Tasting beer with Tyler Staples is like watching a movie with a film buff, or going to a museum with an art major. He can give you a prolific string of descriptors that might characterize the IPA you're sipping, including but not limited to: grapefruit-forward, soapy, dank, resin-y, sour, funky, astringent, citrusy, lemongrass and stone fruit.
The wide-ranging adjectives used by Staples, who is the head brewer at Uptown Market in Beaverton, all originate from the same source: hops, those nugget-sized, flowery green plants that flavor beer. American hops have their origins in the Pacific Northwest — Oregon and Washington grew about 90 percent of the country's hop yield in 2016, according to the USDA — and that helped spark an independent brewer culture that dates back decades.
Tiah Edmunson-Morton, who curates the hops and brewing archives at Oregon State University, will give a talk at the Tigard Public Library at 2 p.m. this Saturday titled "Brewing in Oregon: How Science, Farming and People Shaped Beervana." She credits the pioneering spirit of Oregonians when talking about this "Beervana."
"There is a certain characteristic of West Coasters," she said. "Whether it's a stubbornness of wanting to do it ourselves, or this community that has allowed craft breweries to thrive. There is something magical about this whole combination. And the brewers, farmers and scientists are all a really important part of that."
Hops farming in America dates back to the 1860s, and the Pacific Northwest quickly took the lead in production. Because hops were such a valuable specialty crop, Edmunson-Morton said that there were about 1,000 family farms in Oregon growing them.
But growing hops proved challenging, because they were prone to disease and often attracted pests. Farmers also were still using hops better suited to grow in Europe, as no breeds had been developed for the region yet.
So in the 1930s, just after prohibition ended, OSU partnered with the USDA to begin breeding new, Northwest-friendly hops. Their efforts were funded in part by the major brewers — something Edmunson-Morton finds ironic, as today's craft brewery culture holds a strong disdain for "big beer" like Anheuser-Busch and Coors Brewing Co.
"The Cascade hop or the Willamette hop or the Mount Hood," she said, listing popular local hops, "they wouldn't have been developed if the funding hadn't been there."
The development of new, local hops paved the way for the first craft beer boom in the mid-1980s, which birthed Portland standards like Widmere Brothers, Bridgeport, Portland Brewing and McMenamin's.
"You do start to see now, this link between the things that grow here, and the creativity that the brewers have," Edmunson-Morton said. "That proximity is important."
The first wave of craft brewers in the mid-'80s eventually led to the Portland beer scene we know today, where it seems there's a brewery on every corner. The rise of brewer education programs, like the fermentation science program at OSU, also contributed.
OSU's brewing program was the first of its kind in the state, but now there are online education programs, community college classes, continuing education programs for professional brewers, and even a craft beer business program at Portland State University, where students learn both the brewing side and the business side of running a brewery.
And as interest in craft brewing has boomed, so has the way people think about hops.
"Because we have different varieties of hops now, we focus more on the taste profile of those hops," Edmunson-Morton said. "In historical records, you don't see anyone talking about varieties ... it's definitely driven by customer taste."
Beyond just looking at the flavor profile of different hops, some brewers — like Staples at Uptown Market — also are paying attention to how the same hop grown in different regions might bring different characteristics to a brew.
"The culture here has always been a really intense buy-local culture," Staples said. "A Cascade hop grown in the Willamette Valley is totally different from a Cascade hop grown in Yakima, Wash."
The Cascade hop was one of the first hops developed to grow in the Pacific Northwest, and it tends to lend a flowery, slightly grapefruit-like taste. But Staples notes that a Willamette Valley Cascade is "way more aromatic," while one grown in Yakima might be "a little sharper and cleaner."
The Cascade is the most-grown hop in the Northwest, and that's due as much to its crowd-pleasing flavor as to the relative ease with which farmers can grow it. Staples compared it to an Amarillo hop, which also has a citrusy flavor, but is much more challenging to grow.
"That's the flavor people grew up with, or were influenced by, or their dads were drinking it," Staples said of the Cascade. "And it grows well. It's not a big problem hop. They're not a risk, they're stable, and they age well."
Staples then brought out some Cascade hops to do a quick "hop rub" — that is, rubbing the hops in his hands to extract the oils, and then breathing in the strong aroma. The resin left on his hands smelled earthy, fruity — and yes, grapefruit-like.
But part of the fun, Staples said, is that even with something as common as a Cascade or Chinook hop, brewers can never be entirely certain what they'll get. Variances in region can produce different flavors, and there are different times in a recipe when hops can be added.
"The science is getting so much more firm these days," he said. "But there's still a mad science element to it, where you just have to put stuff in the kettle and see what happens."
And that's just as well, because as Edmunson-Morton pointed out, developing and growing new hops isn't nearly as easy as finishing off a pint.
"It takes a long time to develop new varieties," she said. "I know that brewers are hearing from consumers that we want something new, but they're plants. They take time."
Beer in the 'burbs?
Staples' brewery is in Beaverton, and there are a smattering of other strong breweries in Washington County, including Ancestry in Tualatin, Three Mugs in Hillsboro, and McMenamin's, which has breweries all over the Pacific Northwest. But so far, Washington County has nothing on the brewery culture instilled inside Portland city limits.
Staples said that's due to change any day now.
"As the city grows, people are getting pushed out," he said. "It's one of those inevitabilities, and Washington County is now poised to be absorbing a lot of that movement... the market isn't saturated until every neighborhood has its own brewery. The sky's the limit on that one. I think it's going to be a clean 20 to 30 years before the bubble pops."
If the Portland brew scene does expand more into the suburbs, Staples hopes people will feel comfortable talking to their local brewers about different hops and other ingredients, so that they can find their own favorite taste profiles.
"The sophistication of palette is growing all over the country, because of people's interactions with their local brewers," he said. "Beer is for everybody."