Brewing With Fire: Bullion Hops & Green Thumbs

08 March 2015

Brewing With Fire: Bullion Hops & Green Thumbs

We've now brewed our second style, Green-Thumb, a Ginger IPA! 


Like Piperales before it, Green-Thumb is unfiltered. This helps lend a little uniformity to our small family of two very different brews. Another element that helps unify our pair of beers is the choice of hop: Bullion. As a matter of fact, in both beers, Bullion is the ONLY hop used. While Piperales is very malt-forward and the hopping rate of Piperales is very low and trivial when compared to that of the Green-Thumb (which, by contrast, is incredibly hop-forward) they both have that peculiar and beguiling note of Bullion at their core, embedded deep in their DNA. This shared trait is meant to colour your perceptions of two very different experiences, and hopefully, make them both recognizable as a part of a greater whole. Kind of like how you can spot a sister and brother by the way they hold themselves with the exact same posture- or how you can pick out two brothers, not by how they look, which may be wildly different, but by how they share a sense of humor. 

Why choose Bullion as a signature hop for Garden Brewers? Well, it's a very special, very unique hop. In some ways the choice was easy. In other ways, we're still not sure if we've made a wise choice. We first came across Bullion during our homebrew experiments, and like beer itself, it wasn't exactly love at first sight. Beer is challenging. Bullion is challenging. But they are worth the effort. 

It took some time to fall in love with the hop and its distinctive and pungent qualities. It also took some experimentation to know how to handle it. It is a bit like cooking with Offal: delectable like nothing else with the right execution, but almost universally despised when in clumsy or inexperienced hands. Bullion is not like the old-world standbys, epitomized by Saaz, which seems noble and confident in any situation. But it is also not like its younger new-world relatives either, such as Cascade, which possesses that wonderfully effortless American swagger. 

Something to keep in mind: Cascade was not really bred to be the bold hop that we know, love, and hold synonymous with American Pale Ale today. It was bred to be disease resistant. To have good agronomics. It's brash character was a fault- not a feature. And compared to Bullion, Cascade is downright refined!  The story of North American brewing and hop varieties in a nutshell is this: Old world brewers came to North America and brought with them all of their wonderful brewing traditions, cultures, styles, and ingredients- right down to prized yeast strains stowed carefully away during long transatlantic voyages. Finding that their traditional hops didn't perform the same way in this new world, they were forced to experiment with native varieties. The old-world hops struggled for a variety of reasons, primarily: new-world pests and diseases, and the rules of Terrior, which dictate that even if a foreign plant should thrive in its new climate, it will not taste quite the same as it did back home. Just as Pinot noir grapes grown in France will taste different than the same grape grown in Niagara, (not necessarily better -mind you- but necessarily different.) Tettnanger hops grown in the United States will not taste quite the same as those grown in the Tettnanger region of Germany. (By the way, both types of Tettnanger are readily available to brewers today, according to their preference.)

So our immigrant brewers wanted new-world yields and resiliency, but with the old-world character that they already knew and loved. Native hops were considered entirely unfit for brewing, but foreign hops floundered. Hop breeders began crossing wild North American hops with established European varieties in search of a hop that could deliver it all. E.S. Salmon, a professor at Wye College in the United Kingdom, was among the first to formally attempt such hybridization in the early 1900's. By the turn of the decade, his pioneering efforts had brought us Bullion.

So what is Bullion? 

Bullion, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, is:

SELECTION: Seedling selection from a cross made at Wye College, England, before 1920
GENUS: Humulus
SPECIES: lupulus
PEDIGREE: Wild Manitoba BB1 x OR (open pollinated)
PRIMARY SITE: USDA World Hop Cultivar Collection, OSU East Farm
ORIGIN: Cross made by Professor E. S. Salmon at Wye College, England, before 1920. Seedling was raised in 1919 from open pollinated seed collected on the female BB1 in the hop nursery at Wye College, England. BB1 was obtained in 1916 as a cutting from a wild hop growing at Morden, Manitoba.
METHOD RECEIVED: Rhizomes, from Roger Kerr, Keizer, Oregon, who obtained it via S. S. Steiner Co. from England.
AVAILABILITY: No restrictions, commercial cultivar
REFERENCES: Salmon, E. S., Bullion hop, a new variety. Journal, South East Agricultural College, Wye, Kent, England 42:47 52. 1938.
Burgess, A. H. Hops. Interscience Publishers, New York, 1964, p. 46.
Romanko, R. R. In Steiner's Guide to American Hops. S. S. Steiner Inc. New York 1973, p. 20 21.
MATURITY: Medium early
LEAF COLOR: Dark green
SEX: Female, occasional sterile male flowers in certain years.
DISEASES: Downy Mildew: moderately resistant
Verticillium wilt: resistant
Viruses: infected with all major hop viruses
VIGOR: Excellent
YIELD: High, 2000 to 2400 lbs/acre
SIDE ARM LENGTH: 20 40 inches
ALPHA ACIDS: 10.0% (10 year range: 6.7 to 12.9%)
BETA ACIDS: 5.4% (10 year range: 3.7 to 9.1%)
OIL: 1.65 ml/100 g (10 year range: 1.14 to 2.70)
MAJOR TRAITS: Identical to USDA 21056
OTHER INFORMATION: Identical to USDA 21056 but slightly lower alpha acids content due to virus infection. This hop, a major U.S. hop variety since the mid-1940s, was discontinued from commercial U.S. production in 1985 after the advent of super-alpha hops with better storage stability and higher alpha acids content.

Lots of interesting information there! Some key things:

❧ Bullion dates back to 1919!

