Beer lovers, gather round, we are in receipt of some of the biggest Minnesota-beer news of all time. First off, Minnesota’s poised to break our all-time hops harvest this year, with 100,000 pounds coming out of Mighty Axe hops in Foley, just north of St. Cloud. That’s more than before Prohibition, it’s more than ever. But that’s only the start of this story, because Mighty Axe founder, hops-champion, and CEO Eric Sannerud feels so strongly that the hops he’s growing are unique in the world, in terms of their flavor and aromas, that he’s rebranded them under new names.
Now, to understand the idea, you have to accept the big wine-world concept of “terroir”, that is, that the same thing grown in different places tastes different. French Sauvignon Blanc grapes are flinty and fleet, but New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc grapes burst with tropical fruit fragrances and lemongrass. Oregon Pinot Noir is velvety and intense, Pinot Noir from France is called Burgundy, and can be crystalline. The reason people have made a big deal historically about, say, hops from a patch of Bavaria or Oregon is because of that idea of terroir, that the hops grown there have unique flavor characteristics based on the soil, sun, cultivation techniques, and weather that you can’t get anywhere else. Now that we’re a couple years in to the Minnesota hops revolution, we are finally getting a sense about what’s special about here, says Sannerud, and we’re ready to tell the world.
Here’s the big news: Mighty Axe has discovered that three popular hops varieties have very different characteristics when grown in Minnesota. To wit, Cascade hops, when grown in Foley, take on distinct orange-creamsicle flavors, and therefore Mighty Axe will now call them “Julius” (after an Orange Julius.) “They’ve built a hazy pale ale around it in Milwaukee at Vennture that really highlights the creamsicle flavor,” Sannerud told me. “Depending on how it’s used it can have a sweet orange, and even vanilla flavor, the beers can taste like they’ve got added sugar, but they don’t.” Meanwhile, Chinook hops grown in Minnesota can have such intense pineapple flavors and aromas that Sannerud has rebranded them as “Tropica”. Finally Zeus hops take on such intense “dank” fragrances (like marijuana, and considered a good thing) and such burnt orange flavors that Sannerud has rebranded them as Zenia.
“Genetically these are not new things,” Sannerud told me. “But it really feels like a big moment. The news is that terroir is real, and is influencing these varieties in ways that make them functionally different, distinct, and useful for beer-makers.” Sannerud told me that he believes part of the fragrance and flavor difference comes from the fact that he’s not using poisonous inputs like glyphosate or copper-based fungicides, or fossil-fuel based fertilizers. (When plants have to fend for themselves against pests, they make more of the antioxidants, phenolic compounds and such that pests interpret as danger and we humans interpret as fragrance and flavor.)
Want to taste these Minnesota-grown hops yourself? Sannerud says the most readily available and clearest expression can be found in Dangerous Man’s cream ale, which uses the Julius, and in Fair State’s IPA. You should also look for upcoming local-hops beers from Bent Paddle, Lupulin, BlackStack, and Barrel Theory. Chicagoland breweries are also experimenting with the hops, look for them at Half Acre and Metal Monkey.
I’m really happy about this. My big complaint about beer has been that too much of it is effectively like a cake box mix, you get the same bundle of ingredients and the same output no matter if you’re in San Diego or Saint Paul, the only differences being local water and brewer’s skill. That’s not nothing, but new ingredients are a sea change. And they’re here!
Sannerud told me the eyes of the world—or rather, the noses and palates—are interested, he just sent a shipment to a Norwegian brewer who wanted to get his hands on the newest new thing. Which just happens to be a Minnesotan thing! This 100,000 pounds of uniquely good hops represents years of work on the part of growers, brewers, and of course local drinkers.
I’m raising a frosty mug your way!