West Coast Hoppy Beers Before the 70s?

It is commonly thought the emphatically hoppy, I.P.A. (India Pale Ale) of craft brewingwas inaugurated by Liberty Ale (Anchor Brewing, San Francisco), Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and Grant’s India Pale Ale (from Bert Grant). It is also understood that albeit diminished by the mid-1990s, Falstaff’s Ballantine India Pale Ale, which arose from an earlier ale tradition in the East, survived long enough to influence early American craft brewing. Pabst has since returned the beer to the marketplace.

But consider this quote in 1976 from the The Beer Can: A Complete Guide To Beer Can Collecting by The Beer Can Collectors of America, ed. by Larry Wright:

“[A] curious aspect of the brewing scene on the West Coast is the Happy Hops phenomenon. Although the brand bearing this name has been obsolete for quite some time, several of the other Grace Bros brands carried a Happy Hops emblem for many years thereafter. Other hoppy beers that have poured on the scene over the years include Hop Gold (Vancouver, Washington), Hopsburger (Oakland, California)…”.

The text goes on to mention certain east coast and Midwest beers which contained a reference to hops.

Now, it may be these beers used the term hops in a general way without meaning to suggest the beers had a dominating or special characteristic of hops. Still, it is interesting to review some history on these beers.

Grace Brothers were in Santa Rosa, CA. Russian River Brewing is famously located there now.

Grace Bros.’ labels advertised that the brewery used its own malt and hops. The brewery probably owned a hop field somewhere, as hops were raised in northern California well into the 1900s. Given this pride in the hops used, probably a Cluster type that grew particularly well in California, and given too the relatively large amount of hops in early post-Prohibition brewing, possibly Grace Bros.’ beer was full of hop character. The trait may have endured until the brand passed from the scene in late 1960s.

Perhaps there are still residents of Santa Rosa who remember the beer – someone might ask them. Russian River Brewery released a tribute to Happy Hops some years ago, a creditable move from the successor to a brewing tradition which started in the 1800s.

The same might apply to Hop Gold from Star Brewery in Vancouver, WA. 1930s ads indicate it came in both ale and lager versions. The label for ale claimed a “Burton” inspiration, meaning Burton pale ale – famous for its hoppy quality. Only the lager apparently continued after the 1930s, indeed into the 1950s under different ownership names, Enterprise was one.

I haven’t explored Oaklan’s Hopsburger – great name – as yet. The famous/infamous Rainier Ale from Rainier Brewery in Seattle, aka The Green Death, also may have been notably hoppy in its prime. Early labels for this brand also suggest a British influence on the beer.

At a minimum, Blitz-Weinhard’s Henry Weinhard Private Reserve, released about 1975 and which had a decided influence on the early craft breweries, may itself have been influenced by an indigenous, West Coast hoppy beer tradition as against, say, the first (Paul Revere) Liberty Ale released by Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, or imports from Europe. A local, hoppy beer tradition did not have to be extensive by the 1960s – it was enough that some brewers remembered it. Perhaps Bert Grant knew of such a tradition. Of course, only research in original brewing records could show what the hop bills were for the beers  mentioned.

The hop fields of California were replaced by those of Oregon, long active in the field, and Washington State. New varieties were developed from the 1960s in these regions especially the grapefruity Cascade, and then a raft of others. But the West Coast was always a hop growing area.  Local breweries – some of them – may have taken pride in releasing hoppy beers, as the beer names mentioned suggest. These beers may have been as impactful as early craft pale ales considering again of 1930s hopping levels which may have survived in pockets in America. And if they were going to survive anywhere, the West Coast in the small settlements, especially those near hop fields, was a likely place.

Something that has always struck me about beer is how short memories really are. What seems new often isn’t at all but people forget in a fast-paced society what was available only a few years ago. I have never read accounts from ordinary people in Dublin on the character of naturally-conditioned Guinness vs. the nitrogen version that replaced it in the 1960s. There have to be numerous older citizens who can talk about this, even today, but who thinks to ask them?

For some background with illustrative labels on the Star Brewery, see here.

For some great labels for Happy Hops of Santa Rosa, see here.