July 3, 2013
Americans love hoppy beer.
The pleasing, hop-infused blast of bitterness has made the India pale ale the most popular craft beer style in the U.S., followed by the pale ale, only slightly less hoppy.
Colorado brewers excel at both. See Ska Brewing's Modus Hoperandi, Oskar Blues' Dale's Pale Ale, Trinity Brewing's Slap Your Mammy Double IPA or Pikes Peak Brewing's Imperial IPA for details.
Well, meet Celastrina humulus, the butterfly that loves hops even more than we do. They even put "hops" in its common name, the Hops Azure butterfly. Little understood, it lives only among wild hops on Colorado's Front Range and has been found in the greatest numbers on the grounds of the Air Force Academy.
Scientists want to learn more about the butterfly population at the academy. Assisting in their efforts is, what else, beer.
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"It's definitely, if you have any affinity for beer, a smell that's good to work around."
Fortunately, zoologist Rob Schorr does have an affinity for beer.
The smell is the earthy scent of wild hops, growing abundantly along the New Santa Fe Trail at the academy. We're walking among them, keeping our eyes peeled for "a hint of blue" that is the nickel-sized Hops Azure.
Schorr knows the butterflies are here. He first saw them while doing surveys for the endangered Preble's meadow jumping mouse in 2011 and was intrigued.
"We know very little about this butterfly. We seem to have a perfect setting at the academy. We've seen wild hops in multiple drainages. How can we find out more about the natural history and how large or small the populations here are?" said Schorr, with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Looking for a way to raise money for research, he gave a presentation on the butterfly to employees of Fort Collins' Odell Brewing. Brewers were intrigued; what brewer wouldn't be intrigued by a hops-loving butterfly?
They brewed Celastrina Saison, which hit liquor stores in bomber bottles in May. A dollar from the sale of each will go to butterfly research.
It's fruity and light, with flavors as subtle and elusive as its namesake, perfect for summer. And no butterflies were used in the making of the beer.
"But after consuming too many, Rob felt like he had butterflies in his stomach," said Brian Mihlbachler, representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the academy.
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After about 10 minutes of poking through hop patches, Schorr disturbed the right spot and a tiny, blue and white fluttering butterfly took to the air with speed. In a matter of seconds, it was gone.
They have a short life, emerging from caterpillars in June, gathering nectar from flowers, laying eggs on hop vines by the end of July, and then vanishing.
Schorr doesn't plan to catch any. He plans to use the $5,000 expected to be raised by beer sales to bring students here next summer to map wild hops and revisit each area for butterflies. Schorr wants to understand which patches the butterflies inhabit and why.
The population is so small, in a region where much of the foothills habitat has been lost to development, that more research could lead to consideration under the Endangered Species Act. But that's not Schorr's goal. He just wants to understand the Hops Azure, and to help people understand what it means that they are here.
"Both this and Preble's meadow jumping mouse are indicators of healthy ecosystems that we don't see on the landscape as much as we may have historically," he said. "I think at least that's an indication there are healthy systems available and they may be a reason to either conserve or manage these systems to retain those plants or animals that aren't as abundant as they used to be."
And the beer has sold well, so he is happy to help people learn about it through a beer instead of research.
"To find out there's a butterfly in Colorado and it uses the hops, it's surprising how many people are native Coloradans or people who now live in Colorado get excited about that story," Schorr said.
Added Mihlbachler, "Or they're just looking for an excuse to drink."
Rappold writes about the local beer scene every other week in Food.