Like all good things, developing a new hop variety takes time — lots of time — years, more than 10, usually. From the initial cross by plant breeders to the final public release, there are hundreds of research gauntlets to run.
TriplePearl, the newest aroma hop released by the USDA in 2012, was an exception. Its accelerated release only took six years.
John Henning, research plant geneticist and OSU crop and soil scientist, heads up the USDA- Agricultural Research Service’s hop program in Corvallis. Part of his work involves sequencing the hop genome and identifying molecular markers that can be used in selection.
“These markers allow us to better understand the biology of disease resistance, insect resistance, how different aroma compounds are made, yield and brewing characteristics,” said Henning. “They also can be used in a traditional breeding program to accelerate the rate of variety development and improve the accuracy of selection.”
And that’s what happened with TriplePearl. Henning said that the USDA-ARS hop research program receives federal funds and grant dollars from the Hop Research Council. The council funds research for disease resistance, integrated pest management, chemistry analysis, brewing studies, pesticide usage and emerging pesticides.
“It’s been a great relationship; it provides us researchers with clear direction,” said Henning. TriplePearl is one of several aroma hops being developed in response to specific needs expressed by the Hop Research Council. They have been high yielding, relatively disease free and of good brewing quality, based on pilot brewing. TriplePearl is unique because it’s seedless. Brewers wanted a seedless hop because the seeds only add weight, not taste, to the hop cone, and they buy hops based on the weight of the dry cone. “Brewers only want ingredients that add flavor,” said Henning.
TriplePearl, as its name implies, has three desirable traits:
-It produces NO viable seeds
-It grows easily, like a weed, and can be very high yielding
-The flavor is fruity with citrus notes, according to brewing comments. It’s very favorable for the development of ales and it does well in a lager, which is not always the case.
Although TriplePearl was released in 2012, Henning expects the first large harvest will be in the fall of 2015.
The other aroma hop varieties will be released piecemeal, depending on the level of interest and when brewers desire to use them on a regular basis. “We’ll continue to use them in on-farm operations and pilot brewing by Miller-Coors and AB InBev and brewers like Sierra Nevada.
Members of the Hop Research Council include major domestic and international brewers, craft brewers, hop merchants and three state Hop Commissions for Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Domestic brewer AB InBev is interested in a replacement for the Willamette hop. They want one that’s more disease resistant and higher yielding.
When developing hop varieties for major brewers it’s crucial that the hop maintains the same flavor year after year. “It’s difficult to get something that’s just like a Willamette,” said Henning.
Miller-Coors is also interested in specific hop breeding profiles, but their goals have been more flavor related.
Hop research is not focused entirely on aroma hops. Bittering or super alpha hops are also being developed.
Hop research has a long history going back to the 1930s. “The USDA breeding program has been here since the 1950s,” said Henning.
The Corvallis 14-acre research plots contain 150 different varieties from around the world and is primarily used for making crosses and breeding.
Because of the ever-present budget issues and a desire to work more closely with growers, Henning instituted a grower crop breeding program. The specific growers who are tending these research trials are Paul Fobert in Hubbard, Jeff Butch in Mt. Angel, Fred Geschwell in Woodburn and Brulotte Farms in Toppenish, Washington.
“Our program focuses on regional hop development for the Pacific Northwest.” The Northwest has traditionally been the best region of the country for growing hops in terms of disease resistance and soil and climate.
But, other areas are migrating back to growing hops, like Michigan, Wisconsin and New York, said Henning. All three grew hops a century ago but got out of it because of disease problems. The increase in craft brewing has led to an increased interest in growing your own.
PUBLIC or PRIVATE
Any USDA hop that is released is public, and, once sold, the USDA no longer has any say in how those are handled. Until the 1990s public hops were the only ones available.
The USDA works with Hop Commissions to sponsor nursery plots. Roots are sold to growers or evenly distributed to growers.
Publicly-developed varieties of hops can be trademarked and given a different name. Rogue has done that with five or six varieties.
“Private hops are no different from what’s happening with other crops,” said Henning.
Private hops are developed by a company and in order to regain costs for development, the companies maintain control of distribution and charge a royalty on it. Those same companies will take the responsibility of selling the hop grown by a hop grower. Private companies will pay hop growers to grow their hop and keeps a portion of the payment as a royalty for the right to grow it.
Private companies have their own marketing choices and control.
With public hops, there is much less marketing. Hop Growers of America and Hop Commissions do some marketing of publicly developed varieties.
“All of the hop breeders work closely together,” said Henning. The hop industry is so small, we all have to work together.”