New York State was before Prohibition a major hop-producing area. Despite this, a New York Tribune article in 1906 dissed American hops. It did not distinguish one cultivar from another, and said the hops smelled of garlic. Not, as the saying goes, a ringing endorsement.
The odd taste together with an excess of seeds was said to place American hops at the bottom of the world league table. Indeed, numerous sources, English and American, from the mid-1800s to the mid-20th century commented similarly on U.S. hops. Some describe the flavour as “blackcurrant” (funky fruit-like), some called it pine-like, and some catty or “tom cat” as brewing technologist H. Lloyd Hind did in Brewing: Science and Practice (1938).
In 1885 and summing up international opinion, Southby said in his Practical Brewing that even the best American hops have a “coarse and peculiar” flavour. He felt them useful as “yearlings”, or aged at least one year when some of the strong taste would leach out, and for porter and stout. The strong, burned malt taste of the black beers would hide some of the coarse taste of the hops.
Southby referred to “admixture” in regard to foreign hops, and many sources confirm that increasingly in the 19th century English brewers used U.S. or Bavarian hops, but in a blend with English hops. This would ensure that foreign flavours did not predominate and also to provide a consistent taste from year to year.
Americans and Canadians used their own hops entirely for domestic beers except sometimes for the best in their line or to impart a refined aroma, when they would import German or English hops. North Americans simply became accustomed to their own hops. It was terroir before it had name.
In this regard, it should be recalled that lager always used less hops than ale and porter. One can speculate that lager’s rise in America and the relative withering of ale and porter can partly be attributed to the feisty North American hops. The increasing use of grain adjunct or brewing sugars also reduced hop content, as I explained yesterday. Both would have contributed to the hops being less “offensive” in the beer.
In contrast, English hops were, and still are, clean, arbour-like, with often a scent of fresh flowers. Saaz hops in what is now the Czech Republic always had a reputation for topmost quality. (Buy Pilsner Urquell at LCBO in the can, and you will see why). German hops in my experience are mineral-like, steely, strong-tasting. Sam Adams Boston lager shows them to good advantage, or the German Jever if consumed fresh.
To this general picture, there was the odd discordant note. A few Americans felt their hops were as good as any in the world. They were fond of noting that Britons used them freely when English hop yields were down. You will even find the odd comment in Britain to this effect. Southby implies some of his colleagues had no issues with American hops for example.
But the boosters cannot hide the fact that American hops generally were regarded as second or third class. This only changed when the craft brewing renaissance conferred a star-quality on U.S. hops, not just here but in Britain too.
But was the garlic story true? It definitely was and we can say that in all likelihood, the variety responsible was Red Vine. Before Prohibition, three main types of hops were grown in North America: Cluster, of which one or two sub-types existed; Red Vine; and Fuggle. Fuggle was the English hop of the same name, transplanted here.
Cluster was a type long-grown in America, and apparently a cross between a native (wild) hop and a European variety brought in the early days of Dutch or English immigration. Red Vine came from Canada originally and was sometimes called Canadian Red Vine. (It too seems to have been a mix of native and European types, but I haven’t looked into it carefully yet. There is some good background here, a recent article from All About Beer).
In 2012 in a discussion online by home brewers, one commented that he found hops growing wild in New York State, formerly a major hop growing area, and they had a “heavy” garlic taste. This is irrefutable confirmation of the accuracy of the 1906 news story. Does it mean all U.S. hops back then were like that? No, but clearly as a whole the three major varieties were felt inferior to German, Czech and English hops, there was an international consensus to this effect.
What has changed to make American hops the darlings of the craft beer renaissance? One reason is countless new varieties have been introduced since the 1960s. The Cascade hop, a story unto itself, was the first. It has a strong grapefruit and pine taste. It isn’t really onion or garlic-like, and while it may share some traits with pre-Prohibition hops, its clean, citric character is a new element, introduced by sophisticated hop breeding.
Cascade was developed in Corvallis, Oregon as a United States Department of Agriculture hop-breeding initiative. Funding in part was provided by large brewers of the 1950s-1970s. In the result, the big brewers set the new taste aside. The great American hop scientist, Dr. Al Haunold, has explained that to brewers in 1971, after the first beer the taste “went up your nose”.
And so the new hop languished for a time but was picked up by emerging craft brewers. They were looking for something different and wanted a hop with good aroma potential to emulate the great English pale ales.
Anchor Brewing of San Francisco was probably the first with its 1975 one-off version of Liberty Ale, which returned as a regular production item in the early 1980s. Anchor’s Our Special Ale of the 1970s also used Cascade. All this helped inspire new craft brewers like New Albion in Sonoma (1976) and not least, Sierra Nevada Brewing in 1981.
Other fruity tastes, mango, tangerine, peach, characterize many of the hops introduced since the revolution worked by Cascade. These found a large following among craft beer devotees.
Yet, read home-brew and hop discussion boards and you won’t lack for terms such as garlic, onion, cat’s pee and that international stand-by, dank. Plenty of beer reviews on the main rating services use these words, too. Some of the hops said to have these interesting flavours are Centennial, Chinook, Summit, Simcoe, Citra. Of course, much can depend on the annual crop and where the hops are grown, but that these hops sometimes exhibit these flavours is undoubted. I can say that from personal experience, too.
Despite the lineage of the new generation of hops which often is significantly European, they are grown in North American soils after all and subject to a North American climate, just as American hops of Southby’s era. It is like the pinot noir grape: you can grow it far from its original production area, but it won’t taste the same as in Burgundy…
And so what was regarded as odd-tasting in Southby’s time is the latest rage. Dank is in, man. The reasons are:
– taste is relative and a different time will react differently than a former one.
– England’s great hop fields of the 1800s and mid-1900s have almost disappeared, so there is much less of these fine hops than there used to be, and people will use what is available.
– even where English hops form 100% of the hop bill, much less is used than in the heyday of English brewing, so they don’t make nearly the impact they were “meant” to.
– the new generation of U.S. hops offers more diverse flavours than was the case before 1933 or even 1970.
Note re images: both images above are in the public domain, the first is from Wikipedia’s entry on garlic, the second is from Vol. I of H. Lloyd Hind’s 1938 brewing text mentioned above. Both are believed available for educational and cultural use. All feedback welcomed.