Hops have been used to flavor beer for about 1000 years. And about 500 years ago they became the dominant bittering and flavoring herb used in brewing. Hops have a lot of characteristics brewers take advantage of to brew a great beer. Not only do they give a great aroma they also have great antiseptic qualities that keep your beer fresh and drinkable much longer.
Today hops look very different than they did back in history. With all these great properties hops have hundreds of varieties that exist today. All thanks to one scientific process called selective breeding.
To learn more about the significance of hops in homebrewing check our Beer School: What about Hops?
Choosing the right hops
The US hop and brewing industries are larger than ever. Today the industry supports over 360 000 jobs and it’s valued at over 35 billion dollars. With all that growing demand for hops has never been higher. Borth for traditional varieties and new hops that push the envelope of aroma and bitterness. There are three main considerations hop growers look for when it comes to breeding a new variety of hops.
- How well the individual plants tend to grow?
- If they tend to get diseases.
- What flavors and aromas they bring to a finished beer?
When it comes to how well hops grow there are a lot of things to consider for growers. Does a particular plant require more water or space than others? How tall does the vine grow and does it fit nicely on its existing trellises? How many hop cones are produced by one individual plant on average? Do the hop cones mature at the right time of year? Do the hops succeed in the local microclimate? All these are considerations breeders are looking for when trying to select parents to breed together.
What you need to know about hops
Hops are not the most robust crop out there. They are pretty susceptible to insects, pests, and mildew spoiling green cones. Crop losses chronic and catastrophic are a fairly common occurrence for growers. Between disease, management costs, and crop damage about 15% of the crop hop value is lost every year. To brewers and drinkers, this means higher beer prices and sometimes not getting a shipment of hopes you were expecting.
In addition as the world’s largest hop producer crop damage can really hamper an important export of US agriculture. Growing hops that are more resilient to damage and disease is incredibly important.
Brewers have continued to push the envelope of how much flavor can be packed in a beer. American beers are generally known for their aggressive hop profiles which bring a great citrus aroma. These bitter and aromatic hops define the American craft beer community and bring a lot of flavors.
Breeding of hops
Now we know that growers are looking for hops that are easy to grow, resistant to disease, and bring a big flavor. Male and female hop flowers are found on separate plants. Female hop plants produce the cones we use for brewing. While make hop plants are only used for breeding. to cross the hop plants to produce a new variety you need both a male and a female plant.
Because the female plants are the only ones that produce cones for brewing it’s important they grow well and mature on time. On the male side were only looking for disease resistance. As such the most important aspects growers look for in male hops to pass on to the next generation are durability and disease resistance.
In nature hop pollen spreads with the aid of the wind. It usually takes a hop plant several growing seasons to establish enough of a good place for the plant to feel comfortable producing cones. And if you want to assess things like maximum yield and tolerance to different weather conditions. You’re going to need at least 5 years of data.
Because of this rather long timetable and years of time and resource investment with a risk of not a lot of return. Many growers don’t experiment with hop breeding. It seems breeding hops is mostly done by extremely large growers or university agriculture programs.
That’s why the Brewers Association has signed an agreement with the US Department of Agriculture to fund public hop breeding yards for purpose of releasing disease-resistant aromatic hops into the public domain. That way any great hops created by the trust can be grown and brewed by anyone.