We spend a lot of time thinking about beers of the past, but this almost always means Europe's past. If you want to keep your historical excursions on this continent, one place to start is the venerable Cluster hop, a strain that goes back as far as many of the world's venerated strains. Those of you who went to the Single Hop Fest at Amnesia this weekend were treated to one tour-de-force example, Double Mountain's Clusterf#%k. But we'll come to that in due course.
First, a bit on the history of American hops. The first British settlers, beer-oriented as they were, had hops in the ground by 1629 and there was a commercial market for them by 1646. These were English hops--or possibly English and Dutch--but they were pretty quickly crossed with local natives. (I doubt anyone knows if this was intentional or accidental.) What ultimately emerged from these early crops was Cluster. By the turn of the 20th century nearly every hop grown in the country was Cluster (96%). After Prohibition, Clusters continued to dominate; in 1935, they occupied 90% of the market.
American hops weren't prized; they had high alphas, high cohumulone, and were regarded as pungent and harsh. Brewers used American hops for bitter charges and then scented and flavored their beers with the sweet nectar of low-alpha, low-cohumulone hops from Europe. For 350 years, American brewers bought in to the notion that their local hops, which definitely differed from European hops, were inferior. As that all changed, mainly when American craft brewers began to discover that local hops were indeed tasty and aromatic, and the Cluster hop--the original "C" hop--faded from sight.
I was dimly aware of all this history and assumed that one of the reasons no one knew US hops were so good was because Clusters lacked their cousins' virtues. Fast forward to Saturday, when I tried Double Mountain's Clusterf#%k, an IPA that uses the old hop in a way Henry Weinhard never dreamed of. With 75 IBUs of lip-smacking hoppiness, CF didn't nestle the hops in a subtle admixture of malt and yeast. No, this beer is all Clusters--and what a wonderful opportunity to see the old hop shine. It has all the American character you would expect, with intense citrus that was a dead ringer for passionfruit. It kicks off a lot of tropical fruit essence as well, suggesting mango or guava. It is every bit as sticky and vivid as you expect from US hops--and distinctive, too.
The Cascade will probably be the American hop for the next 350 years; Cascade Brewing sent a pale saturated in their namesake hop that was a perfect demonstration of why it's so beloved. It's got a pure, clean character full of floral, citrus life. Few hops anywhere can match if for elegance and versatility. Yet the Cluster shows that America has long produced great hops--if only we'd known to make beer in which you could actually taste them.
Obviously, you should try to make it out to Hood River for a pint of the Clusterf#%k. I doubt seriously Double Mountain wants a fourth IPA regular in their lineup.