Chinook: A Good Hop for Indiana, But Why the Weird Name?

Chinook: A Good Hop for Indiana, But Why the Weird Name?

By Mark Lasbury for Indiana on Tap

Chinook hops are a staple in craft beer. Developed in the 70s and named in the 80s, Chinook came into large scale production just as the craft beer movement was starting to take off. Because of this timing and because the hop itself is very tasty, Chinook has become one of the mainstays of craft beer.

Chuck Zimmerman started the breeding of what later came to be know as the Chinook hop in 1974. A Petham Golding female hop from the English line was bred to a male US hop from Utah that only had a number, 63102M. Male plants are used only for breeding, while female plants are used for hop flower production and harvest. The male will produce flowers, but they contain off flavors based on some of their male chemistry, so when you pass a hop farm, know that you are looking at exclusively female plants.

The subsequent female offspring from the Petham Golding x 63102M cross were given a designation of W421-38. Following years of back breeding and work, a USDA designation was made, and then five more years passed before it was released to brewers in 1985 by Stephen Kenny (no, not Steph Curry). At first, Chinook was used primarily as a bittering hop, later they became even more popular because they were good for flavor as well, and as such they were good for variety of beer styles (American pales, IPAs, Ambers, barleywines, etc).

Chinook has dark yellow lupulin oil and is high in oil content – good for a variety of beer. Image credit: Michigan Hop Alliance

As they took on more importance in brewing, Oregon started to plant Chinook as well, but they didn’t grow so heartily there. Downy mildew hit them hard in Oregon (and can be a problem here in Indiana too), so there was a period of twenty years where they weren’t grown in Oregon. However, the advent of the new dry hopped and New England style beers led to a second surge in Chinook use (now the 3rd most popular hop), so now Oregon is taking a whack at growing them again.

Oils in, and the growing of, Chinook hops. The Chinook is a good hop because it has a good combination of hop oils that impart aroma and flavor, and can be converted to bittering compounds. It is in the top five for all hop varieties in alpha acid content (good for flavor and bitterness), while the myrcene in particular imparts the grapefruit and citrus flavors and the humulene impart the earthy pine/spiciness (mostly from the English background of the cross).

About 11.5-15% of the lupulin oil in Chinook hops is alpha acids, capable of flavoring or of being isomerized to iso-alpha acids for bitterness (see this post). And of the oils, myrcene is a 20-30% – that’s the citrus. Meanwhile, 18-24% of the oils are humulene – and that’s the earth/pine/resin/spice. However, there are significant levels of other oils, like B-Pinene, linalool, franesene, etc. that build or mitigate the flavors within the hop.

As we will see below, how and where the Chinook is grown makes a difference in this oil profile. This makes it important to know where they grow best – not because we are all aspiring hop farmers – but because it makes us more knowledgeable drinkers. Chinook hops, as it turns out, grow well in several climates. Dry and hot is best, but that doesn’t describe Washington State very well. The cooler climes of the Yakima Valley are just fine, basically anyplace with a low relative humidity…… or maybe not. I learned recently that Chinook hops seem to grow just fine in the humidity-fest that is the Indiana summertime.

Different hops have different flavors based on their oil contents. Click for a readable version. Image credit:

Chinook are slow to emerge in the spring, which is good for several areas of the country, and it will ramp up growth as the temperature increases. They must be growing like gangbusters here now. Chinook is basically a resistant hop as far as disease is concerned, although spider mites and powdery mildew will be a problem. The Pacific Northwest is a bad spot for downy mildew even if the hop is supposedly resistant to it, and this should be one of the largest problems for growing Chinook in Indiana. And yet, they are thriving here.

Indiana Chinook hops. Starting in the mid-2010s, the Chinook became an Indiana hop as well as a staple in the Pacific Northwest. I talked to Josh Martin of Crazy Horse Hops in Knightstown, the largest hop producing farm in the state about how the Chinook has taken to Indiana and vice versa. Crazy Horse planted some Chinook staring in 2016, and these hops are now being used by several Indiana breweries.

By the time that first harvest was in and the beers from it were made, Josh and the brewers realized that Indiana Chinook hops are distinctly different from the Yakima Valley Chinook. Instead of the high piney/resin and kind of peppery hops flavor with a grapefruit backbone, Indiana Chinook hops are more pineapple with citrus both on the aroma and flavor. The pepper and pine are there to be sure, but they are more reserved in the Indiana version.

