usa-anchor-liberty-aleAdrienne So, writing in Slate, has an unabashed takedown of hops in American craft beer. One big, big conclusion from the piece: “From a consumer’s standpoint, though, beers overloaded with hops are a pointless gimmick. That’s because we can’t even taste hops’ nuances above a certain point.” Indeed. She traces brewers’ ongoing obsession with the flower back to Ken Grossman‘s first batches of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which were brewed in the third week of November 1980.

I would actually peg the advent of the hops obsession several years before. As with a lot of things in the American craft beer movement, it began with Anchor Brewing.

In 1972, Coors had brewed a test batch of beer using a new hop cultivated at the USDA’s hop-breeding farm in Corvallis, Ore., and called with clinical indifference 56013. It was a pivotal moment: the first time an American-developed hop was used as the aromatic hop in a commercial beer. Previously, only European-developed hops got such an honor, with American ones relegated to the more utilitarian role of simply “bittering” the beer.

A farmer named John Segal Sr. was intrigued by this new variety that Coors had used (it was Coors which approached Segal about it), and he brought it to the attention of his friend Fritz Maytag, who owned Anchor. Maytag decided to use it as the aromatic hop for a new creation that would be called Liberty Ale in honor of the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s 1775 ride through Greater Boston. The hop by then was called Cascade; and its citrusy, floral aroma helped make Liberty Ale the bitterest beer in the American marketplace.

By today’s standards, of course, Liberty Ale would not (and is not) considered all that bitter. But, in 1975, its debut was an Event in culinary America, one that would spawn not only thousands of pretenders and usurpers but a now-familiar vocabulary (hoppiest, hoppier, hoppy, hophead); wider interest in hops and their roles in brewing and American agriculture; and a palatal pivot that would see millions of Americans embracing bitterness over sweetness in their favored drinks.

Not to take away from Sierra Nevada Pale Ale’s influence (it established the West Coast style of hoppier beers once and for all, and, besides, Grossman was not aware that Anchor had used Cascade in its Liberty Ale), but the common ancestor of just about every hop-heavy American craft beer, for better or worse, is Liberty Ale.
· Against Hoppy Beer [Slate]