldn’t want to try a beer with a hop found growing in the Midwest?”

And that’s just what Pearl Street’s Linalool IPA provides for beer drinkers and will continue providing for at least the next two years, during which the La Crosse brewery has a contract with Stang that gives them exclusive rights to the hop.

“I really like that [Wisconsin] connection because we’re a Wisconsin brewery using Wisconsin hops—wild hops,” Katchever says, hinting that he may be using the hops in other styles of beer in the future.

But for now, IPA fans looking for something unique may just have a discovery to make in Wisconsin.

 
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