Thursday, May 6, 2010

Hoptalk with Dr. Al Haunold, Hopmeister, Part X

US Public Aroma Cultivars: Use ‘em or Lose ‘em?

Who's gonna fill their shoes
Who's gonna stand up tall
Who's gonna play the Opry
And the Wabash Cannonball
Who's gonna give their heart and soul
To get to me and you
Lord I wonder, who's gonna fill their shoes?
-- George Jones, ‘Ol No-Show

Why do certain crafties continue to prefer European aroma hops over the US grown surrogates? Do the land race varieties offer superior flavor and aroma? Is it true that the US grown aroma varieties were never intended to replace the nobles?

Did the industrials back in the day task out the USDA to cook up substitutes just in case of a catastrophic European crop failure, or to leverage against price or supply manipulations? Did the industrials simply want substitutes for Hallertauer mf, Saazer and Tettnanger as an insurance policy in case the real McCoy weren’t available?

Or, are the US public cultivars as good or better as the European originals, but some crafties insist on using select German and Czech varieties because of the mystique thing – you know, to truly appreciate beer, you have to wear lederhosen, swill from a tankard the size of a mail box, and polka to that good old oompah beat.

And, finally, if the industrials no longer give a sprig about aroma hops, and crafties are caught up with the romance of German hops, and the trend stateside is towards jealously guarded proprietary hops, leaving the US aroma varieties potentially in the dust, who’s going to fill their shoes? Who’s going to fill your kettle with fresh, unique and locally grown hops? Who’s going to want to follow Daddy’s footsteps and farm hops?

Insurance, Default, Better or Just Different?

I put these big questions to the Hop Oracle, Dr. Al Haunold, inventor or co-inventor of 23 public hop cultivars during his reign as the Head Hopster for the USDA-ARS hop station in Corvallis, Oregon from 1965 to 1996. You want straight answers? You go right to the source.

First, focusing on German and Czech hops, why the flurry of activity back in the day if the Industrials never really used much Liberty, Mt. Hood, Crystal, Santiam, Sterling, etc?

“It’s true Annheuser Busch (AB) and the major brewers didn’t want to be exposed if the European hop supply fell short,” conceded Dr. Al. “That made perfect sense. The three Nobles are good hops, but their alphas were too low, their yields were lousy and they were riddled with disease problems, especially the Hallertauer MF. “

“You fold in the currency fluctuations, radical weather events, the price of shipping, as well as the ravages of too much heat and air exposure in transit, and it made perfect sense for AB and other big brewers with world wide ambitions to want back ups.”

A Global Mega-Brewer Hedging Bets

“AB has always tried to hedge. They bought a big hop farm in Northern Idaho --the Boundary Farm -- and a 40 hectare farm in Huell, Germany, adjacent to the German Hop Research Institute which at the time used that farm to field test promising new cultivars. Even when I was going public with Hallertauer MF ‘analogues’ such as Liberty and Mt. Hood, AB was busy in Germany replacing Hallertauer MF with varieties like Hallertauer Tradition, and Spalter Select, new German aroma cultivars bred to AB’s specifications. It always made sense to AB not to be too tied to one region, or one or two varieties.”

Did AB intend to use Liberty, Mt. Hood and the others as substitutes for imported Hallertauer MF?

Al says yes. “AB was using Mt. Hood in Michelob and the feedback was positive. The farmers out here were expecting massive contracts, but they never came. We thought with Liberty and Mt Hood we had the upper hand, but about then AB started ramping up Spalter and Tradition. Eventually, of course, even those apparently got the shaft, when AB was bought out by InBev.”

“The Industrials always encouraged me to concentrate on aroma hops. But, looking back, I can see the disconnect. The scientists within each company sincerely appreciated what I delivered in terms of disease resistance, higher alpha, and higher crop yields, but the lab guys didn’t make the call on what wound up in the beer recipe,” mused Al.

Fatherland Brewers and Hometown Hops

“At that time, most of the brewmasters were trained in Europe, especially Germany. They had a built in reverence for German hops. For them, using anything but German grown hops would violate the spirit of the Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Law,” laughed Al. “With the exception of Cascade and of course Willamette, I’m not absolutely sure AB’s brewmasters ever truly intended to use my aroma hops.”

The craft brewers have kept Al’s creations alive – the roster of public cultivars, such as Liberty, Mt. Hood, Crystal, Santiam and Sterling which, for short, I’ll call the Super US Noble Aromas (SUNAs). Unlike the biggies, for whom tradition and consistency have been used as cover for refusing to innovate or take bold chances, the crafties have distinguished themselves as unbound by the shackles of rigid traditionalism.

“I’m grateful that the crafties have kept [the SUNA’s] in the ground and in the coppers, “ Al said, himself Austrian-born, “but outside of the marketing panache I don’t see why the new breed of American brewers would feel the need to use German nobles over what’s grown right here in Oregon and Washington.”

Indeed, this pilgrim has recently traveled to the UK, Belgium and France, where the buzz in the pubs (at least detected by me) was that the American crafties were leading the charge for creative, bigger and better brews.

“In any case, the days of coasting off AB’s hop selections are long gone, “ continued Al. “AB began trending toward All Alpha, All the Time even before InBev bought them out. Since InBev took over, I’ve heard that they’ve been replacing their Tradition and Spalter Select with Herkules, which of course is a super alpha, reportedly ranging from 16 - 20% alpha acid.”

Doing More with Fewer Aromas?

So where does this leave the US aroma hop? In 2008, when the supply spigot went dry and the prices skyrocketed, many US crafties put their trademark thriftiness and resilience to work, and started brewing with fewer aroma hops and more bittering hops.

A few brewers I’ve spoken to offered that instead of using three aroma hops, they were forced by the shortage to use one, but the flavor and aroma didn’t suffer proportionately. Today, even though more aromas are available, they’ve decided to stick with their modified recipes that get more mileage out of their bittering hops.

Do we have a perfect storm? Industrials certainly don’t want much if any of the publicly owned SUNAs. Big crafties continue to trumpet the mystique of quaffing traditional brews flavored with German grown land race hops. And the more frugal small crafties have discovered they can do more with bittering hops.

In the end, price, quality and freshness matter. The freight charges from Germany (and New Zealand) can be substantial. Shipping hops in tightly packed containers for days and days in the hold of giant cargo ships can also exact nasty wear and tear on hops (think of ice cream melting in the sun). The carbon footprint is another factor weighing in favor of SUNAs. And who needs the headache of figuring out the purchasing power of the US dollar against the Euro?

Finally, just as drinking a German beer can invoke a nostalgic experience, the same can be said about quaffing a rich American pale ale using all US grown ingredients. It’s refreshing to look into that frosty mug, inhale the floral aroma, taste the citrusy freshness, and know that you’re helping put a US hop farmer’s kid through college.

Roger Worthington

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