A local heirloom revival story
BY ELIZABETH HODGES
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA AND MICHAEL SANTAELLA
When I think of South Santa Cruz County and the Pajaro Valley, images of quaint apple orchards dotted with yellow mustard, picturesque vineyards terraced up south-facing hillsides and sprawling fields bursting with perfect rows of strawberries come to mind. But on a recent visit to Corralitos Brewing Co., smack-dab in the middle of said fields, I was surprised to learn that in the late 1800s, hops were actually one of the most prolific crops in the area. Peaking at a time when wheat was on the decline and apples and strawberries were on the rise, Pajaro Valley hops were transported via Freedom Boulevard to San Francisco for shipping around the world.
A man named George McGrath was one of the most successful hop farmers around, growing a unique varietal that was the cream of the crop. But the plant, now referred to as the McGrath hop, all but disappeared when the last hop yard at the McGrath Ranch on Casserly Road was taken out in the early 1950s. Luckily, Luke Taylor of Corralitos Brewing Co. managed to locate some lingering rootstock and revive our local heirloom hop, now part of the Santa Cruz Heritage Food Project, making some tasty beer while he was at it.
A BOTANICAL DISCOVERY
In 2004, Taylor found some hop vines growing while working at a local ranch. He asked about them, and the owner of the property told him that they were the original hops grown on the McGrath Ranch. Taylor later found out that the owner’s great-grandfather had been a good friend of George McGrath. The owner asked if he was a brewer, and upon his eager affirmative gave Taylor permission to dig up some rhizomes. He was amazed at their size—they were as large as his forearm, much larger than the standard hop rhizome, which looks more like a 4- to 5-inch stick.
“I was really excited about how old the variety was,” says Taylor, who naturally took some rhizomes home and started growing them. “Immediately, I noticed a difference in the first flush, which is the initial spring growth when they come out of dormancy.”
Taylor set up a trellis for the McGrath hop, and the variety quickly outcompeted the Cascade, Centennial, Magnum and Chinook hops he was growing. According to Taylor, at the 36th parallel (which is where Santa Cruz is) the other hop varieties just don’t grow as well, as the McGrath hop has adapted over the years to the local climate. “I knew the hops were something special, and they were responsive to what I was giving them and the local weather,” he says.
Since then, Taylor has spent a lot of time learning the ins and outs of the McGrath hop’s growing habits, learning when to cut it back, when to feed it different nutrients and when to harvest it.
“The hop is magical. It’s unlike any other hop I’ve come across,” says Taylor, noting that its flower exhibits notes of citrus, floral and jasmine with Bartlett pear.
PUTTING IT TO THE TEST
To showcase the special hop’s qualities, Taylor first used it to make a simple Belgian blonde. “I hopped it a little more, similar to an American pale ale and used the Belgian ale yeast to ferment it out,” Taylor says. Next, he made an American pale ale. Taylor had loved the Belgian, but found the yeast to be a bit too expressive and wanted to work with an American strain of yeast that would really complement the hop’s flavor without overwhelming its subtleties.
Taylor began doing more research on the history of the hop and in 2008 found out that one of his brother’s old school pals, Jeff Bassman, lived on the old McGrath Ranch and his mother’s maiden name was McGrath. So Luke went out to visit and met the whole family, including Jeff’s grandma, Shirley McGrath, and his parents, George and Joan Bassman. And then they went about creating a plan to revive the growth of the McGrath hop together.
This was right around the time that Corralitos Brewing Co. was submitting for its permit application and moving into the Pacific Firewood building, which is zoned for commercial agriculture. So Taylor was already planting hops at the site that would become his brewery and tasting room.
In 2014, Taylor helped return the hop to the original McGrath Ranch, planting 25 hills of McGrath hops together with Jeff Bassman and his father George. Jeff, a butcher at Freedom Meat Locker, now manages the crop.
“I essentially resurrected their family heirloom, and they loved the idea and took off with it,” Taylor says.
Shirley McGrath, now 89, remembers the days when the original hops were grown. She has six great-grandchildren who now live on the ranch, and she thinks it’s a wonderful way for them to grow up. Her husband, now deceased, started working in the hop fields when he was 15. George McGrath was her cousin.
“Of course, it was a big job, but they just grew beautifully,” she says, “I’m happy to see the hops growing again. I think it’s great, and I love to look at them, too.”
The first harvest of McGrath Ranch’s newly planted hops in September 2014 yielded roughly 50 pounds of dried hops—just enough for the first large batch of My Girl, which through home brewing experimentation had transformed from an American pale ale to an American rye pale ale.
