Wild Hops, A Better Beer Story

Dan Beveridge was contemplating the power of a good beer story on his way home from the Brew & Blues Festival in Mammoth Lakes on a hot summer day. He’d been asked to pour the California Lager from Anchor Brewing Co. at the festival and spent a lot of time relating the story behind this traditional brew to thirsty festival-goers. He found himself enjoying the story almost more than the beer.

Head heavy with hangover and a long drive home to Chico with his wife Karen ahead of him, he was considering how a good beer was made better for the backstory. And as he was driving along in the high Sierra, he was startled out of his fog of morning-after contemplation when he noticed familiar vines growing prolifically along the sides of the two lane mountain highway, vines that he didn’t expect to be there. As a child of the region, the vines piqued his natural curiosity. He asked Karen if the flora looked like hops to her, and she finally replied after several of his musing inquiries, “Why don’t you just pull over and see?” And this is how Dan’s verdant curiosity turned out to be the beginning of his own great beer story.

According to vague historical snippets found on what would amount to the dusty microfiche of the internet, in the late 1800’s, during the silver mining boom, a Frenchman named Nicholas Piequet made his way to the Sierra with some dormant Strisselspalt hops from the Alsace region of France, a region near the border of Germany. Growing hops at 10,000 feet was a radical idea, and California had only been brewing beer for a couple of decades at that time, just since 1849 when the state’s first brewery in San Francisco. The intrepid Frenchman successfully opened up his own brewery and quickly made a name for himself—albeit not necessarily a good one—and his lager. Unfortunately, nearly ten years later, Nicholas Piequet fell to consumption (tuberculosis) and died in May of 1880. However, he had already sold his brewery and planted his legacy of wild French hops in the eastern Sierra. Unbeknownst to him, Dan would happen upon them growing freely in the breeze nearly a hundred and fifty years later.

Piequet’s brewery would change hands a couple of times in just as many years. First, owned by a Mr. Cadby, in 1874 it was known as The Silver Mountain Brewery. A notice in the old Alpine Miner newspaper declared, “Mr. Cadby, our new Brewer since taking possession of Piequet’s old stand, has quite metamorphosed the establishment. . . .” And according to old advertisements in the Miner, “Cadby’s Beer is known far and wide and always liked. Orders filled from all sections of the country and satisfaction guaranteed. Remember! Always see that you get CADBY’S BEER and you will not be disappointed.” It was said that he offered a money-back guarantee for his unique lager. The brewery was then purchased by John Scossa, husband to Agnes Singleton—more famously known as the widowed Mrs. “Snowshoe Thompson,” famed mail carrier in the treacherous Sierra Nevada mountains. The John Scossa Brewery however, was only in operation from 1877-1879.

Though the brewery walls no longer contain the dreams and lagers of an ambitious Frenchman and its subsequent owners, growing wild and free all around it are the descendants of those unique Strisselspalt hops. Intrepid himself, Dan decided that he would harvest those big healthy cones, brew them with his buddies, and recapture a taste of a true old California lager—it would be like going back in time to imagine what those silver miners were drinking at the end of a long shift.

Dan Beveridge, posing with his foraged find.

Dan Beveridge, posing with his foraged find.

Typically these old lagers were brewed using “cluster hops,” which were a hybridization of Dutch and English hops used throughout the world for beer production. Strisselspalt hops are one of the few hops varieties found in France and are mostly sought after for their intense aromatic qualities. And after spending nearly 150 years growing and adapting to living at altitude in the Sierra Nevada, the hops that Piequet originally planted had evolved into something new altogether.

Dan returned in the fall with a friend and witness, Sean Volland. Together they managed to harvest his discovery, a task that was truly not for the faint of heart. Hop vines are an oily, stinging business, but armed with shovels and hand pruners, Dan and his friend managed to vanquish about a truckload of beautiful, belligerent wild hops. Filthy, sweaty, and exhausted, they camped for the night in truly high spirits among the changing autumnal aspens of the High Sierra.

At home, Dan set to work dehydrating over five pounds of foraged hops. He then sent a sample to Alpha Analytics in Yakima, Washington, the unofficial hops center of the universe. Due to genetic variation happening over the years it’s often hard to determine a specific variety of hops. Tests determine the alpha acid profile and oil profile and then compare the profiles to known varieties. Dan’s hops appeared to match the alpha acid levels found in Strisselspalts, but with a much lower oil content. Dan surmises that this could be due to a potentially reduced growing window due to high elevation. He can say for sure that his hops aren’t a part of the Noble Hops family, which include four varietals called Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Tettnang, Spalt, and Saaz. Dan’s wild French hops are exceptionally, uniquely bourgeois.

With hops dried and ready for brewing, Dan enlisted two of his pals to help bring back the ghost of the old Frenchman’s dream. Mike Vasquez and David Quetter were the home brewers that Dan trusted to bring these bourgie hops to life. Vasquez, an IPA lover, came back with an Extra Special Bitter, that was deliciously hoppy—but not as hoppy as a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Quetter channeled a classic golden lager. Not metallic or skunky, according to Dan, it was clear and crisp, with notes of apple and a clean finish. It was a little bit like a Belgian beer, but more bitter, with a classic American hops profile, totally authentic to a good traditional lager. This intrepid group of homebrewers together call themselves the Old California Hops Co. as an homage to the hops industry that used to be in California, so naturally, they named their tasty new brew “The Old Cali Common Lager.” Now, inspired by their experience and the history of refreshing brews, the Old California Hops Co. is taking the next step, and they’ll be attending Hop & Brew School in Yakima.

Never underestimate the power of a good story to inspire, especially when it comes to beer. And as craft beers are booming and it can be difficult to differentiate yourself—a good story goes a long way.

Sara Calvosa