New York State before Prohibition was a major hop-producing area, and the industry lingered on for a time after 1933 (Repeal of the 18th Amendment).
Yet, a New York Tribune article in 1906 deprecated American hops. It did not distinguish one variety from another, and stated 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 many sources, English and American, from the mid-1800s to the mid-20th century offered a similar view of U.S. hops. Some describe the flavour as “blackcurrant” (a funky, fruit-like taste), some called it pine-like, and some, catty or “tom cat” as English brewing technologist H. Lloyd Hind did in his Brewing: Science and Practice (1938).
In 1885, summing up international opinion, the English brewing writer Southby stated in his Practical Brewing that even the best American hops have a “coarse and peculiar” flavour. He felt they were useful as “yearlings”, aged that is at least a year when some of the strong taste would leach out, or for use in porter and stout. The strong, burned-malt taste of the dark beers would hide some of the coarse hop taste, as would the aging these beers often received.
Southby referred to the practice of “admixture” in regard to foreign hops. Many sources confirm that increasingly in the 19th century, English brewers used U.S. or Bavarian hops to blend with English hops. This would ensure that foreign flavours did not predominate, and provided a measure of consistency from year to year.
American and Canadian brewers used domestic hops for their production except sometimes for the best in the line, usually to impart a refined aroma. German or English hops were imported for this purpose. North Americans became accustomed to their own hops, in a word. Call it “terroir” before the term existed.
As lager always used less hops than ale and porter, perhaps its rise in America can be attributed in part to the feisty quality of North American hops. The increasing use of grain adjunct, or brewing sugars, also had the effect of reducing hop content, as I discussed yesterday. Both factors probably contributed to the hops seeming less “offensive” in beer.
In contrast, traditional English hop varieties were and still are clean and arbour-like, sometimes with a scent of fresh flowers. Saaz hops in the Czech lands always had a reputation for top quality. Buy Pilsner Urquell in fresh condition and you will see why. German hops in my experience are mineral, steely, strong-tasting. Sam Adams Boston lager shows them to good advantage, or the German Jever pilsener if consumed fresh again.
Despite this background, there was the odd dissenting view about American hops. Some American experts 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 from a Briton to this effect. Southby implies some of his colleagues had no issues with American hops, for example.
But the boosters could not hide the fact that American hops generally were viewed as second or third class. This only changed when the craft brewing renaissance conferred a star-quality on these hops, not just here but in Britain. So the old learning finally went by the wayside.
But was the garlic story true? It definitely was and in all likelihood, a prime example was Canada Red Vine. Before Prohibition three main varieties of hops were grown in North America: Cluster, of which one or two sub-types existed, Canada Red Vine, and Fuggle. Fuggle was the English hop of the same name, transplanted here.
Cluster was a type long grown in America, apparently a cross between a native (wild) hop and a European variety brought by early Dutch or English arrivals. Red Vine was originally from Canada, as the name suggests. It too seems to have been a genetic mixture of native and European types. For some good background, see here, a recent article from the beer magazine All About Beer.
In a 2012 discussion by home brewers, one commented that he found hops growing wild in New York State. He wrote that they had a “heavy” garlic taste; this is clear confirmation of the 1906 news account.
Does it mean all U.S. hops back then were like that? No, but clearly as a whole the three varieties were felt inferior to German, Czech, and English hops, there was an international consensus.
What changed then to make American hops darlings of the craft beer renaissance? One reason is that new varieties were introduced. The Cascade hop, a story unto itself, was the first, released in 1972. It has a strong grapefruit and pine taste. It isn’t onion or garlic-like. While it may share some traits with pre-Prohibition hops, its clean, citric character is a new element, the result of sophisticated hop breeding.
Cascade was developed in Corvallis, Oregon under a United States Department of Agriculture hop-breeding initiative. Funding in part was provided by large brewers of the 1950s-1970s such as Anheuser-Busch. But those brewers didn’t like the results. The great American hop scientist, Dr. Al Haunold, has explained that to drinkers then after the first beer went down the second “went up your nose”.
Nonetheless a lot of Cascade was grown, used for bittering (vs. aroma) or in hop blends.
The new hop would likely have died out but was picked up by the emerging craft brewers. They were looking for something different and wanted a hop with good aroma 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. It returned as a regular production item in the early 1980s. Anchor’s Our Special Ale in the 1970s also used Cascade. This inspired newer craft brewers like New Albion in Sonoma (1977-1983) and not least, Sierra Nevada Brewing, which commenced in 1981.
Other fruity tastes such mango, tangerine, and peach characterize many of the hops introduced since the revolution worked by Cascade. They have a large following among craft beer devotees.
Yet, even some new-generation hops, as home-brewing and beer discussion forums confirm, can feature garlic, onion, cat’s pee, and so-called dank flavours. Some hops said to have these interesting flavours include Centennial, Chinook, Summit, Simcoe, Citra. Of course, much can depend on the annual crop and where the hops are grown, but I’ve noticed such flavours myself in some of these hops at times.
After all, these hops are still grown in North American soils. They are subject to a North American climate, just as American hops of Southby’s time were. Think of the pinot noir grape: you can grow it far from the original production area, but it won’t taste the same as in Burgundy, France.
And so netting things out, what was regarded as strange in Southby’s time can today be the latest rage. Really, American terroir finally was appreciated, although the garlic taste seems mostly to have subsided, thankfully.
The reasons for the turnaround are, IMO:
– taste is relative to time and place
– England’s great hop fields of the 1800s and mid-1900s have almost disappeared, so there is much less production than formerly. Hence, people will use other sources of hops
– even where English hops form 100% of the hop bill, say for some U.K. cask ales, much less is used than in the heyday of English brewing. The hops make less impact, and accordingly don’t show to best advantage viz. post-1971 American hops
– the latest varieties of American hops offer a more diverse and interesting range of flavours than before 1933 or even between 1972 and 2000. Flavours such as orange, mango, apricot, and pineapple, if not sometimes chocolate and other exotica, now characterize these hops and the beers they go into.
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.