Stalking Park City’s wild hops, and brewing beer from them

Hike program shows what’s grown wild, and what German miners planted a century ago.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Caitlin Willard leads a Hops Hunters Hike in Empire Canyon, Park City, on Wednesday, June 8, 2022.

On a cool June evening, 17 people and three dogs waited at the base of Park City’s Empire Canyon, as Caitlin Willard handed out pocket guides to identifying plants.

Then the group headed out on the first Hops Hunters hike of the summer.

Willard, VP of communications for Summit Land Conservancy, leads the hikes — there are five more between now and August 26 — to teach people about how hops grow in the wild, and to ultimately harvest them to be made into a beer this fall.

“We noticed there were these wild hops populations all over the place in Park City,” Willard said, particularly on the land the conservancy protects. (There are now about 7,000 acres in the conservancy’s holdings, and another 7,000 in the works, she said.)

“So someone came up with the idea: Why don’t we lead some hikes and show people where the hops are?,” Willard said. “We’re using it as an educational tool to get people outside, and show them where these open lands are.”

The hops will be harvested on the last hike, scheduled for Friday, August 26, and brewed by Nils Imboden, head brewer at Wasatch Brew Pub (250 Main St., Park City), sometime in October. The conservancy plans to host a “Hoppy Hour” at Wasatch Brew Pub in Park City, when the beer is ready to serve.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Caitlin Willard leads a Hops Hunters Hike in Empire Canyon, Park City on Wednesday, June 8, 2022. The hikes, organized by the Summit Land Conservancy, bring awareness to wild hops in Utah.

Edible plants and a moose sighting

On the first hike in June, Willard led the group down a narrow path through a stand of pine and aspen, stopping to point out native plants on the trail: Blue clematis, serviceberry (which is edible), Oregon grape (edible) and chokecherry (also edible).

Willard pushed aside some vegetation on the side of the path, revealing a tiny patch of startling color: Orange peel mushroom, which was “all over the place today,” she said. A little further up the path, one hiker found a rarer bit of fungi: a morel, which was passed down the chain of hikers for people to touch and smell.

After a missed encounter with a pair of moose (a young, scrawny one was spotted far up a path later in the hike), Willard led the group into a clearing, where a stand of aspens scarred with sweetheart carvings grew around a small building with the word “EXPLOSIVES” carved over the door. The group had arrived at the ruins of a camp operated at the turn of the last century by Daly-Judge Mining Corporation.

Outside a crumbling cement building — likely the assay office, where ore was weighed and priced — and a collapsing wooden bunkhouse, Willard pointed out the plant everyone had come to see: Humulus lupulus, or wild hops. In early June, they’re all stem and leaves, and look a little like unassuming yard shrubs.

“These spiky things are not called vines, but bines,” Willard explained. “They are like these little sticky hands that grab onto stuff. What we do is we come out here at the end of the summer and gather the cones, because that’s what we use for the beer — we don’t use the leaves. There’s yellow pollen in them, and that’s where you get your flavor.”

These hops used to be in someone’s garden, Willard said, and were planted for brewing, probably by German miners, more than a century ago.

That’s one of three views on their origin, though. They might also be a native plant, humulus lupulus (var. neo-mexicanus), or a cross-breed of native and Bavarian hops. It’s hard to tell, because hops do love Summit County, but were also planted in several places around Park City.

“There was a red-light district down near the bottom of Deer Valley Snow Park area, and they’d plant hops outside the brothels,” Willard said. The plants, tended by the prostitutes, gave off a heady scent that drew people to the building, and signaled that it was a place where you could sit down with a beer — and a friend.

In late summer, after the cones develop, the conservancy will bring a group of volunteers out to cut the bines near the base, taking care not to disturb the roots so the plants return next year, Willard said. All that plant mass is put into trash bags and taken to Wasatch Brew Pub’s Park City brewery, where volunteers meticulously pick the cones and put them in buckets.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wild hops in Empire Canyon, Park City on Wednesday, June 8, 2022.

Turning hops into beer

That’s where Imboden, the brewer, takes over.

“I don’t make a beer anywhere close to this, so it’s a fun one,” Imboden said. “Typically, when I get hops from my suppliers, they’re pellets — they’re just easier to use. And obviously these hops are not processed at all. They’re called whole cone hops.”

