Friday, January 22, 2010

First of a series:

US Hopmeister in Chief, Dr. Al Haunold, On the Origins of Willamette.

Dr. Al Haunold served as our country’s unofficial hopmeister from 1965 to 1995 as the leading hop scientist for the USDA’s hop breeding program. During his tenure, Dr. Haunold released 15 U.S. hop varieties to the public and collaborated on at least another 8 varieties. Chances are, every time you drink a craft beer today, you’re tasting a piece of his handiwork.

Although he “retired” in 1995, Dr. Haunold has continued to advise the USDA on hop breeding and production in an unpaid capacity. His days in Corvallis, Oregon are busier than ever, shuttling between the tennis courts, the swimming pool, his office at Oregon State University, and his volunteer work for the AARP helping low income earners fill out their taxes. Time has not taken the edge off – if anything, he’s sharper than ever.

Indie Hops is pleased to consult with Dr. Haunold, who is a veritable rare book on the history of hop breeding in the US. I recently spoke with Dr. Haunold about the history of Willamette, an aroma hop which he released in the mid 1970’s and today ranks as the third highest hop used by U.S. craft brewers. Willamette has also historically been one of Oregon’s mothership hops.

Back in the 1960s, Oregon’s primary hop was UK Fuggles, named after Richard Fuggles who founded the flower in his Golding Yard in the UK. Fuggles tended to grow better in the WV than elsewhere but did not produce a very high yield. Dr. Haunold was approached by Annheuser Busch (AB), which was seeking independence from imports, about replicating a Fuggles offshoot that would thrive in Oregon, have a higher yield, earlier maturation, and slightly higher alpha content.

In the mid-1970’s, Dr. Haunold came up with 6 selections from two different crosses which he subjected to sensory testing by a panel of AB brewers (at the time, AB was the 2nd biggest industrial brewer). The eight man panel evaluated the crosses with the usual rub & sniff as well as a hop tea (called a “decoction test” back then) and pilot brews.

The panel agreed on a variety which came to be known as Columbia. However, the panel was overruled by Frank Schwaiger, AB’s Vice President in charge of brewing since the 1930s. Mr. Schwaiger pinned the blue ribbon on the selection that he thought most closely resembled an Oregon grown Fuggle (which he liked very much), which turned out to be the hop we know and love today as “Wilamette,” named after the river that flows from Eugene through Corvallis down to Portland where it empties into the mighty Columbia River.

The Coleman farms began growing Willamette in the mid 1970s. AB contracted with Goschie farms to grow a few acres of Columbia, but brewers decided against brewing with it. This was in the mid to late 1970s, before the craft revolution at a time when the market was dominated by Schlitz, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Stroh’s, Miller and AB.

Dr. Haunold’s hope was that Willamette, which not surprisingly thrived in Oregon’s lush Willamette river valley, would flourish. However, test plots in Northern California and Idaho were disappointing (low yields). The new Fuggle variant (Willamette is 11/12th Fuggle) met with resistance of a political-economic sort in Washington.

This is an interesting story. From the 1960s to early 1970’s, the overwhelmingly dominant hop variety in Washington was Clusters (about 90% of the acreage), a lower alpha bittering hop that had great storageability at a time when good refrigeration was not universal. Clusters was well suited to Washington’s terroir but had not performed well in the WV because of downy mildew.

Washington growers were so protective of their investment in Clusters they did not want to even test Willamette, except for one grower named John Segal. This was before the craft beer revolution when English varieties like Brewers Gold and Bullion dominated the Pacific Northwest hopyards. Dr. Haunold had not yet begun to breed US aroma varieties of Saaz, Hallertauer Mittelfrueh and Tettnanger (we’ll get to those in future posts).

Today, according to the 2009 BA Hops Usage Survey, Willamette ranks as the third most used hop, whereas Yakima Cluster ranks…. last, bottoming out in 2009 with 0 pounds used.

Willamette has kept Oregon growers above water for the past few decades, but production between the 2008 and 2009 crop was down about 25% and we’ve all heard about AB asking growers with whom it contracted to leave perfectly healthy Willamette cones to die on the vine in 2009. In the 1970’s, Willamette did not grow well in Idaho, so time will tell whether AB under new ownership (InBev) will shift its production to Idaho and if so whether it will do as well as in the WV.

Next installment: the history of Cascades, the Craft Beer Workhorse Aroma Hop.

Roger Worthington

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your great articles on Dr. Haunold. I worked at OSU's Hop and Essential Oils lab and field station back in the late 60's and early 70's as a lab tech. I like to joke with my friends that I knew Cascade when it was a number. During that time I got to know Al and the others in the project (Sam Likens, Jack Horner and Gail Nickerson). You couldn't have a better supervisor than Al. He would often join us in the field to collect samples and on more than one occasion would pick up a hoe. I went on to be a high school world history teacher and would use Al's stories of growing up in Nazi occupied Austria as a young boy to help personalize the subject.
    Thanks again for bringing Al to the attention of the brewing community.