Hops & Terroir

Visiting with other hop merchants, brewers and growers over the years, quite a few people have asked me about Cascades grown in other parts of the world. Cascades seem to grow everywhere.  I think it’s the gateway American aroma hop variety for new growers and brewers. If somebody thinks they want to grow hops they try their luck first with Cascade. Some growers around the world have asked if 47Hops is interested in buying their locally-grown Cascades. So far we have declined to buy any. The reason is that, in our opinion, they would not be real Cascades and shouldn’t be sold as such.  They can be different for many reasons, cultural practices being one of them, but we believe terroir plays a more serious role than anybody cares to mention
 
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Terroir?!?  Sacré Bleu!  What’s that?  It sounds French!  Can it be trusted?  Isn’t Terroir a fancy wine marketing term used to build value for wines from certain areas?  Well, it is that, but it is much more too. 
 
Somebody in Europe who produces Cascades is probably cursing me right now as they sit down to enjoy their schnitzel looking out at their field of Hallertau-grown Cascades.  How can I say that what they are growing is NOT Cascades!! The roots came directly from Washington and were exported through all the official programs. They were planted with love in one of the best areas in Europe to grow hops.  All that is wonderful, but unfortunately there are factors at work we cannot control that give a variety its unique characteristics. Grow Cascades outside of Washington, the place that has given Cascade it’s Cascadiness and they could have very different flavors. Those changes might make the variety better than the original in some people’s opinions … but they are not the original. Terroir plays as much a role in the characteristics of a hop variety as the rootstock itself. 
 
Why does all this matter now?  Well, today, the initial offer for German growers to produce AMARILLO® (‘VGXP01’ variety) expires in Germany. Naturally, they are tempted by the reported potential yields and the money they are told can be earned. The price offered is higher than anything else being offered currently.  Will they grow the variety?  Early reports are that the uber-conservative little voice every German hop grower has in his head is warning them that something seems too good to be true. They are concerned about the risk of growing an immigrant variety. Germans seem to be very tolerant of immigrants lately, but that may not be the case when it comes to hop varieties.  Sometimes, it’s good to listen to that little voice.  The fact is that any American variety could yield wonderful hops with an amazing Hallertau twist that we’ve not yet seen in the hop world when transplanted in Germany. That Hallertau twist can be a curse as well as a blessing. It depends on whether a brewer is looking for the traditional flavor associated with a name. Can a transplanted variety be the same as its namesake from the home country … more than likely not.
 
There’s a scientific explanation why varieties change their characteristics when they move to a different neighborhood. According to John Henning, hop breeder extraordinaire from the USDA in Corvallis, Oregon, such things as day length, soil type and climate can affect the genetic characteristics of any hop variety.  Basically … in non genius speak … it can activate or deactivate genes that would not otherwise be in that state when the hop variety is produced in it’s original growing region thereby changing the resulting variety characteristics.  SCIENCE! 
 
 
Dictionary.com defines Terroir as follows:
 
  1. The environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown and that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma. 
  1. Also called goût de terroir

 

[goo duh ter-wahr, gooduh ter-war]

 

.  the unique flavor and aroma of a wine that is attributed to the growing environment of the grapes. 

  1. The conditions in which a food is grown or produced and that give the food its unique characteristics:
 
Definitions number 1 and 2 obviously focus on wine, which demonstrates how powerful the wine market industry groups have affected the definition … Good on you wine guys!!  Definition number three is, however, much more general and we see can apply to hops too, as it most certainly does.
 
We don’t have to look far for evidence of this.  There are precedents in the hop industry that demonstrate the effect of Terroir on hops.  The one that comes to mind first is from the U.K.  Tony Redsell’s efforts in protecting the name “East Kent Golding” as a unique variety that must come from a certain area to demonstrate the characteristics for which that variety is sought, are well-known throughout the hop industry.  You can read more about his efforts in this great article.
 
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If you read that article, you’ll see his description that the “cold, salt-laden winds of the Thames Estuary” play a role in creating the characteristics of the East Kent Golding variety and what gives it its East-Kentiness (Yes … I just made up that adjective).  I was having lunch with Tony at an IHGC event a couple years ago shortly after the application’s approval. If my memory serves me correctly, he was scheduled for an interview with the BBC that evening. He was reveling in his victory, and rightly so.  It is quite an accomplishment to get something like that registered, not because it’s not worthy of the designation … just that it had not been tried before with hops. 
 
Terroir has spread it’s influence all over the world. All you have to do is read any American Viticulture Area (AVA) application and you’ll see why any particular area’s climate and soil have an effect on the grapes grown there, much like what Tony did for hops in his application.  Whether you believe the idea of terroir in hops or not, you’re buying it all the time. As of January 21, 2016, there were 232 AVAs registered in the United States.  If you still think Terroir is a bunch of BS, you can try a very unscientific and enjoyable experiment in the form of a wine tasting.  Try wine made with the same grape varietal grown in California versus Washington State.  If you do that, you’ll find the wine from California has what they refer to as a buttery feeling.  It seems to have a higher viscosity and smoother on your tongue.  That’s because of the sunlight and more moderate temperatures in California.  Washington State’s wines are more crisp and acidic due to the rich volcanic soils, which can be a very desirable characteristic for many.  My point is that Terroir is not BS.  It is real in grapes and it should be recognized in hops too. 
 
terroir
 

 

I’m not advocating for any kind of special designation or hop areas.  The last thing any of us need is an additional layer of bureaucracy. Nobody is willing to pay for that anyway. What I’m suggesting is summed up by the words: Caveat Emptor (buyer beware for those of you not fluent in Latin). As the hop market continues to develop more quickly than hop growers can respond, things that would not normally be condoned are happening everywhere with the best of intentions in an attempt to fill demand.  That can mean anything from harvesting a variety that normally picks in 4-5 days over a 2-3 week window to transplanting varieties to new regions where they are unproven.  It’s an exciting time to be in the hop industry, but that excitement is beginning to take its toll on the industry.  When supply eventually catches up with demand, a lot of the more questionable practices will fall by the wayside.  Until then, Caveat Emptor!