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Oregon brewers played an outsized role in popularizing IPA

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

If you are opening a beer anywhere in the U.S., there's a decent chance you are drinking an India pale ale or IPA. The hoppy, crisp style of beer so popular right now is partially the result of a few plant breeders and renegade brewers in Oregon, and it all happened almost by accident. Oregon Public Broadcasting's podcast The Evergreen explores the stories that make up the Pacific Northwest, and host Jenn Chavez recently dug into Oregon's connection to IPAs.

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JENN CHAVEZ, BYLINE: In the past four decades, Americans have transformed the way the world thinks about and makes its beer. People tend to begin the story of American beer with the formation of the first craft breweries in the late 1970s. In fact, the story begins two decades earlier in a hop field in Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Brewers have been adding hops to beer for centuries. They help to keep beer fresher longer, add bitterness to balance the sweetness of the malt, and, of course, add flavor and aroma. Oregonians have been growing hops almost since the territory became a state. By 1902, Oregon led the nation in hop production. Some of the largest farms have been around for generations.

GAYLE GOSCHIE: In 1904, our grandparents planted the first crop of hops, and it was the first cash crop that came to the valley.

CHAVEZ: Gayle Goschie is the third generation to run her family's farm near Silverton in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Hop farms are unusual and really striking. The hop vines grow up these 18-foot trellises spaced out in neat rows. Walking through them is like walking in a green cathedral. You look up and see these vibrant leaves and the little green cones ripening in the sun. It smells spectacular. In late August and early September, the fields are buzzing with workers harvesting hops. Goschie explained that Oregon is the perfect spot to grow hops because of our long summer days.

GOSCHIE: It's day length that triggers the plant to go from being vegetable and just wanting to grow up, to start to grow out, to put their arms on. The arms are where those hop cones and flowers are going to find their place.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHAVEZ: One of the hop varieties she grows on her farm is called Cascade. This was the hop that would ultimately inspire craft breweries, and it was created at Oregon State University. The history behind it is fascinating. The OSU-based hop breeding program dates back to the 1950s. Northwest farmers grew and even exported many hops at the time, but most brewers felt they were inferior to European varieties. American breweries were importing European hops to add the delicate flavors and aromas that people preferred in their beers. Oregon growers had tried planting European hops, but they just didn't taste right when grown here.

JOHN HENNING: So it came to the conclusion, hey, if we're going to get something that's going to work here in the United States, we've got to start breeding our own hops.

CHAVEZ: John Henning is a hop geneticist who works for both the USDA and Oregon State University. Henning's predecessors at Oregon State named the hop variety they cultivated after Oregon's Cascade Mountain Range. Now, nearly every commercial hop grown in the U.S. comes from Oregon, Washington or Idaho. And the United States accounts for nearly half the hops grown in the world. These American varieties are highly prized these days, but that wasn't always the case. In fact, domestic breweries largely rejected Cascade when it first hit the market.

HENNING: And the funniest thing was is that it was too flavorful for these major breweries. One of the major breweries here in the United States, the owner tried out a beer that had Cascade in it, and this particular day, he happened to develop a headache. And so this is a horrible hop. We don't like this. Get this out of my sight. We never want to see it in my facility again. So that was sort of the history for that particular brewery. And I think a lot of the others followed suit.

CHAVEZ: So all that effort to breed a hop plant that could grow in the Pacific Northwest, and it appeared to be a flop. Fortunately, that all changed when craft breweries came along. The earliest craft brewers founded their companies because they felt that most of the beer in the U.S. was too bland. They liked Cascade because it was so intense.

TERI FAHRENDORF: I'd tell you the Cascade grown in Willamette Valley knocks it out of the ballpark. Oh, my God. They smell so good. I mean, they're just like - they're luscious.

CHAVEZ: Teri Fahrendorf is a pioneering brewer and trained dozens of people who went on to start their own breweries. She was the founding brewer at Steelhead Brewing in Eugene, Ore. When they opened in January of 1991, 1 of the 5 beers on tap became a cult classic and a hugely influential beer in the Pacific Northwest. It was an IPA called Bombay Bomber.

FAHRENDORF: People really liked it. And it had a pineapple grapefruit character. And I like to describe it as a party in your mouth (laughter). And I think I had them put that on the menu description at one point. But people were not really ready for the bitterness level, which was not super high, but at the time, it was shocking.

CHAVEZ: Bombay Bomber was surprising to people who thought beer meant Budweiser. It was so citrusy, full bodied and generally intense. For the uninitiated, it didn't even seem like the same substance as domestic lagers. This was the moment an American approach to brewing was born. It didn't look like the methods people used to make beer in Germany or the U.K. Fahrendorf used a technique in which hops are steeped in finished beer. That method has now become ubiquitous. You have to use the hops differently if you want to emphasize the bitterness or the flavor or the aroma. Americans like Fahrendorf started developing techniques that amped up everything hops could offer.

BEN EDMUNDS: And if you think of it kind of like a triangle, you know, like, we've just inverted it.

CHAVEZ: That's Ben Edmunds, the brewmaster of Breakside Brewery. We interviewed him at the Breakside Brewery and tasting room in Milwaukee, Ore. He explained that brewers used to add a large amount of hops at the moment they started boiling the sweet liquid that would become beer.

EDMUNDS: The American IPA, even beginning 10 years ago, is really starting to flip the script on that. And so you had very little hops being added. Now at the start of that boil, maybe zero in some cases until the end of that boil, and huge amounts of hops being added later on for a aroma and flavor purposes.

CHAVEZ: The development of hops like Cascade and this new style of brewing evolved hand in hand. After Bombay Bomber, Portland's first craft brewery released Bridgeport IPA in 1996. Other breweries followed with their own takes on hop-forward beers. As they became more focused on hops for their beers, brewers spent more time talking to hop growers. That relationship goes both ways. Hop farmer Gayle Goschie is excited to work directly with the people who use her hops.

GOSCHIE: Having brewers come out to the fields and walk the fields before harvest and be able to just kind of get their juices flowing as to what's happening, that's just remarkable for a farmer. It's something that is not traditional, and it happens in very, very few situations.

CHAVEZ: Hop breeders also get a lot of input from both brewers and growers. As IPA becomes the signature American beer style, brewers are looking for new varieties that lend even more flavors to their beer. USDA hops geneticist John Henning has been busy responding to those needs.

HENNING: By working closely with the brewers, I've been able to come up with some lines that are super craft brewer focused, and one in particular has these chemicals that give the phenomenal flavors that we're all used to, you know, your citrus, your passion fruit, tropical flavors, has four times the level of these chemical compounds as any of the other varieties that are out in the market.

CHAVEZ: IPAs are far and away the most popular craft style in the United States. And the Oregon culture around beer and the enthusiasm for it has led brewers to find new ways to get the most out of local hops. Beer is a cultural product that tells you a lot about the people who made it. And we Oregonians might be biased, but we tend to think Oregon beer is the best beer in the world. Oregon didn't entirely invent IPAs, but it's hard to imagine IPAs without Oregon.

DETROW: That was Jenn Chavez, host of The Evergreen, a podcast from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Check it out at opb.org/theevergreen. And beer blogger - what a great job - Jeff Alworth helped with the story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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