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Yes, there’s a hop named after Frank Zappa

What’s this about a hop called FZMR2?

It has a “peppery citrus and melon” character according in a story about how the collaboration process involved in creating the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic beer (Pat-Rye-Ot) in the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Across America 12-pack.

It is described as a wild hop found growing in New Mexico, which is not quite correct. It is a cross between neomexicanus varieties collected in New Mexico, then bred in the same manner as hops are elsewhere. Medusa, the hop in Sierra Nevada’s Wild Hop IPA, was “born” the same way.

First, a quick bit of background. The genus Humulus likely originated in Mongolia at least six million years ago. A European type diverged from that Asian group more than one million years ago; a North American group migrated from the Asian continent approximately 500,000 years later. Although there are five botanical varieties of Humulus, H. lupulus (the European type, also found in Asia and Africa; later introduced to North America)and H. neomexicanus (Western North America) are the two of interest to brewers.

Hops of American heritage, which include some grown in Australia and New Zealand, contain compounds found only at trace levels in hops originating in England and on the European continent. Among them is a thiol called 4-mercapto-4-methylpentan-2-one (otherwise referred to as 4MMP), a main contributor to the muscat grape/black currant character associated with American-bred hops such as Cascade, Simcoe, and Citra. It has a low odor threshold and occurs naturally in grapes, wine, green tea, and grapefruit juice.

It is one contributor to what were described as “unhoppy” aromas not long ago and considered undesirable. Today, of course, this “fruity, exotic flavors derived from hops” has helped drive the popularity of IPAs.

Hop breeding was in its infancy at the beginning of the twentieth century when Ernest S. Salmon, a professor at Wye College in England, set out to combine the high resin content of American hops with the aroma of European hops. This approach took hops in a new direction, and eventually to a broader spectrum of aromas. For instance, the pedigree of Citra contains 19 percent Brewers Gold, the first bred hop that Salmon released in 1934.

More recently, brewers have shown interest in using hops of only American heritage. The problem is that few of them seem to have very interesting aromas and they are agronomically unproven.

Todd Bates did not necessarily anticipate any interest in neomexicanus when he began collecting plants growing wild in New Mexico in the 1990s. Bates, who lives on a farm between Santa Fe and Taos, used them in homeopathic tinctures he made, and secondarily for homebrewing. “I found most really suck bad. Horrible flavors,” he explained. “That’s why I decided to breed from a specific group of plants of pure neomexicanus that were thriving in an area of known high levels of naturally occurring uranium.” He thought that would create potentially beneficial mutations.

Each group he found had different traits, but also certain drawbacks — so he began cross breeding them. He did with neomexicanus alone what other breeders were doing with a combination of lupulus and neomexicanus. He did not simply find Medusa growing on a mountainside. She (the hop plants that produce the cones brewers want are all female) resulted from his personal breeding program, and he selected her because of her unique doublet flowers and high beta acid. He initially called her Multi-head because of her appearance.

In 2011 Eric Desmarais planted two of Bates’ varieties in one of his CLS Farms hopyards in Washington’s Yakima Valley. They looked much different than anything else cultivated in Washington. The cone-to-leaf ratio was higher, the nettles on the bines were much larger, the laterals grew differently, and the leaves were a very dark green and almost waxy. “During the growing season, I have consultants walk the fields on a weekly basis, doing disease and pest scouting,” Desmarais said. “These guys have been walking hop yards for 18 years, and walk most of the US hop industry yards. They see just about everything. I didn’t tell them what these were last year on purpose, to see what their reaction was. They knew they were looking at something very different.”

Bates reports that FZMR2 came out of the “Frank Zappa breeding group, which are an F2 generation of a breeding between Multi-head (Medusa) and a nice Rio (its own breeding group) male, and this is plant 2 of the FZRM group.

“Why the Zappa name? Well, I do love and respect Frank Zappa’s music. I grew up on it and still love it, but that’s not the only reason. I looked at how people have historically named hops. Early on, it seemed the place the hop came from gave rise to the names, out of some form of respect of place. Later, I saw names of hops being after the researchers that developed a given hop, a sort of respect or self lauding gave importance to a person’s name. Later, I saw people naming hops all kinds of marketing names meant to look cool on a label, or attract a brewer/hop buyer. I wanted a different type of name for a hop. With music and beer being so intricately linked, I wanted to honor and show respect to a great American musician by putting that name to a hop, that will go on a label, and I wanted that hop to kick ass like an American musician, and Zappa was the clear winner of my choice. Zappa rules!”

Desmarais has only an acre of FZRM2, and Sierra Nevada bought the entire 2015 crop, but it appears to be agronomically superior to Medusa. If it continues to grow well, and if drinkers respond positively to it (Pat-Rye-Ot it its first real test) then Desmarais will expand acreage in 2017.


One related note: I’ll be hanging at Right Proper Brewing in Washington, D.C. on June 7. That’s the day before the National Homebrewers Conference begins in Baltimore. I’ll be brewing a beer with Nathan Zeender in the morning, and we plan to include Medusa hops in the recipe. Stop by the Brookland (production) facility in the afternoon for something of an open house. You can buy me a beer and shoot the breeze. If there is enough interest, Nathan will even be giving tours.

2 Responses to Yes, there’s a hop named after Frank Zappa

  1. Ray Knuth May 28, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

    So now we have hops, a mollusk, a jellyfish, a real fish, a spider, a bacterium, a snail, an asteroid, a couple of streets, and who knows what else. I’m down for a Zappa Beer someday.

  2. Todd May 29, 2016 at 6:20 am #

    🙂 🙂 !!

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