Get ready for a whole new spin on drinking local. This week Boulevard Brewing Company announced the use of Royal Hops’ Chinook hops in a one-time special release of Pale Ale, the first beer founder John McDonald brewed at Boulevard.
Patrick Gude and John “JQ” Watton founded Royal Hops, based in Edgerton, Missouri, in spring 2014 with plans to supply hops to professional and homebrewers. Hops, the flowers of the hop plant, are a key ingredient in brewing beer along with water, yeast and grain such as malted barley. Used to add aroma and flavor to beer, hops in the United States are commonly grown in Pacific Northwest states. Specific regions of Germany are another highly regarded source of European hop varieties. Brewers are also sourcing hops from New Zealand and Australia.
Royal Hops’ farm just north of Kansas City joins a handful of other hops growers outside of St. Louis and throughout the Midwest that consider the fragrant flower as an emerging cash crop.
“Pat and John started putting in the trellis system last year,” says Jeff Emory, a third partner that recently joined Royal Hops. “We’ve planted around 3,000 hops plants.”
The hops varieties include Centennial, Chinook, Cluster, Nugget, Cascade, Mount Hood, Neo, Magnum, Amalia and, on an experimental basis, Fuggles. Its namesake Royal Hops, discovered in the Loess Hills of the Missouri River in 1988, has a light earthy aroma with a hint of persimmon. That hop varietal is not for sale this year.
The Boulevard connection commenced before Royal Hops had a single plant harvested.
“JQ Watton ran into one of our brewers at a restaurant a couple years ago,” says Boulevard Brewmaster Steven Pauwels. “JQ and Patrick have been stopping by with samples of their hops. We have given them feedback on what we are looking for and helped them with some hops analysis.”
Emory adds, “Steven came out to the farm last year to see the fields. He came out again in July this year.”
Boulevard chose to work with Royal Hops for a couple of reasons.
“We support local like KC folks have supported us over the years,” Pauwels says. “Also, there is a history behind the Royal Hops that goes back to growing hops locally.”
While it was early in this year’s growing season, Royal Hops was able to supply enough Chinook hops for Pauwels and Boulevard to use. Pauwels decided to brew its Pale Ale with the hops, producing about 360 five-gallon kegs.
“Pale Ale is one of our most local beers that has stayed true to its roots,” says Pauwels. “I think it was fitting to put these local hops in our most local beer.”
The one-time batch of Pale Ale was released as a draft-only beer at Kansas City area taps [as well as Lawrence] such as Bier Station and Conrad’s Restaurant & Alehouse.
According to Ambassador Brewer Jeremy Danner on Boulevard’s blog, “Following the traditional brewing and fermentation process for Pale Ale, we suspended bags of wet, whole cone Chinook hops in a stainless steel fermenter.”
This dry-hopping method infuses the flavor and aroma oils of wet hops into the beer. Royal describes their Chinook hops as “…a high alpha hop with wonderful herbal, almost spice and pine characteristics with subtle notes of grapefruit.”
Boulevard describes the result of using Royal’s hops in the ale as follows: Opening with a floral, citrus aroma followed by a mellow, toffee-like flavor from caramel malts, Local Hop Pale Ale gives way to spicy, grapefruit notes from the wet Chinook hops and finishes with a slight lingering sweetness offset by a touch of grassy/green character.
Growing hops in the Midwest is a bold gamble for Royal Hops.
“I have a lot of respect for entrepreneurs who go against the grain,” Pauwels says. “Growing hops in the Midwest is not easy. I hope they don’t give up, keep perfecting what they do and that they are able to supply hops for all the other local breweries.”
For the remainder of the 2015 season, Royal Hops will begin harvest of its remaining Chinook hops in a couple of weeks, followed by Cascade, Centennial and Cluster.
“We will sell to breweries and homebrewers,” Emory says. “We will sell hops off the vine. Homebrewers can visit, tour the farm and pick your own.”
Any leftover hops will be processed in an oast, a hop dryer. Building the hops dryer is the next big project after harvest, according to Emory.
It’s hot, hard work building a farm-based business from the ground up. At the end of the day, it’s rewarding to pull up a seat at a bar with Boulevard’s Local Hop Pale Ale on tap and enjoy a beer made with locally grown hops. While supplies last. Then it’s back to the fields, where hop vines reach for blue skies.