Saazer vs Sterling: Do You Want Sizzle or Steak?
Saazer is a land race, noble aroma hop whose “Old Europe” mystique may overshadow a few telling flaws. It’s a low total oil, low alpha acid, low co-humulone classic hop renowned for its spicy and herbal flavors. Over the last 700 years, Saazer hops have survived wars, famine, invasions, Nazis and Communist collective farming in the tiny town of Zatec (formerly Saaz), in what’s today the Czech Republic, about 50 miles south of Dresden, Germany.
In 2009, Saazer (Cz) ranked as the 7th most used hop in the Brewers Association 2009 hop usage poll, just behind it’s more robust US offshoot, Sterling. Sterling, as we’ll see, may not carry the mystique of a land race Euro hop (think castles, coats-of-arms, Oompah bands), but US farmers and craft brewers love it.
The Wages of Communism
Saazer hops have been beset by unsteady availability and small yields. The acreage has not expanded in decades (centuries?) and the yields by US standards have been dramatically low, which of course has helped push up its price. It was the uncertain supply and wild price fluctuations that prompted US brewers back in the early 1980s to grow Czech Saaz in the U.S. At the time, the walls of Communism were beginning to crack and the Czech people were poised to embrace the promise of capitalism.
A prominent US brewer began growing Czech Saaz in Northern Idaho in the 1980s on a farm near the Canadian border (aka, “the Boundary Farm”), which was owned by Anheuser Busch. The latitude of the Boundary Farm was similar to the Saazer region but the former’s growing season was a tad shorter. Dr. Cal Skotland, a plant pathologist stationed at Prosser, WA found and destroyed the Prunus Necrotic Ringspot Virus in the original planting stock he got from Czechoslovakia This virus, commonly found in many older hop cultivars around the world, was probably retarding the yield of the hop back in its homeland as well as reducing its alpha acids potential, but went unheeded under a see-no-evil Communist regime.
So, in the late 1980s, the stage was set. Noble aroma? Check. Low yield in it’s Bohemian homeland? Check. Low alpha acid? Check. Low oil? Check. Throw in the Ringspot Necrotic Ringspot virus with a gathering threat of the Apple Mosaic Virus and you have all the elements of the kind of perfect hop storm that our very own Dr. Al Haunold was put on this Earth to clean up, amp up, oil up, and let her rip.
Purging the Rootstock
Al obtained virus free clones in 1990 from the Washington Experiment Station at Prosser, and immediately set to work cooking up a new cultivar. His mission: higher yield, more alpha, similar storage potential, disease resistance and a compatible oil profile.
All very good, kind sir, but wait a second. The rootstock was infected? This budding hopster was still hung up on the virus thing.
RGW: “Do you mean to tell me the noble Saazer directly from it’s idyllic birthplace was chronically infected? And that’s probably why the yields – then and now – have been so puny? Why didn’t your colleagues back East get mad as hell and knock those viral bastards out? Good lord! Didn’t the virus skunk up the beer?”
Al, being Al, of steady hand and disciplined demeanor, first calmed me down. “Viruses are not uncommon,” he assured. “Usually in about 10 to 15 years the rootstock will get infected with mechanically transmitted viruses, such as the Prunus Necrotic Ringspot virus. Roots can get contaminated when machinery moves from one hop yard to another without first being cleaned. Workers can also act as hosts if they labor in multiple yards without cleaning up first. That’s why it pays for farmers to take every precaution – steamcleaning machinery, vigorous hand washing, targeting pathogens by hand, etc -- all of which are par for the course in the Valley.”
He continued. “This is also why scientists need to constantly monitor and why growers should check their rootstock before planting. Why did my colleagues in Czechoslavakia send us virus-infected Saazer during the good glasnost times of the 1980s? I don’t know, maybe that’s all they had. The virus detection kit was certainly available in the 1970s. Detection wasn’t the problem – it was the solution. Massive acreage of infected hops would have to have been sacrificed. It takes 2 to 3 years to bring in a healthy crop, so all of that investment would’ve been lost.”
“At the same time,” Al mused, “it was a centrally planned government that didn’t readily admit to flaws or imperfections. Maybe nobody wanted to be the one to admit that the fruit of their almighty Communist labor was infected.”
Building a Bigger & Bolder Saaz Offspring
Al decided to cross the virus-free Czech Saaz female with a vigorous male plant that had Cascade and German aroma parentage with a smattering of higher alpha potential from Brewer’s Gold. His vision was to design a lush growing hop plant that would fill in the spaces between plants in each row, so it would look like a solid green wall with plenty of side-arms and lots of cones, in contrast to the sparse cone set normally obtained with Saaz plants.
