Over at GABF last week, I heard people describing hop character as 'dank' - this was a new one on me. I wasn't even sure if it was a descriptor or a new hop variety I hadn't heard of. According to my OED, dank means 'unpleasantly damp and cold', and is of Middle English origin, probably from the Swedish word for 'marshy spot'. And the ever-helpful Stan Hieronymus explained to me that it was being used here to describe a full-on West Coast hoppy character, big on citrus - big on everything - and best exemplified by Simcoe hops.In this context, dank is only very tenuously connected to its actual, OED meaning. It refers, of course, to ganja. I spent a few minutes scanning the intertubes for an explanation of how a word meaning "damp and cold" became associated with weed, but linguists have been slow to delve into this important matter. My theory: especially strong, rich ganja is heavy and sticky, or "wet."
More importantly, as a spoken word, "dank" has much to recommend it: the "day" that starts the word drops the voice into a low register and it continues on to an "ain" vowel that can be strummed to indicate something dangerous and alluring, and finally the terminal "k," which slams the word down on the table like a provocation. I suspect onomatopoeia has more to do with its adoption than the actual vaguely-evocative definition.
Enter hops, humulus lupulus, related botanically to their dank cousin, cannabis. For the most part, the flowers of the hop vine contribute brighter, more floral aromas and flavors. A few, though, particularly in combination (to Simcoe I'd add Columbus/Zeus/Tomahawk), do offer a distinct ganja quality. It's not citrusy; it's deep, heavy ... dank. (Though personally, I hate the repurposing of a word to describe something for which we already have words.)
Pete's post got me thinking about the connection between marijuana, hops, and the West Coast, all of which have direct ties. The Cascadian corridor, from Northern California up to British Columbia, is famous pot country. I have friends from rural Southern Oregon who remember helicopters flying over forest land to find rogue pot gardens secreted deep among the Douglas fir. The pot that grows here has long enjoyed a reputation of quality and strength (I, of course, know it purely by reputation). When you think of famous pothead culture, you think of the West Coast--a phenomenon dating back to the 1960s.
Enter craft-brewed ales, circa 1980. By chance, the hops that grow in this same corridor are also famous for their strength and quality. (Or maybe not by chance. Although some hate the invocation of terroir, we can't help but note that the region is famous for producing two closely related plants--maybe there is something to this after all.) On some kind of unconscious level, perhaps, the region quickly started to embrace intensely-hopped beers. We were already predisposed to this quality. "West Coast" became an adjective to describe it.
I think culture is wrapped up in this, too. On the West Coast, there's something more to smoking pot than getting baked. The old hippie values still persist; mellowness, community, nature. Craft brewing also champions these values. The bridge between the two drugs is a short one, and it's not surprising that we see all kinds of marijuana references in craft brewing. That a word like "dank" would migrate so naturally from one to the other is perfectly understandable.
I have a character flaw that makes me want to draw overly sweeping conclusions from single data points, but I can't help myself: what percent of the rise of good beer--and particularly that element associated with extreme hopping--goes back to the pot culture of the West Coast? I suspect the number is not identical to zero.