Friday, March 12, 2010

HopTalk with Hopmeister Al Haunold, Part VIII

If You Like Willamette, You’re Going to Love its Forgotten Sister, Columbia
Columbia, not to be confused with the super alpha Columbus, is your proverbial hop diamond in the rough. Released to the public in 1977, this aroma cultivar has never found it’s niche in the marketplace. Like it’s namesake, the mighty Columbia river, we think Columbia is indeed a mighty hop, but it’s potential has historically been dammed up or drowned out, ironically, by the super star status of her big sister: Willamette.

An Internet search yields little reliable information on Columbia, for good reason. The BA hop usage data shows that zero pounds of Columbia were used by crafties in 2009. The reason for that is simple: crafties don’t know much about it, merchants aren’t endorsing it, and farmers without forward contracts simply aren’t growing it.

Nipped in the Bud

Indie Hops intends to revive this long-buried, unheralded but busting-to-break-out aroma hop. We’re planting several acres this year on the verdant Goschie Farms in the Willamette Valley, where, you’ll learn, the seeds were literally planted, harvested, brewed and promptly scuttled over three decades ago.

We believe that but for the snout and cloud of one very powerful brewer more than 30 years ago, Columbia today could easily share the leading role with her ballyhooed sister, Willamette.

Here’s the story.

In 1967, our eager young hopmeister Al Haunold was charged with the task of breeding a new Fuggle-like hop, to replace the old English Fuggle hop, which had not produced well in Oregon. At the time, Cluster was all the rage in Washington, and Brewers Gold was the market leader in Oregon, as both generated hefty yields.

Industrial brewers at the time (you know: Strohs, Schlitz, Pabst, Falstaff, Rheingold, Anheuser Busch, Miller) were having trouble securing reliable supplies of imported Fuggles from the UK and Slovenia. (As a sidenote, many moons ago Fuggle had been transplanted to Yugoslavia, whence it emerged as the hop marketed today under the name “Styrian”).

In the USDA greenhouses at Oregon State, Dr.Al succeeded in doubling the chromosome number of the original Fuggle to create a tetraploid Fuggle hop, which was identical to the original Fuggle (is there anything this man can’t do?). He then crossed this tetraploid with an open pollinated male Fuggle seedling, one teeny-tiny hop flower at a time, deftly wielding a Q-tip to pollinate the male (picture Geppetto breathing life into Pinnochio).

In the year (1968), the master hopcrafter germinated the seeds, strung the tiny plants in the greenhouse, and obtained about 1000 healthy potted plants, the following year were moved to the field. After a few years of testing small samples, Dr. Al selected the six most promising genotypes (all obtained from the original Fuggle) and submitted one pound bale samples for test brewing.

The new hops were brewed and presented to a taste panel consisting of about eight brewers from Anheuser Busch, which back then was big but not yet ginormous. The selected “Fugglish Six” included what later became Willamette and Columbia.

You might think Columbia would be the clear winner by name alone. In the early 1970s, before the Feds established the EPA, the Willamette was essentially an open sewer. Papermills along the river between Eugene and Portland spewed their untreated chemical waste into the dying river. Cities dumped their untreated sewage. Salmon runs were a thing of the past. Parents warned their kids, myself included, to avoid the stinky river like the plaque (which of course meant that’s exactly where I cooled off during the hot summers!)

Selected But Not Chosen

The AB taste panel overwhelmingly preferred Columbia. The hop cultivar had higher alpha acids than Willamette (8-9% vs. 6-7%) and a higher production yield. But it was also higher in Co-Humulone (36-40% vs. 29-32%), registered a higher H/C (humulene/cryophyllene) ratio in its oil and matured 4-7 days later than Willamette.

Why did the panel choose Columbia? It’s hard to say, concludes Al. “The alpha acid and oil levels were so close it would have been very hard to distinguish flavor differences.”

Enter Frank Schwaiger, AB’s German-born master brewer. “Frank was amazing,” recalled Al. “Before instruments were readily available for measuring alpha acid and oil components, Frank had developed an incredibly keen sense of aroma and flavor.” Dr. Al credits Frank with catapulting AB from the back of the pack to its current leadership position.