The process of using wild hops is quite labor-intensive. “I put them in these bags — they’re like big tea bags — so they’re more contained,” Imboden said. “I add them right at the end of the boil to preserve as much of the aromatics, so I’m not boiling off any volatile oils.”

Those hops, Imbolden said, come from all over Summit County, “so we have some that I don’t know. I haven’t had any of them genotyped yet.” He said he might have them DNA tested, because a processer he knows in Yakima, Wash., has offered to do it. “We can be, like: ' Hey, these are an English variety’ or ‘Hey, these are of German descent,’” he said.

Willard said a DNA test is the only way to know the origins of the wild hops. “We’ve even had people offer to pay for it,” she said. “But I think the mystery is more fun.”

This marks Imboden’s seventh year of making what Wasatch has dubbed Clothing Hoptinal wild hops ale. (The label features Adam and Eve holding mining equipment and wearing hops cones in lieu of fig leaves.) The volume of the beer, Imboden said, depends on heat, rainfall and other environmental factors, which affects the yield. The lowest output, he said, was about 65 pounds, though usually it’s more than 100.

Though other breweries, including Desert Edge, have made wild hops beers in the past, he said, this is the only one now being brewed in Utah. Also known as a wet hops process, the beer is just too much work for most breweries, Imboden said.

“We wouldn’t be able to make it without the conservancy,” he said. “And we get to sort of flex that Park City connection pretty well, being the first craft brewery at the top of Main Street.”

Imboden said the other important ingredient is malt, which the brewery gets from Solstice Malt, Utah’s only malthouse. Founder James Weed “tries to source as locally as possible when it comes to barley, corn, wheat and rye,” Imbolden said. Solstice, he said, also combines an ancient tradition of floor malting with technology that closely monitors heat and other factors during the kilning process.

The hops can be a wild card, Imboden said, which is what makes brewing this beer so much fun.

“They’re wild in every sense of the name,” he said. “Depending on the growing conditions on any given year, they give different flavors. Last year, I got big notes of melon and peach, and maybe a little bit of under-ripe raspberry.”

And this year? It all remains to be seen. The five remaining hikes, including the late August harvest, will give him and Willard chances to assess the crop as it grows.

Willard said she never has a hard time rounding up enough volunteers for the harvest, though the first year was “a little bit of a dud,” she said. Eight years later, she said, it has almost a cult following — as people tend to return to the hikes once they’ve experienced them. “We had a guy yesterday on the hike, this is his third year,” she said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Hops Hunters Hike in Empire Canyon, Park City on Wednesday, June 8, 2022.

More hikes, and unveiling the new beer

The next hike happens on June 22, at McPolin Farmlands, whose white barn is an iconic landmark on the road into Park City. “A lot of people aren’t aware there’s a really beautiful wooded trail, called the Nature Trail, off the paved path there,” Willard said. “So it’s cool to get people out into that area and show them something that’s in their backyard that they didn’t know existed.”

The hikes return to mining ruins on July 13, at Virginia Mining Claims. “There are some old rusty cars out there,” Willard said. “You kind of feel like you’re in a mob movie. There’s a huge population of wild hops off the road you can see.”

On July 27, they hit the Rail Trail, which runs from Park City to Echo Reservoir. And on August 17, the conservancy returns to Empire Canyon and Prospect Ridge for the final hops assessment, to gauge how close to harvest the cones are. Based on that, they schedule the harvest hike, “which is completely different,” Willard said. “We rally the troops and send people to different locations, and then we congregate back at the brewery.”

Once the beer is brewed, usually around mid-to-late October, Summit Land Conservancy hosts a “Hoppy Hour” at Wasatch Brew Pub. This year’s event is the first of its kind in three years, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Admission is $15, and includes appetizers and two drinks.

Willard said the event is a way to network and introduce people to the work they do at the conservancy, “but they’re doing it over a pint of beer that was brewed with hops growing right outside their back door,” she said.

Hikes are limited to 20 people, to comply with Salt Lake County Health Department COVID-19 guidelines. Hikes are on Wednesdays, starting at 6 p.m., and last about 90 minutes. Sunscreen, water and sturdy hiking shoes are recommended.

To attend a Hops Hunters Hike, you must fill out a waiver and RSVP to Summit Land Conservancy at wesaveland.org/hops-hunters. That’s also the website to find information about the “Hoppy Hour” event at Wasatch Brew Pub.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Caitlin Willard leads a Hops Hunters Hike in Empire Canyon, Park City on Wednesday, June 8, 2022.

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