“Czech Saaz have puny sidearms with short secondary and tertiary branching,” he noted grimly. “The cone volume is weak, about 20 per sidearm. We wanted longer sidearms with 30 to 50 or more cones on average. Also, Saaz cones tend to be light, brittle and smallish. We wanted something more substantial.”Done. Al bred a robust cultivar whose parentage was ½ Saazer, ¼ Cascade, 1/8th German aroma, plus a smidgen of Brewers Gold, Early Green and more mystery hop. The yields shot up about 80% (4 bales, or about 800 lbs per acre on average in Czech hop yards vs. 8 - 10 bales, or 1600 to 2000 lbs per acre, in the Valley). Alpha acid edged up from 3-4% to 6-8%, while co-humulone, one of the major alpha acids fractions stayed in the expected Saazer range. Total oil pumped up from .6 to 1.3 ml/100g, while farnesene, the characteristic Saazer hop oil component, stayed within the expected 11 – 15% range.
Meanwhile, Al’s creation retained the ostensibly ignominious title as a “poor keeper.” Al explains. “Then, as now, alpha acid retention tends to dominate the conversation particularly with super-alpha hops destined for extract production. A ‘poor keeper’ is not desirable for making hop extracts but is not a particularly bad thing with aroma hops, of course with certain limitations. For aroma hops, it’s probably desirable to be a ‘relatively poor keeper.’ Oils, as well as the acids, oxidize relatively quickly. During the beer making process, the oils break down into dozens of new compounds which,” our master of precision noted with a twinge of frustration, “by some mysterious process impart the flavor and aroma that we like.”
The Crown Sterling
“I decided to name it Sterling to keep with the currency theme. Word play with Gold had been exhausted but I wanted to suggest a solid, reliable standard, like the pound sterling. Thankfully the Brits didn’t convert their currency over to the Euro.”
Al established a four acre plot in the Valley in 1991. At around that time, Coors took an interest. The details are sketchy, but after it’s initial romance with Sterling, Coors broke it off in a few short years. Another source, not Al, who retired from the USDA in 1995, advised me that a farmer in Washington hijacked a few experimental Sterling-related rhizomes, planted them before they were ready, and harvested the cones too early before its oils fully flourished.
The net result was Coors soured on the imposter, which wasn’t a bad thing, since the crafties thereafter discovered Sterling when it was finally released in 1999 by Al’s successor, Dr. John Henning. The crafties, we know, have been hopping up their brews ever since, including Deschutes, which showcases Sterling in my favorite brew, Green Lakes Organic Ale, the brainchild of Ueber Brewer Larry Sidor.
Now you might think that an eight year lag between a promising cross and it’s public release speaks of pokiness. You’d be wrong, according to Al, a hard charging man who by no means suffers dilly-dallying gladly. It takes time to get it right. For example, he teaches, a farmer cannot rush into harvesting Sterling. It cannot be plucked before it’s time. If he does, the brewer is not likely to get the desirable oil profile or its characteristic citrusy flavor and most likely not the full alpha acids potential.
The Hop Whisperer
How does a farmer know when it’s time to pick Sterling (or other US aromas, for that matter)? Is it simply a matter of analytic testing? Or, like those warthogs who can sniff out a truffle under two feet of mud, does one instead need a sensitive snout, a delicate touch and an acute ear? For Al Haunold, it’s all about the personal touch.
“Aromas are not super alphas,” says Al, emphatically. “If you have 400 acres of Magnum, but only 4 acres of Sterling, you can’t let the economics of harvesting the alpha crop drive the harvest of the aromas. Aromas need more time. The oil has to develop.”
How does one know if the Sterling aroma hop is ready? This is the kind of question the answer to which separates the book smart from the hopyard-hardened. “You break out your magnifying glass and you pick apart a cone. Is the lupulin gland an inverted cup and pale in color? Then it’s not ready. The cup [i.e. resin gland] must runneth over— plump, full, rich and yellow. The sprig [the central axis of the cone] – if it splits easily, she’s not ready. When you rub the cone, does it squeak or rustle? It’s not ready if it doesn’t rustle.”
“Agronomics are important. It costs money to clean the picking equipment between varieties. It’s more efficient to pick everything at once, even if grown at different locations. But aromas don’t respect labor and time charts. Factory farming high alpha and artisan aroma hops just don’t mix.”
Well said, Al. And thanks for the reminder to take the time now and then to stop and listen to aroma hop wunderkinds like Sterling.