❧ Bullion has a Canadian mom! A native of Morden, Manitoba. We have no idea who the father is, since Bullion was the result of open pollination (scandalous!!) but most people assume someone of English stock.

❧Bullion is a high alpha acid hop, with an excellent yield, and pretty decent resistance to downy mildew & verticillium wilt.


❧ Bullion rootstock is infected with all major hop viruses.

❧ Bullion hops have a poor storage stability.

❧ Bullion became a major hop variety from around 1950-1970 but has been in decline since 1985. Many people, in fact, assume it to be already vanished, or at least, long since unavailable for purchase.  Not so! There are still people growing and selling Bullion today! Our beers are proof of this fact. 

Here's some more: my personal homebrew-sized Bullion stash.

Our beer may be unique nowadays, but Green-Thumb is hardly the first IPA to showcase Bullion. In fact, a rather legendary IPA  made it a feature: Ballantine.  The Peter Ballantine & Sons Brewing Company was founded in 1878 in Newark New Jersey. It was one of the scrappy few to survive Americas prohibition- and perhaps even more impressive- they emerged from prohibition with their bold beers intact! More amazing still is that they continued with their aggressive beer- as it was- and were successful!  In the 1950's, during Bullions golden age, Ballantine was the third-largest brewery in the whole U S of A. And they did it without slowly watering down their flagship IPA until it was an unrecognizable shadow of its former glory. (Are you taking notes, Alexander Keith?)

 "Ballantine quarts with the puzzle on the cap" 


They were a bona fide historical anomaly. An aggressive American IPA before the craft beer revolution! And a popular one at that! Discovering the hidden history of Ballantine IPA is like discovering a photo of your grandfather crushing a farmhouse sour whilst updating his twitter account. It seems to go against everything we think we know about the past. But it's true. Like a brewery built ontop of a tear in time, they did all sorts of things that were out of place in their own era. Some, like aging the IPA for a year in pitch-lined wood barrels, was charmingly traditional and hopelessly antiquated in the era of stainless steel. Other things, like dosing the beer with hop oil that they extracted themselves, was remarkably futuristic:   

"Ballantines dry-hopping process was totally unique. It used Bullion hops, a variety very hard to find now, and ground them into a fine powder, added water, and cooked them in a vacuum process that effectively distilled the oils from the hop material. The oils were collected and added to the beer, which gave it an intense, distinct presence unlike anything else available in the United States at the time.”

-Mitch Steele: IPA, Brewing Techniques, Recipes, and the Evolution of India Pale Ale. Page 134

But, they were a brewery unstuck in time, or perhaps stuck in the wrong time, and they couldn't fight the changing times. Their time had come. Time. And their aggressive hop choice, our brave Bullion, may have been just the thing that sealed their fate in an era of ever-lightening flavour profiles:

"Ballantine ... beer featured a very distinctive hop variety, Bullion, which, although pungent, was not typically known for a refined hop note. Highly aromatic and assertive hop aromas are now common with craft brewers, but Ballantines use of Bullion may have led to its decline from the nations third largest brewer in 1950 to being sold in 1969 for a small sum and finally to their liquidation in 1972."

-Ken Grossman: Beyond the Pale, the story of Sierra Nevada brewing co. Page 35

The Pabst Brewing Company, as the rights holders to the Ballantine story, have recently revived the beer. I was lucky enough to try this new version on a recent CABA bus trip. I must say, it's a very fine IPA, but it is decidedly lacking the distinctively twangy and zesty Bullion character that I've grown to recognize and love. It tastes like a solid modern example of an American IPA- it is completely lacking that harsh-yet-charming historical character! I found out later that this is probably due to the fact that they don't use any Bullion hops at all! 

Hops raised an important philosophical question that framed the entire project, too: should Pabst try to recreate a museum piece, or brew a version of Ballantine that appeals to drinkers in the 21st century? “In the back of my mind, I thought if Ballantine as a brewery were in business today, which hops would they be using?” Deuhs wondered. “Would they have evolved to newer varieties, or a combination of new and old.” He opted for a combination, which seems like the right call. Breweries constantly update their beer; it’s difficult to imagine Ballantine trying to survive with a Bullion-and-Cluster-hopped beer in a Mosaic and Meridian world.“[Old] boiling hops are not readily available,” he said. Instead, he experimented with hops that might have the character of older hops. He tried Galena, a relatively old “modern” cultivar from 1968, but it was too harsh. Cluster “didn’t give the flavor we wanted.” In the end, he used a blend of old classics and newer varieties. “We ended up with Magnum as the main bittering hop. Then we dosed a combination of Columbus, Brewer’s Gold, Fuggles, and then we did use some Cascade.”




What a shame!  What's the point of re-brewing a landmark historical beer, if you project it along an imagined evolution to make it more like every other IPA of the modern era?  I was really hoping that Pabst would champion Bullion, and help keep this rapidly disappearing heirloom hop in the ground. It's from 1919! You know what else is from 1919? The first non-stop transatlantic flight:This was a time when pilots apparently didn't practice landing all that much, I guess because there was a good chance that it wouldn't come up. This new "Ballantine" is like setting out to build a recreation of the plane pictured above, but deciding to just build a Cessna instead, because that Vickers Vimy was just hopelessly outmoded.  

But I get it- I do. Bullion is a tough choice. It is a notoriously challenging hop that has been credited with bringing down the THIRD LARGEST BREWER in the United States. If you can even find it, this hop may just disappear out from underneath your feet- if it doesn't take you down first. Talk about brewing with fire! But- It is also bold, unique, historically significant, and distinctive & delicious when used well!  

There is history you can taste in this hop. It's worth holding on to. It's worth brewing with.

At least we think so! We hope you agree,



-The Garden Brewers 


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