What is the most important hop ever?

It was not long after John Henning at the U.S. Department of Agriculture explained the science behind terroir to me.

We were sitting in his office on the Oregon State University campus eight years ago and I had more questions to ask than we had time for. This one wasn’t even on my list. It was a frivolous passing thought.

“Is BB1 the most influential hop ever?”

He paused for a moment. I don’t recall his exact words and they aren’t in my notes. But he said that might just be true, because the release of Brewer’s Gold (a daughter of BB1*) set hop breeding in the direction it would take from early in the twentieth century into the twenty first century.

I think I’ve only asked a variation on that question one other time — in this case the more open ended, “What is the most important hop ever?” — and Jason Perrault of Select Botanicals and Perrault Farms said to give him a little time to think about it. I haven’t pressed him on it since, but now might be time.

Meanwhile, I’m asking readers the same question.

Here is why. I’m going to be talking about hops at Homebrew Con 2019. The presentation is titled, “7 Hops: Bitter Sisters Who Reveal the Secrets of Humulus Lupulus.” Here’s the description: “How should you use a hop you’ve never heard of? Why are New World hops different? What’s a thiol? How come nobody warned us about hop creep? We’ll consider these questions, talk about the latest scientific research, and vote for the most important hop ever after getting up close and personal with seven varieties chosen by attendees.”

The premise is that it is possible to use only seven hop varieties to tell the story of hops, from how cones from the plant became an essential ingredient in beer to the insane levels of dry hopping currently in vogue. Terroir, biotransformation, and hop creep may also get discussed. My goal is to see all the attendees, be they homebrewing novices or experts, walk out of the room knowing more about hops than when they walk in.

The fun part is that a few randomly chosen attendees will pick the varieties I talk about. Offering a wide range of choices and linking them to all the other things to be discussed presents a logistical challenge in assembling a presentation, which is why audience members won’t have the entire universe of hops to pick from. I’d appreciate your help deciding what 40 or so ones to let them choose from.

Please leave a comment here or email me a list of one, two, three, up to seven hops you consider the most worthy, the most influential, the most historically important, whatever criteria you please. I want to hear from you either way, but should you be attending Homebrew Con there is a possible prize. Randomly chosen attendees will pick five of the varieties when the presentation begins. I’ll reserve one other choice for an attendee who participates in this first round. That could be you, so be sure to let me know if you will be attending Homebrew Con. (In case you are doing the math, the seventh choice will be mine. It’s my talk.)

Don’t be shy. Leave a comment.


* In the spring of 1917, Ernest S. Salmon, a professor at Wye College 60 miles east of London, placed a female hop plant in hill 1 of row BB of the Wye nursery. Salmon designated all his breeding material based on its position in the hop garden. He labeled the rows A, B, C and so on; then AA, BB, CC. When he planted a wild Manitoban hop in hill 1 of row BB its name became BB1. BB1 matured early in the summer of 1918, flowering in July, forming large course, somewhat pointed cones. In the fall, Salmon harvested the seeds the cones produced. One of those seeds became Brewer’s Gold.

Earlier in 1917, Salmon had presented a paper to the Institute of Brewing in London that revealed his main objective in breeding was to combine the high resin content of American hops, some found growing wild, with the aroma of European hops. This plan would take hops in a new direction.

At one time, Salmon’s cultivars accounted for about one third of the world hop acreage. When he began at Wye College hops contained 4 percent alpha acids on average and 6 percent at the most. Breeders have since released hops with more than 20 percent alpha acids, almost always using cultivars that lead back to Salmon. For most of the past century the focus remained on increasing alpha and replicating established aroma profiles. More recently, the definition of what constitutes a pleasant “hoppy” flavor broadened to include fruity and exotic flavors Salmon likely never envisioned. Yet almost every new popular variety contains a bit of American wild hop, sometimes BB1.

13 thoughts on “What is the most important hop ever?”

  1. My choices are based on flavor profile and/or the importance of beers with which they are most associated. This is because I have limited knowledge of breeding pedigrees, eliminating that as a consideration. 1) Cascade, the father of the American craft beer revolution. 2) Saaz, genesis of the most dominant beer style in the world. 3) East Kent Goldings, backbone of classic British styles, which were also the template of many Gen 1 American craft brewers 4) Cluster, American hop that started or kept many American hop farms in business when American flavor profiles were deemed inferior. There should be a German Hop here too, so I will throw in 5) Hallertau given the importance of German brewing traditions through out the world.

