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Monday, June 06, 2011

A Taste of the Past: Cluster Hops

We spend a lot of time thinking about beers of the past, but this almost always means Europe's past. If you want to keep your historical excursions on this continent, one place to start is the venerable Cluster hop, a strain that goes back as far as many of the world's venerated strains. Those of you who went to the Single Hop Fest at Amnesia this weekend were treated to one tour-de-force example, Double Mountain's Clusterf#%k. But we'll come to that in due course.

First, a bit on the history of American hops. The first British settlers, beer-oriented as they were, had hops in the ground by 1629 and there was a commercial market for them by 1646. These were English hops--or possibly English and Dutch--but they were pretty quickly crossed with local natives. (I doubt anyone knows if this was intentional or accidental.) What ultimately emerged from these early crops was Cluster. By the turn of the 20th century nearly every hop grown in the country was Cluster (96%). After Prohibition, Clusters continued to dominate; in 1935, they occupied 90% of the market.

American hops weren't prized; they had high alphas, high cohumulone, and were regarded as pungent and harsh. Brewers used American hops for bitter charges and then scented and flavored their beers with the sweet nectar of low-alpha, low-cohumulone hops from Europe. For 350 years, American brewers bought in to the notion that their local hops, which definitely differed from European hops, were inferior. As that all changed, mainly when American craft brewers began to discover that local hops were indeed tasty and aromatic, and the Cluster hop--the original "C" hop--faded from sight.

I was dimly aware of all this history and assumed that one of the reasons no one knew US hops were so good was because Clusters lacked their cousins' virtues. Fast forward to Saturday, when I tried Double Mountain's Clusterf#%k, an IPA that uses the old hop in a way Henry Weinhard never dreamed of. With 75 IBUs of lip-smacking hoppiness, CF didn't nestle the hops in a subtle admixture of malt and yeast. No, this beer is all Clusters--and what a wonderful opportunity to see the old hop shine. It has all the American character you would expect, with intense citrus that was a dead ringer for passionfruit. It kicks off a lot of tropical fruit essence as well, suggesting mango or guava. It is every bit as sticky and vivid as you expect from US hops--and distinctive, too.

The Cascade will probably be the American hop for the next 350 years; Cascade Brewing sent a pale saturated in their namesake hop that was a perfect demonstration of why it's so beloved. It's got a pure, clean character full of floral, citrus life. Few hops anywhere can match if for elegance and versatility. Yet the Cluster shows that America has long produced great hops--if only we'd known to make beer in which you could actually taste them.

Obviously, you should try to make it out to Hood River for a pint of the Clusterf#%k. I doubt seriously Double Mountain wants a fourth IPA regular in their lineup.


  1. Here is all I have on Cluster, from my Albany Ale project-ette:

    A Good Beer Blog

  2. That Albany Ale Project is some fiiiine work.

  3. Alan, I have some vague sense of the Dutch discovering hops on Manhattan, but I couldn't locate a source. My own addled brain didn't seem quite adequate.

  4. Cluster hops absolutely do not taste like citrus. If you see any brewers talking about them, the phrase they generally use is "catty," or "cat piss." They aren't being catty themselves, cluster literally smells like a litterbox. For flavor it's more like black currant. If that beer tasted like citrus and tropical fruit there is something else going on there besides Cluster hops.

    This is a historically suspect narrative you've constructed here. Knowledge of alpha acid and cohumulone is very recent (and some suggest not accurate). A high level of cohumulone would (supposedly) make a hop unsuitable for bittering anyway, as that alpha acid converts to a sort of pithy, rind-like harsh bitterness in a long boil. Either the theory or the narrative is wrong (or both) because Cluster has been used for a very long time as bittering in very mild beers--it is still used by Yuengling, by the way.

    Brewers shied away from using it as a late addition because of the intense flavor/aroma it imparted. (that would be from essential oils, not alpha acids). Whether cat piss or black currant it has a distinctive and unique flavor that not everyone enjoys, especially if you're trying to make a German style lager. It is a better fit if you're using it like a Northern Brewer or a Fuggle. There is no vast conspiracy to make Americans hate their native hops--and cluster isn't even a purely native hop anyway. It still got used regardless, because the availability of imported hops was not consistent. And by your own numbers a shattering amount of it was grown even in the mid 20th century.

    There are other hops that do a better job these days and are more disease resistant, so if anything it's the success of American hop breeding programs that's doomed Cluster.

  5. Daniel, I have to plead the fifth to a lot of your comment. The Double Mountain was the first single hop Cluster beer I've had. Clusters have changed over time, and there are a few strains. I'm not sure what Double Mountain had nor am I sure they know (or whether the hop grower knows) what they have. That said, Clusterf#%k tasted very much like citrus, as I'm sure anyone who tried it will confirm.