Banished by the King of Beers

Whether Frank was following his nose or simply injecting a cynical business acumen is not known, but the titan of industrial beer rejected the consensus winner. He overruled his colleagues, choosing Willamette instead. And thus was Columbia relegated to the dark basement as the ugly old sister, while Willamette flourished in the limelight

What was going on here? Was aroma the deciding factor? Both offered mildly fruity and earthy aroma. Or, as a sign of things to come, did Frank pull Willamette through because it was lower in alpha acid, and thus thought to be less bitter? We can only speculate. So that’s what we’ll do.

However, before doing that, Al wanted the record to be perfectly clear – Willamette was (and is) one helluva hop. He proudly remembers what Frank told him years ago: “Willamette,” Frank thundered, “is the closest to the original Oregon-grown Fuggle of any other hop I have ever tested.” High praise indeed and well done young Al.

Back to the story. Now, at about that time, the industrials were trending towards lighter beers that promised not to offend the average consumer, who was sought to actually prefer coca cola (sweet) to beer (bitter). In the 1970s, the bittering units of popular beers hovered around 14 IBU. Today, the global market is demanding hopped-out beers that average below 9 IBU, a level which is on the cusp of being “undetectable” or below the flavor threshold.

Less is More Money?

Perhaps Frank saw the future, a future in which the most profitable beers contained the least amount of hops and malt. Instead of targeting connoisseurs, maybe he envisioned targeting a dumbed down mass audience with a beer-flavored beverage that would be served at super cold so as to numb the taste buds to whatever hop bitterness managed to sneak through.

Maybe Frank detected more bitterness in Columbia. At the time, before the advent of High Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) in 1979, Frank probably wouldn’t have known that Willamette had a lower CoH than Columbia. Cohumulone, once boiled and converted to iso-cohumulone, is thought to contribute mightily to the finished beer’s bitterness. Perhaps, with his refined snout and sensitive tongue, Frank sensed Willamette would better serve a consumer market attracted to low to barely detectable bitterness in their beer.

In any event, you’ll notice that it was a Behemoth Brewer who decided the fate of Al’s little green creations. Would a wine connoisseur let Ripple decide what grapes to grow? The criteria for hop selection are completely different. The biggies want processed alpha acid extracts for the most part, the hand-crafties want beer with flavor, aroma, nutrients, color and body.

Reversal of Fortune

In the late 1970s, AB contracted with Goschie Farms in the Willamette Valley to grow a few hundred acres of Columbia. When Frank picked Willamette and doomed Columbia, AB ordered Goschie Farms to destroy all of those lovely hops. None came to market.

Fast forward to 2006. AB again approached Goschie Farms to experimentally grow several varieties, including Columbia. Goschie dutifully and eagerly planted 30 hills of mighty Columbia rootstock.

But, as fate would have it, Columbia never found the open waters of the marketplace. AB sold out to Belgian InBev, who decided to shut down the experimental plots, again dooming Columbia back to gather dust anonymously in the USDA Germplasm Repository (where hop germplasm is catalogued and stored).

Indie Hops heard the story and shouted from the Hoptops: Set Columbia Free! We took an interest in the unsung Fuggle hero instantly, asking ourselves: Why should the fate of a perfectly good US Fuggle Aroma Hop, bearing the pixie dust of the vaunted hop magic man Dr. Al, be decided by one man at Anheuser-Busch? Gayle Goschie went out to her experimental acreage and, as luck would have it, found a few hearty Columbia survivors, begging for a chance to get into the game.

We are excited to revive the abandoned but not forgotten Columbia. Goschie Farms, Oregon’s first hopyard to obtain “Salmon Safe” certification, is the perfect place to let Willamette’s unknown but potent little sister run free.

Roger Worthington

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing these articles. This one in-particular is an incredible glimpse into the history of some of my favorite hops.

    However, I see 2 errors that you may want to correct. Please let me know if I am wrong:

    "deftly wielding a Q-tip to pollinate the male"
    The q-tip removes the pollen from the male. It is the female flower that needs to be pollinated.

    "Dr. Al selected the six most promising genotypes"
    Unless he had access to gene sequencing equipment, he was selecting for the promising phenotypes - or, observable characteristics similar to the original fuggle.