  2. Seems like there should be at least one Australian or New Zealand hop in there, like Galaxy or Nelson Sauvin.

  3. BB1 was my immediate reaction on reading your email, but on reflection it’s only an improvement, so not as important as whatever it was that first made beer stable enough for the Hanseatic League to trade it along the North Sea coast in the Middle Ages. Without that, we’d still be drinking gruit.

    So while it probably ought to be Mittelfruh or something to represent that earliest beginnings, I guess there’s only room for one noble hop so Saaz as a more global representative of lager hops.

    Got to have Goldings in there somehow, both as breeding stock and as the defining hop of proper IPAs. Either Whitebine as the parent, or start talking about terroir and harvest-time clones with EKG?

    Brewer’s Gold or Northern Brewer on behalf of BB1, to represent Salmon’s influence (estimates here put it at 50-60% of world acreage owes some ancestry to Wye)

    Target, to symbolise breeding for disease resistance and the battle against wilt in particular, and also hugely important in its own right in places like Belgium, where it got up to 70-80% of the acreage at one point.

    Cascade, I guess.

    Amarillo optionally – to symbolise the move towards proprietary hops, and explicitly breeding for aroma. Also kinda interesting for how it’s become big in Germany.

    Citra I guess – more evidence of propietariness, variability in harvest etc and through biotransformation.

    Other random ideas – First Gold for dwarfing, one of those South African hops for daylength sensitivity, Ernest for how fashions change, something antipodean.

  4. As I’m partial to neomexicanus, I’d choose at least one pureblood neomexicanus to discuss. Medusa and Zappa might be a good topic for the breeding discussion, and Latir might be a good topic for terroir.

    Medusa because: it’s the only hop I’ve ever heard of with doublet flowers; when I grew it and had testing done, it continually showed much higher beta acids than alpha acids which, at the time, nobody seemed to breed for; it made a large amount of rhizomes in a short time; I felt that growers could realize a higher yield with a plant that makes doublet flowers; it made a great beer with a massive foam head that lasted like a rootbeer float with ice cream and could remain in the glass to the last drop; it had survived a summer of temps over 108F and an evil winter with temps that dropped to -28F for days on end. Being developed in an organic fashion in an extreme environment without a protective blanket of chemicals, Medusa is tough.

    Zappa because: It’s mother is Medusa; it’s father is the Rio Stud(a pureblood neomexicanus) from my Rio Group of neomexicanus hops. About the Rio Group- they all had great flavor, I assumed that their father hop was this Rio Stud. The Rio Group hops make a turnip type of root that would take 3-5 years to perhaps make 0-3 rhizomes, so they seemed only clonable with soft tissue culture. They all made some intense fruit flavors that I liked. The goal of breeding the Medusa mother to the Rio Stud was to hopefully get the fruit flavors of the Rio Group into a plant that made doublet flowers and made a good amount of rhizomes. The interesting part of this breeding was that many resultant plants seemed to have that “doublet gene” of the Medusa flowers going to other places in the plants. Some plants all made “triplet nodes” that would result in at least 3 laterals per node and some plants put out side laterals from those nodes which resulted in 9 laterals of flowers per node; some plants still retained the doublet flowers; some plants would develop a “two headed snake” main bine that never seemed to happen as a result of injury or infection; some plants had very thick strigs in the cones, like the “doublet gene” had more than doubled that physical part of the plant. I feel like that “doublet gene” is sort of like some kind of “jumping gene” that could go to different parts of the plant, potentially increasing yields and qualities. Zappa is such a plant, makes a good amount of rhizomes, and has great flavor. It too experienced the same growing conditions as Medusa, so it is tough. Zappa makes great beer with the similar big foam head like Medusa makes.

    Latir because: when I grew it, it tasted like a gentle English Tea hop with a gentle citrus and fruit flavor; when other local people grew Latir in my same area, they ALL got a massive strawberry flavor. I would have never have sold that Latir hop that cheap if I had known it would be a strawberry flavor. Terroir was the difference.

    Neomexicanus hops in general: Stan, you have some great insight to what’s going on with this plant group nowadays. From day length to other topics, you could enlighten us all.

    Hop roots: Why have I still never read what compounds can be found in hop roots? For a fairly fleshy root to persist for so many years in the soil makes me wonder what compounds are naturally found in hop roots that protect this starch and sugar blob from being consumed by bacteria and fungus might be enlightening. If studying what is in hop roots is still an area of untrodden ground, why has it not been done in all of these years?? I know that I did an ethanol extract of Columbus hop roots and the roots of a male neomexicanus and they both were very different from on another. Columbus was a thick deep red solution and the neomexicanus male hop root was a bright yellow solution.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Todd. I was hoping you would speak up for neomexicanus. I might have to make Zappa the seventh hop in the presentation if none of the attendees adds it first. As well as its heritage, obviously, the name reminds us that marketing – the story behind certain varieties – has become more important.

