Creating a new hops hybrid is a matter of boy meets girl. Just introduce a male hops plant of one variety to a female of another and let nature take its course. Of course, that’s way oversimplifying things in the age of genome mapping and controlled pollination and given the big business of hops and their importance to craft beer, but essentially it’s the same mechanics as two wild, star-crossed young hops plants whose pollen and pistil happen to meet and produce offspring.
Only these days—and beginning with Professor E.S. Salmon at Wye College in England, who crossbred a cultivated English hops of unknown origin with a wild seedling in the early 1900s to create Brewer’s Gold—there’s an entire industry of professional matchmakers selectively breeding for desirable traits and agronomic viability.
It doesn’t always work out, given the multitude of possible combinations and variables involved, but when it does? Think Nugget, El Dorado, Brewer’s Gold.
While actually creating a new hops variety is straightforward, developing and evaluating the plant’s viability, establishing a production base, and successfully introducing it commercially is a long and involved process with no guarantees. It often takes at least a decade to bring a new hops to market—whether through a private or public breeding program—and tastes can change quickly.
Only a scant few strains end up passing muster, as breeders and growers have to be reasonably confident about the prospects and their ability to sustainably grow it before even introducing it to brewers.
“It takes a commitment to produce it from whoever developed it—you have to produce it before you get contracts—and that’s hard to do,” says Eric Desmarais, owner of CLS Farms in the Yakima Valley region of Washington. “Growers don’t like to go out on that limb. The trick becomes selecting the one you want and that brewers might want.”
As in any commodity-driven business, hops growers primarily respond to market economics when deciding which crops to cultivate. It’s an equation based on yield and what’s going to give them the highest gross revenue per acre. Currently, and for at least the past decade among many American commercial growers, that means aromatic varieties with medium- to high-levels of alpha acid and lots of essential oils—varieties such as Simcoe, Amarillo, and Citra that are in demand by American craft brewers and can be used for both bittering and to impart unique aromas and flavor.
Push and Pull
Breeders are attuned to these trends too, which helps in narrowing down likely crosses and selecting for desired traits. Then they need to make sure that a plant is agronomically sound before taking it any further, Desmarais explains. Breeders consider whether it grows during the right time and with a sufficient yield; whether it is resistant to pests and disease; and whether it is relatively easy to harvest and process.
Desmarais estimates that there are currently at least 100 promising new hops varieties in some degree of development among all the different breeders and public programs. “They’re all solid agronomically, but they haven’t been named yet; some have been tested by some brewers, but what it really comes down to is production and distribution,” he says. “It becomes a matter of push and pull.”
The “push” comes from establishing a solid production base behind a new variety, as well as from generating buzz through marketing efforts and early brewing trials. Desmarais and other breeders often send out samples of experimental hops to hundreds of craft brewers to introduce them to a variety and gain their feedback.
The most promising prospects are often backed by targeted marketing campaigns, which often include a presence at high-profile events such as the Great American Beer Festival and the Brewers Association’s Craft Brewers Conference. Some strains even have their own social media accounts.
“And you need a hops dealer to really go out and promote it, in conjunction with you, as the owner, promoting it,” Desmarais says.
The “pull” comes when enough brewers begin contracting for and using the hops in their beers that it becomes profitable for farmers to grow.
El Dorado, a proprietary strain developed by Desmarais and CLS Farms, is a good example. Although in widespread use now, it took a concerted effort to propel the hops from obscurity and into beers when it was first introduced in 2010.
“With El Dorado, we’re definitely in the pull stage now, but it took a lot of time and effort to get there,” Desmarais says. “There was a lot of emphasis on the marketing and on social media, and we partnered with a hops dealer who deals exclusively in the craft space. It’s gotten into the beer channels, and brewers have figured out how to brew with it and what they like to do with it.”
Voices Growing Stronger
Historically the big brewers have called the shots on which projects receive funding through public breeding programs and which base traits are encouraged. A small group of the world’s biggest brewers combined efforts to establish the non-profit Hop Research Council in 1979, which today is the largest organization devoted to funding and directing research to benefit the continued development of the American hops industry.
But increasingly, and as craft beer continues to gain market share, the voice of smaller brewers has grown stronger in aggregate, leading to increased experimentation among the breeding programs and a broader, more diverse support base for growers and breeders.
“There [are] more than 4,000 craft brewers in the United States now, and if you can get maybe 700 of them who like [a new strain] and each buys a couple thousand pounds—which is miniscule—you have a hugely successful commercial variety right there,” Desmarais says. “That would be almost 1.5 million pounds of demand.”
Increased communication between breeders, growers, dealers, and brewers has also helped provide meaningful feedback and streamline the development of new varieties.
Roy Farms, in the Yakima Valley, has developed and brought to market Summit, Azacca, Pekko, and Jarrylo varieties of hops, among others. Managing Partner Jim Boyd says that direct involvement with brewers—both through feedback gained by sending out small samples to brew with and through on-site visits to the farm—has been invaluable in the breeding program’s success.
“It’s great during harvest when they come to visit us and we can do a walkthrough of our new varieties,” Boyd says. “The feedback supplied by the brewers is wonderful and makes it a lot easier to select varieties to move forward for evaluation.”
Some larger craft brewers are also taking a more active role and formalizing the process by which they evaluate and incorporate emerging hops varieties in their beers. “That’s something where we’ve really stepped up over the past five years,” says Mitch Steele, brewmaster for Stone Brewing Co. “We’ve joined the Hop Quality Group, which is a brewer-led organization, and we’ve also joined the Hop Research Council, which is a joint organization consisting of hops farmers, breeders, researchers, and brewers.”
Stone representatives regularly make site visits to see what breeders and growers are up to, Steele says, and the brewery has also established a new hops-evaluation program. “We’ll typically brew an IPA with [a new hops] to get a feel for how a hops might work in a beer like one of ours,” he says. “We can evaluate that and send the evaluation off to the supplier or the breeder, and also send them some beer and let them taste it for themselves.
“It gives us an opportunity to help them see what their hops is going to do in a craft beer, and we’re also on their radar, which is what it’s all about,” Steele says. “It’s developing those relationships and making sure that they’re reaching out to us when they come across something that’s really neat or new and has a lot of potential. At the same time we’re asking them, ‘What have you got coming?’”