This year, Crazy Horse has planted five acres of Chinook, which Josh says will produce about 5000 lb.s of hop cones. That’ll be a lot of good beer; the question is how best to use these hops this fall. Indiana on Tap, along with Crazy Horse, has started talking to Indiana breweries about the prospect of doing side-by-side single hop beers made with Indiana or Yakima Valley Chinook hops. In fact, this is a great idea for any hop grown in Washington, Oregon, Michigan, and Indiana – they will all probably be different, and this makes for good beer tasting.

Crazy Horse Hops in Knightstown is an up and comer, along with many other Indiana hop farms. Who knew that hops would grow so well here? Image credit: Crazy Horse Hops

Bryce and Brandon at Cedar Creek Brewery outside Martinsville have been very enthusiastic about making a comparative Chinook series of beers; now we need to find breweries to compare other hop varieties grown in and out of Indiana. Josh says that he is sure that the Indiana versions will compare well, partly because of the soils and care given them here, but also because the smaller farms (like in Indiana and Germany) can dial in the drying temperature more precisely.

Josh told me, “We are somewhat fortunate by working on such a smaller scale, 100 acres vs. 2000 acres. This affords us some opportunities that the big producers don’t have, including being able to fine tune the drying process within 1% of what the hops should be dried to, and therefore we can produce a more consistent product….the German style of doing things is much more automated and precise for us because German farms are similar to our size.” Josh added, “In Germany they have the same amount of acreage as the West Coast of the US but there are 900 farms vs. about 90 farms.” In the long run, this means a superior hop product for Indiana breweries to use, and Crazy Horse’s good relationship with German hop farms means that Indiana brewers can benefit even with hops not grown here in Indiana.

With their contacts in Germany and the Northwest, Crazy Horse can bring in baled hops, put them through their pelletizer, and then sell them to Indiana breweries at a lower cost. Josh said, “We can bring in proprietary varieties such as Mosaic and Citra in the bale form and process them on our pellet mill and basically take the shipping charges out of the equation for local brewers.  They can call us and have their product within hours or a day vs. waiting on it for to come on a truck.” Whether it be Indiana Chinook or some hop grown half way around the world, this is a good time to making hoppy beer in Indiana.

Is the Chinook Helicopter of the US Army the source of the name Chinook for the hop? Image credit: Wikipedia

What about the name, Chinook? So that’s the story of the Chinook and the Indiana Chinook hop, all except for how it got its name. Most people have heard of Chinook hops, and perhaps have heard the word Chinook in a couple of contexts, but how did the word become the name of the hop? Was the hop named for the Chinook helicopter, first commissioned in 1962? The helicopter predates the hop by a couple decades, so it could be the source of the name. In fact, I’d say that in a round about way, the helicopter does share a common bond with the hop, but more about that below.

If you go back further in time, there is a tough breed of dog called the Chinook. First bred in New Hampshire in 1917, a male dog with unusual strength and cunning was bred to produce an entire breed. The sire’s name was Chinook, so the all the dogs from his line were referred to as Chinooks. The dogs were used in World Wars I and II as search and rescue or pack dogs, and have pulled sleds in all the major races. More impressively, they were used on the 1929 Antarctic expedition of Admiral Byrd, including Chinook himself. Unfortunately, the sire was lost on the frozen Antarctic plain, so the breed is much smaller than it might have otherwise been.

This is actually a mother and child from the Cascade Chinook tribe. See the hop theme here? Image credit: WAGenWeb

Chinook hops are hearty, can thrive in many climates, and have rescued many a beer, but I don’t think the Chinook dog is the source of their name. Let’s go back even further in time. The Chinook winds came to be known and named in the 1860s. These were the unusually early warm winds that swept through the American Rockies during late winter. Fed by warmer Pacific air with a lot of moisture, they cool and dump a lot of rain or snow as they rise against the mountains, and then dip again as a drier wind, picking up temperature and shifting to the west. This blows through the Yakima Valley as a warm winter wind and can raise valley temperatures by as much as five degrees.

It turns out that all these Chinooks were named for the Indian groups of the same name – the winds were their sign that spring was coming, the Chinook salmon comes from the same region as these Native American tribes, and all US Army aircraft are traditionally named for American native American tribes or chiefs, as they are intended to be “fast, stealthy, and agile.” I wonder if the Chinooks made beer.

So that’s the story of the Chinook, a hop that is fast, agile and, well… it can be stealthy. It hits you in the face sometimes with good flavor and bitterness, or it can finesse you into submission. The story goes back as far as the birth of the nation, and now the Chinook is being grown heartily right here in Indiana and in Michigan. Hmmm… a hop named for Indians being grown in Indiana – seems like a natural fit. Get out and look for the Chinook hop in your beer, and ask them where it came from – it matters.

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