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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cascades and the Birth of the American Pale

People often create narratives to make sense of very complex things--like when I suggested last week that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was a foundational beer in American brewing. There's some real value in narratives. The downside, of course, is that they filter out important context and contributing factors. It's probably worth adding a bit to the story--for the foundational beer brewed with Cascade hops, there had to be Cascade hops. That, it might be suggested, was the real precursor to American style.

The back story, relayed in detail by Roger Worthington of Indie Hops, is fascinating. In the long decades prior to the craft revolution, hop growers were asked to produce hops of a couple types: neutral, high-alpha strains to add a bitter charge, and refined, low-alpha strains like the famous varieties in Europe. There was no idea of trying to produce characteristic "American" hops in the manner of the distinctive strains from Britain, Germany, and (then) Czechoslovakia. The USDA had established a hop research lab at Oregon State, and their main focus was trying to keep crops healthy and abundant.

In service of this goal, hop researchers were trying to create hybrid strains with the same qualities as European hops that grew well in the Willamette Valley--and were also disease resistant:
Dr. Stan Brooks, the USDA/OSU hop breeder, had grown an open-pollinated (wind pollinated – we’ll never know the parentage) female hop having a strong Fuggle pedigree. Dr. Brooks collected and studied open-pollinated seeds from the latter hop flower, which demonstrated good resistance to DM, among other attractive qualities.

One selection from these, USDA 56013, advanced to multi-hill plots for testing and, eventually, in 1967, it was produced on a one acre plot near Salem, Oregon. USDA 56013 turned out to be a diamond in the rough, but it took a while for brewers to take a shine to its sparkle. USDA 56013 had an alpha : beta ratio similar to the imported German aroma hop Hallertauer mittelfrueh and was thought to be a potential replacement for German and Czech noble imports.
That hop, of course, would be named "Cascade" by another researcher, Al Haunold. If you're interested in the long story, go have a look at that post at Indie Hops. In short, what happened was that Coors got interested in Cascades and started buying huge lots of them, sparking a massive trend in the market. But as Coors used the hops, they found them too assertive, to wild, and too far from the less boisterous European strains.

Ken Grossman, who had been homebrewing since the sixties and had by 1976 set up his own homebrew shop, was well aware of Cascades. He was interested in using as many locally-sourced ingredients as possible--and those very qualities that spooked Coors attracted Ken. A couple years later, he was drawing up plans for a new brewery, and a couple years after that, he released Sierra Nevada Pale, a vibrant beer that tasted nothing like ubiquitous mild lagers that had, for decades, dictated which hops would be grown.

Now, of course, new hop strains are greeted with enormous interest by brewers and consumers. Strains like Citra have the potential to create new trends in brewing, serving as modern day echoes of the mighty Cascade. So credit where credit is due: hop researchers and far-sighted beer companies like Coors started the ball rolling long before craft brewers would have a chance to get in the game.

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PHOTO: 6 GUYS BREWING

4 comments:

Jack R. said...

Good tale, well told.

I look forward to your style book.

Alan said...

But the home brewers became the craft brewers. I still think you are missing a big piece of the puzzle.

Jeff Alworth said...

Alan, didn't you see my first paragraph? I inoculated myself against such charges. (But I'd appreciate a post from you on the point.)

cerealdisobedience said...

I still think the yeast strain is at least as influential as the hop--and that yeast is primarily responsible for the character of american ales.

Chico's clean, it's bottom fermenting (like a lager), it works fast, is highly attenuative, and it clears well without filtration. Add in the high carbonation level of most american ales, and you have a style that drinks like macro lager, but with more hop presence.

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