The Little Hop That Couldn’t
I mentioned in From Russia With Hops that in New York, U.S.A. in 1941, an attempt was made to grow commercially a hybrid hop called Saazer Seedless.
Many beer fans know that Czech Saaz hops are famous, “the” pilsener hop in the eyes of many. It’s part of what makes Pilsner Urquell, the first golden lager, tick like a Rolex.
Qualities were claimed for Saazer Seedless similar to the famed Saaz. So, fine European flavour, and seedless – propagated from female cuttings, not seeded via fertilization from male plants.
At the time in the U.S. most of the hop crop was seeded, which meant a lower-grade hop, and lower beer quality in the view of many brewers. A clean, dry-air system had also been developed to cure Saazer Seedless hops, which raised the quality yet further.
The hop seemed to offer an optimal solution to American brewers, as the advent of war in Europe made importation of noble varieties impractical.
New York hop farms were established after repeal of Prohibition in 1933, and old ones revived, to restore a vibrant, pre-World War I hop industry.
Taking advantage of a new star on the hop stage seemed to augur long-term success, but the farms themselves withered. Saazer Seedless proved, in New York certainly, a damp squib.
It could not compete with large-scale culture on the West Coast, especially in Washington State. By the 1960s commercial hop production in New York State, for any variety, was practically extinct.
Saazer Seedless, built on Saaz rootstocks imported from then Czechoslovakia, originated in post-repeal California. The hop was developed by E. Clemens Horst Co. in Sacramento.
Clemens Horst (1867-1940), whose importance earned an online biography, regularly advertised his firm as the world’s largest hop grower.
German-born, Horst had immigrated as a youth to America. He carved a highly successful career as hop grower and hop machinery inventor. He was also a winemaker.
His ad appeared in a 1938 issue of the trade journal American Brewer (via Hagley Digital Archive). He was not alone evidently, but jostled for billing with a group of mostly New York-based hop dealers. Some of the names are still well-known.
The Brewer’s Digest in 1939 mentioned a visit to Horst’s Sacramento farm, stating:
It was amazing to observe thousands of acres of irrigated soil which is devoted to the growing of the Natural Air Dried Saazer Seedless type hops which Mr. Horst has developed since repeal.
A late-1930s patent application Horst filed for a baling method was accompanied by this design, suggesting the importance Saazer Seedless held for his farms.
Saazer Seedless seemed a bright spot for American hop farming, American brewers, and Horst’s future. It was not to be.
40 years later, the hop had no mention in hop scientist Al Haunold’s ca. 1980 catalogue of hops grown in America. See the table in his article “Hop Production, Breeding, and Variety Development in Various Countries”.
(Except for the Cascade hop, this was just prior to the proliferation of hops associated with craft brewing).
Unquestionably, Saazer Seedless had been used in some American beer. In 1935 Hampden Brewing in Northampton, Massachusetts advertised it boldly in the Greenfield Daily Recorder-Gazette for its Narragansett Banquet Ale.
The testimonial included seems clearly to have come from Horst Farms.
Yet, after World War II European hop imports quickly resumed, including Czech Saaz, see in From Russia With Hops. To this day, European hops enter the composition of many American beers, mass-market but also craft.
Possibly there was limited production of Saazer Seedless in Sacramento until the 1970s. Steiner’s Guide to American Hops, published in 1973, stated:
The Sacramento Valley is still a centre of hop production. Its fertile soil produces hops of notably fine quality which have been compared to the renowned Saaz hops of Central Europe. The California crop is highly esteemed in brewing circles and commands a premium in price …
But large-scale hop production in California ended for practical purposes in 1985 when the Signorotti ranch ceased operations. Allison Joy’s 2015 article in Comstock’s Magazine reported the background.
Some hops are still grown in the Valley, creditably by farmers wishing to revive an agriculture of historic importance, but on a small-scale only.
Why did Saazer Seedless fail? The yields, as noted in the Narragansett ad, were small in relation to traditional American varieties such as Cluster, or Oregon Fuggles. It was less economic to use, in a word.
And possibly, the superior taste trumpeted by Horst Farms was overrated. The hop was a hybridized variety, therefore unlikely to offer the full quality of Czech Saaz.
In craft brewing today a cachet has developed around New World varieties, with flavours and aromas quite different to Saaz’ elegant tones, or other noble European varieties. Maybe Saazer Seedless was just ahead of its time.
In fact, hybrid hops with Saaz in the lineage have penetrated the craft market. Sterling is one, in the development of which Al Haunold played a large role. See beer author Stan Hieronymus’ description of Sterling in his book For the Love of Hops (2012), p. 166.
I have tasted beer using Sterling, a single-hop India Pale Ale, and it was very good, quite “Bohemian” in fact.
Hieronymus also mentioned Ultra (“born in Oregon from Hallertau Mittelfruh and a Saazer-type male”), Riwaka, and yet other hops with an imprint of Saaz DNA.
As to Clemens Horst, he died in 1940, another factor that may have dimmed prospects for Saazer Seedless.
Very few new hop types reach success, and sadly (perhaps) Saazer Seedless could not escape the general rule.
Part II has our final thoughts.
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