    • Some of the pre-Salmon hops had more beta than alpha, Tolhurst is an example that was the subject of a fantastically rude report in the early 1920s. The gist was “this hop is pretty much a waste of time, but we guess the high betas could be useful where you want some preservative effect without any flavour” – so milds?

      • Both Medusa and Zappa have low alpha to beta ratios (sometimes below one), but Sierra Nevada values them for aroma.

  5. The World is a big place!

    Since you did say we could make this list what we wanted, I will go in the direction of the 7 most important hop varieties to US growers since 1900:

    1. Cluster: the “original”; was the backbone hop in the US for decades

    2. Cascade: first true “aroma” hop in the US; instrumental at the nascent beginnings of craft in the US

    3. Galena/Nugget: the first “high alpha” hops; these were a major breeding event and began the demise of Cluster in the US.

    4. Willamette: after the tumultuous early 1980’s, AB came in with heavy purchasing and Willamette became one of the most instrumental hops to the biggest brewer in the World.

    5. CTZ: Was the first “super alpha” hop; and once again signaled the end of the Galena/Nugget complex of varieties; its radically higher alpha pounds per acre completely changed the alpha pricing matrix to brewers.

    6. Amarillo/Simcoe: first major proprietary varieties to really take off; became backbone varieties of “modern” craft in the US

    7. Finally, for number seven I will say……TBD……..Citra looks like the next big leader for now;

    but varieties like Mosaic, El Dorado, Idaho 7, Azacca have major yield firepower, and aroma qualities that are very desirable; these varieties could once again radically change the landscape much in the same way CTZ did with its high yield in the alpha space

    I didn’t put any new alpha varieties in #7 so that might come as a surprise; but, it appears from a breeding standpoint, we are near the top, at least for now, of potential “alpha lbs per acre” of production. Galena/Nugget doubled the alpha production per acre from Cluster, and CTZ doubled the alpha production again, from Galena/Nugget; newer super alpha varieties like Pahto are just incrementally better then CTZ; at this point, there is not another alpha hop capable of doubling CTZ

    I am partial to Zappa though for getting a vote! I am sure Todd and Stan can figure out who submitted this list!

  6. See in Brauwelt International from 2019 „Description of two Hüll Aroma breeding strains“ Forster/Schüll/Gahr. „Currently more than 200 hop varieties are registered worldwide and every
    year these are joined by 10 to 20 new varieties. Hop breeding has been given
    an enormous boost especially by the craft beer wave. In breeding, there is
    currently a significant emphasis on hops with special aromas (special flavor
    hops) which are suitable for dry hopping. The evaluation of new varieties is
    becoming ever more important, but also much more difficult. Taking the
    example of two breeds from Hüll this article shows how hop strains yet to be
    discovered might be described, evaluated and classified.

    The aim is to examine breeds for their potential and to recognize promising
    varieties in time. We have chosen two aroma hops designated for late
    addition during wort boil.

    The varieties currently grown in Germany for this purpose are as follows:
    – 5 classic aroma hops, also known as landrace varieties: Tettnanger,
    Spalter, Hersbrucker and recently Saazer in the Elbe-Saale region;
    – 6 Hüll breeding varieties: Perle, Hallertauer Tradition, Spalter Select,
    Saphir, Opal and Smaragd.

    The last registration of a “normal” aroma variety goes back quite some time
    (Smaragd in 2003). We understand “normal” aroma hops to be varieties that
    are added to the wort – often at the end of boiling – and are only rarely
    used for dry hopping.“

  7. I pretty much had the same list as Mr. Humphreys, though I agree with the idea that there should be a neomexicanus. Perhaps I would remove either Cascade or cluster to make room. I could see Tettnanger as a replacement for Hallertau. I could see Hersbrucker as a replacement for Saaz, but only because of my love for it. (Though I still can’t quite see it as a perfume or eau de toilette…)

    • Thanks, Dave. I’m always happy to hear somebody speak up for Hersbrucker. Was your reference to perfume because you’ve heard my story about Hersbrucker and perfume?

      • Sure was Stan. I had the pleasure of having lunch with you at the Williamsburg beer history conference a couple of years ago with Travis and Sarah Rupp. I think I have heard you mention your wife’s comments since then too. I hope all is well and I look forward to seeing you speak at HBCon, since I’m a Rhode Island resident.

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