Monday, January 25, 2010

Hop History with Hopmeister Dr. Al Haunold, Part II

Cascade: How Adolph Coors helped launch the most popular US Aroma Hop and the craft beer revolution

Let’s go way back to the end of Prohibition in 1933. At that time, the US government saw fit to re-energize the beer industry by re-establishing the hop research facility at Oregon State University (then Oregon State College) in Corvallis, Oregon. More beer, more jobs, less crabbiness, and more tax revenue. In 1935, Oregon ranked as the top hops producer, cultivating 26 million pounds from 30,000 acres, about 90% of which was the Cluster variety.

The USDA facility’s main objective was to save cluster hops by controlling Downy Mildew (DM), which had attacked hop-yards in the Willamette Valley with deadly force. 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.

For the next three years, USDA 56013 was dutifully harvested, baled, and stored in a warehouse in Yakima. Brewers wouldn’t bite. The big boys, like Pabst, Annheuser Busch, Strohs, Reingold, Schlitz and Coors, accepted the status quo. American hops (mostly pulled from UK hops) were good enough for bittering. The US dollars was strong. It was cheaper to import moderately priced Europena aroma hops than invest in breeding and growing untested noble aroma offshoots.

Then a confluence of events in the late 1960’s gave “industrial” brewers cause for pause. A disease (Verticillium wilt) devastated the Hallertauer mittelfrueh hopyards in Germany and the price of nobles (Hallertau MF, Saaz and Tettnang) went through the roof. Coors, a large importer of German aroma hops, was faced with diminished supplies and higher prices.

The government breeders in Corvallis, to be sure, had seen this storm coming. Since the 1950s they had been evaluating new breeding lines with an eye towards winning hop independence. Dr. Haunold, who joined USDA in 1965, recalls that brewers “would rub and sniff 56013 and like it, as it reminded them of Hallertauer Mittelfreuh with slightly higher alpha. But at the end of the day they’d just throw some more money at us to continue our research and then invite us down to the bar.” No brewer up until then had even ventured to pilot-brew with 56013.

Dr. Haunold and his colleagues remained convinced that 56013, which they named “Cascade” after Oregon’s majestic mountain range, was a winner. A major brewer even chided Dr. Haunold for the name they chose for 56013, snickering that “Cascade” was the name of dishwashing powder that was popular at the time. Needless to say, for the past three decades, US mega-brewers were not seriously interested in any new hops from the USDA program, let alone Cascade.

For over 12 years, the lab-coats in Corvallis had been growing test plots of Cascade with no takers, including three years of the one-acre commercial test plot with about 2000 lbs of annual harvest (over 6000 lbs total). The bales just sat balefully in a warehouse inYakima, collecting dust and growing old.

Finally, the ice broke. In 1972, USDA scientists released Cascade to the public – the first and only new hop cultivar released by the USDA hop research program since the end of Prohibition. Adolph Coors decided to take a chance on the new and untested aroma hop and Coors would pay $1 per pound for Cascade hops. At the time, US growers were fetching about 50 to 65 cents a pound (mainly for Cluster hops). As expected, hop farmers went bonkers and began planting Cascades. In a few years, Cascade jumped to over 13% of the US hop acreage grown.

Oddly, at that time Oregonians could not even purchase Coors beer , thanks to its ignorant legislature which had deemed unpasteurized beer a menace to the public health. Al recalls with a good laugh – “they called it poison!” Note: said ban was not repealed in Oregon until the 1980s. Second note, I remember as a lad my Dad buying contraband Coors in California and secreting a case across the border. He’d share it with his college buddies and I’m not sure whether it was the flavor or the joy of sticking it to the man but boy did they carry on like kings of the world.

Coors bought millions of pounds but discovered that the Cascade hops did not mimic Hallertauer MF hops closely enough and gradually scaled back on its usage. “Cascade was unique,” said Dr. Haunold. “Moderate bitterness, more alpha bang for the buck, with a pleasant citrus-floral character. The alpha-beta ratio was similar to Hallertauer mittelfrueh , but the total oil content was higher, and cone yields were dramatically higher.”

“It’s a good thing Coors took the lead on Cascades when they did,” Dr. Haunold said. “We were at the end of our rope. We had tried everything to get brewers to experiment with Cascade. We were just going to toss out those 30 bales and send 56013 over to the germplasm library, where who knows whether anyone would’ve ever picked it up.”

“Obviously, I was very thankful that Coors liked 56013,” said Dr. Haunold, who still prefers to refer to the hops he released by their pedigree number. “Coors broke the logjam. US brewers began to assert their independence from German, Czechoslavakian and French-grown hops. It gave me a lot of work to do over the next three decades. And it helped launch the craft beer movement.”

Today, Cascade hops are as ubiquitous and American as apple pie. The recent 2009 BA Hops Survey showed that Cascade again topped the chart as the most used hop – two and half times more volume than 2nd place Centennial six times greater than third place Willamette (another Dr. Haunold creation).

So, when you’re tempted to disparage the big industrial brewers, remember this: if Adolph Coors hadn’t taken a chance and bet big on Cascades, this workhorse hop may never have found its way into your kettle and who knows how long its absence might have delayed the US craft beer revolution.

Roger Worthington

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