    As for the character of native strains, this data comes from Al Haunold, who knows a lot more about hops than I. The comment about alphas and cohumulone are based on analyses of American strains. (And the whole cohumulone=harsh analysis is itself anything but established; as I said, that was the belief at the time.)

    As for the history, I do think you're pulling in a bit of your own ideas here; that breweries didn't use US hops for generations is suggestive that they thought the weren't any good in flavor and aroma additions. Moreover, when hybrids did come along like Cascade, breweries didn't embrace them because they were too intense, not because they imparted a ribes flavor they found objectionable.

    Finally, hop breeding did indeed doom Cluster, but mainly because breeders developed higher-alpha strains that made it obsolete. That some strains may taste the way you describe can't have helped.

  6. "that breweries didn't use US hops for generations is suggestive that they thought the weren't any good in flavor and aroma additions."

    This is the part that I find suspect. When I said "brewers shied away from it," I mean specifically big lager breweries post-prohibition and before the 1970s. I would argue that it's more likely that these breweries didn't use US hops for flavor because they didn't impart the right character, specifically a noble-like mildness, not that they necessarily thought they were bad. Even Budweiser used Czech Saaz until the 70s. This was part of their marketing and brand identity (in contrast, now, to their identity as the "Great American Lager")

    But 19th century breweries are a different story, and Cluster is a major player in historical Steam beers, farmhouse/cream ales, and the "pre-prohibition pilsner" or "Classic American Pilsner," whatever you want to call it.

    I'm not sure what yeungling used at this period before they reinvented their recipe (they use Cascade now). I'm also not sure what Budweiser used in the 19th century. But cluster was definitely widely used in the 19th century, even by lager breweries.

  7. Oh as for the Double Mountain beer, I can't try it, so I can't really comment on it. I've had a few home-brewed "historical" beers with cluster, and made a few myself, and always get black currant out of it. I have no idea how they got citrus out of them (a different strain of cluster could be it), but that certainly seems atypical for Cluster.

  8. Okay I dug up a couple of articles for you. The first on steam beers:

    "The hops used would have been almost exclusively California hops, primarily from the Russian River growing area, which at the time was the prime hop growing region in the United States (1). ...
    California hops were a variant of Cluster, and Russian River hops in particular were considered to be of very fine quality."

    The second on the "classic american pilsner":

    "Pre-prohibition domestic hops were virtually entirely of the Cluster type, as were most in the post-prohibition period through perhaps the 1950s. Cluster is even today the classic American bittering hop, and an important component of the “old-fashioned beer taste” that old timers remember. They are sometimes described as having a coarse flavor, with black-currant character.
    Wahl and Henius in 1902 advised using “best quality” hops for late addition, and this may well have implied imported ones. They do not discuss hop origins, but 100 Years of Brewing a year later does mention both domestic and imported hops, the best of the latter being Bohemian “Saazer,” then Bavarian “Spalter,” and then “Holleetan” (Hallertauer?). Other hops that were imported include English
    Fuggles and Styrian Goldings, which are Fuggles grown in Yugoslavia. Clearly, imported hops were used, especially for late additions in premium beers. Fix notes that Budweiser labels of one hundred years ago proudly noted the use of Saaz. Nugey in 1948 is explicit about using imported
    hops for late additions in his recipes."

    Information on "cream ales" or "American farmhouse ales" is more sparse but my feeling is that "non-premium" beers by small brewers, they would not have access to or be able to afford the imported varieties that the major lager producers could.

  9. Yeah, I don't know how to square this circle--except that the Clusters available today differ from those of previous generations. (And we do know there were at least two varieties--early and late Clusters.

  10. I think Daniel brings up a good point about pedigree of hops. Who knows really what variety of hops you are getting from your supplier. The indicator of hops are mostly vague as far as I know: They look like this, have this structure, range from A to B% Alpha, humulone, mycerene, etc... I'm sure they do more precise genetic testing but probably not on every lot. But I will defer that to the professionals who are better qualified (hopunion, yakima chief, growers, etc.).

    But I will say that Cluster F#ck is 100% percent cluster (per the labels on the boxes of hops) and was kettle hoped, hop backed, and dry hoped generously. The hops are backed up by almost all pilsner malt and just a bit of light crystal and honey malt.

    In its fresh state it carries large notes of tropical fruit, guava was the consensus yesterday. Of course as it ages it might change to cat piss... but I hope not.

    Kyle Larsen

  11. Kyle, didn't mean to impugn you or your brewery, apologies if it came across that way. Just that I've never heard of cluster being particularly fruity, let alone guava.

    It could be terrior, it could be a newer varietal of Cluster, there's no real way to know for sure. It sounds good, though, I wish I could try it.

  12. Matt at Double Mountain6:22 AM, June 09, 2011

    OK, can i just mention that Terrior was used in the same sentence as Cluster Hops.