“I really like the spiciness and almost dry mouth feel that the rye brings to the beer in combination with the qualities of the hop,” Taylor says.
Last year, another 65 hills of McGrath hops were added to the ranch. During the harvest, Taylor threw a hops picking party complete with free beer. (See photos p. 30–31.) He brought his home-brew system and put hops straight into the kettle for a limited-release, wethopped My Girl. Thirty-five people were in attendance, and this year about 80 will be on site lending a hand.
EXPLORE: The Agricultural History Project Center and Museum in Watsonville offers an exhibit dedicated to the history of hops in the Pajaro Valley. Learn more at www.aghistoryproject.org. To take a hopsgrowing class, contact Luke Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elizabeth Hodges is a freelance writer and owner of the Verdant Pantry, based in South Santa Cruz County. During her free time, she enjoys keeping chickens, gardening and connecting with the local food community as communications chair for Slow Food Santa Cruz.
HEADING TO SANTA CRUZ? THE SANTA CRUZ
BEER TRAIL PASSPORT IS HERE TO HELP!
The Santa Cruz Beer Trail, co-created by Bryce Root, founder of the small-business marketing firm, The Root Group, and The Brew Cruz tour operator, Annie Pautsch, is here to take your craft beer exploration to the next level.
The Beer Trail’s recently launched Santa Cruz Beer Trail Passport, First Release 2016—our region’s very first beer passport—costs $25 and is full of helpful information for navigating your beer exploration in the northern part of our coverage area.
The passport is also packed with discounts of beer and food. For example, Steel Bonnet Brewing in Scotts Valley is offering passport holders a pint and a bag of chips for $1; Santa Cruz Ale Works is giving 50% off on a tasting flight and three bottles of beer for $10. It’s a big world of beer out there. Grab your passport and go explore! —Rosie Parker
Santa Cruz Beer Trail Passport
CORRALITOS BREWING CO.
Luke Taylor at Corralitos Brewing Co.
Hops growing at the brewery. Photos by Michelle Magdalena
Corralitos Brewing Co. draws beer fans to its South Santa Cruz County location from near and far, thanks in part to Taylor’s mad scientist- level barrel program, which started in December of 2014.
According to Taylor, these barrels provide the fifth element to his aging process, a “spice cabinet” so to speak, as the barrels impart various qualities to the beer from the wines aged in them during their prior lives. He also takes advantage of his agricultural surroundings, adding local fruits, such as peaches, apricots, blackberries and raspberries, to select barrels.
“Our beer that has been aging in oak has a very deep, complex Old World flavor going on,” says Taylor. “It might be funky; it might be tart; it might be sour.
“And when you add local fruit, it kind of makes those Old World flavors come to life again. You’re tasting the barrel, the funkiness, and you’re tasting the base beer, which might be dry or soft on your palate, and then you’re getting that fruit-forward finish. It just makes for a much more enjoyable experience.”
In addition to getting set up for bottling these beers soon, Taylor and his business partner Mike Smith have installed an open fermentation room and a large glass window for viewing from the bar area.
“This brings our patrons a little closer to something that’s really fun—it gets them involved with what we’re doing,” Taylor says.
The room is dedicated solely to the barrel program, meaning each beer will see oak barrels, and the space is wall-to-wall unfinished American white oak. The brewery’s goal is to bring in the night air, and with it, wild local yeasts that the brewery will eventually be able to use for spontaneous fermentation.
There doesn’t seem to be a secretive bone in Taylor’s body; he’s all about sharing his passion for growing hops and brewing beer with others. He teaches a hops growing class every spring that focuses on these wondrous climbers from planting to harvest. The brewery also releases beers under the Roots Brewing Project, an idea Taylor came up with to teach his employees how to craft their own beer with his original home-brewing system. Almost all beers make it onto the board in the taproom. Of note to date have been the Smoked Chile Porter with chiles from Fire Tongue Farm in Hollister; the Oreo Cookie Stout, a Belgian triple with roses and lavender; and the Woodsman, an American pale ale.
So whenever I find the time to slow down and enjoy a refreshing beer or two, I stop by Corralitos Brewing Co. I can never resist trying an Out of the Barrel, a varying selection of single-barrel brews that Taylor found to be standalone specimens.
There’s just something about the people, the beer and the way that the evening sun glows golden in my glass from across the surrounding fields that feels like home and keeps me going back for more.
Corralitos Brewing Co.
2536 Freedom Blvd., Watsonville