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Hops science driven by flavor trends

Six clusters of hops vines grow outside the Yakima headquarters of John I. Haas.

The company is one of just a few large-scale hops distributors in the Yakima Valley, and part of the Barth-Haas group, the largest hops distributor in the world.

The three vines on the right are varieties familiar to many beer drinkers: Cascade, an old staple of Northwest brews; Citra, the citrus-flavored darling of juicy India pale ale drinkers everywhere; and Mosaic, the chameleon-like variety said to have flavor notes of everything from grass to bubble gum.

But the other vines are a bit more interesting. Third from the left is Sabro, a new variety scheduled to be released for the first time this fall. It’s notable for its flavor, which is said to be tropical, with some piña colada notes.

Two others hold in-development hops that have yet to be named, bearing just their identification numbers: HBC 472, a hop that allegedly adds bourbon flavors, and HBC 682, a variety high in alpha acids used to bitter beer.

“Something that’s going on here will dictate what your favorite beer will taste like a year or two down the line,” said Pete Mahony, vice president for supply chain at Haas.

Historically, hops were mostly used as a bittering agent in beer, to balance out the sugars from the malt and yeast. Hops added to American-style lagers, like Budweiser, aren’t intended to add flavor to the beer. Hops bred for those beers are usually called “bittering” or “high-alpha” hops, referring to the alpha acids that provide bitter flavor.

But the craft beer industry has changed that, giving rise to aroma hops – varieties like the new Sabro, designed to impart notes of fruit, citrus, pine and other desirable flavors into beer.

Developing a new variety is a yearslong process. Mahony said the goal is to release a new hop variety about every two years to avoid confusing consumers or overwhelming brewers with new options.

“We don’t want to bring too many into the market too quickly,” he said.

Hops are flowering plants, also called angiosperms, and can reproduce both sexually and asexually. In breeding programs, scientists cross hop varieties to get desirable traits.

But in the field, hops sex is a no-no. All the plants in the field are female, since the flowers are the part of the plant farmers want to harvest.

Male plants are considered a weed and are taken very seriously, since they could threaten the integrity of a variety and cause the hops to change taste if they’re pollinated.

To plant a new field, hops are propagated asexually. Growers cut from the root mass of an existing plant and grow the new start in a pot until it’s large enough to be transplanted into the hops fields.

Like other crops, hops are bred for disease and pest resistance, as well as their flavor and aroma notes.

“The holy grail is publicly sourced varieties that are available nationwide that have pest and disease resistance,” said Doug Walsh, a hops researcher at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, Washington.

Varieties that have been around for decades, like Cascade, were often the result of public breeding programs. WSU was behind the popular Centennial hop, released in 1990, and a U.S. Department of Agriculture breeding program gave the world Cascade, still used in many IPAs, including the Spokane No-Li’s flagship Born & Raised.

Public hops varieties can be grown by any farmer, anywhere. Proprietary hops can only be grown for distributors that hold rights to them.

At Haas, the HBC on the varieties in development stands for Hop Breeding Co. It’s a joint venture that combined the breeding programs at Haas and Select Botanicals Group in 2003.

Select, which is affiliated with grower-owned distributor YCH Hops, was the breeder behind the popular Simcoe hop variety first released in 2000.

WSU hops researcher and entomologist Doug Walsh talks about his work with hops plants at the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU hops researcher and entomologist Doug Walsh talks about his work with hops plants at the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Varieties bred by Select, and at the Hop Breeding Co., are proprietary. In industry publications, they’re listed with a registered trademark symbol: Citra® Brand HBC 394 or Mosaic® Brand HBC 369.

Since both Haas and YCH Hops have stakes in the breeding company, both companies can contract for and distribute the hop varieties. Haas is part of a global network with access to German, Australian and other varieties.

YCH’s core business is American hops, and they sell varieties all the way down to homebrewers through brewing supply stores. It’s a grower-owned company, but also acts as a distributor for a number of farmers who aren’t part of the company.

“Part of our mission is to be the matchmaker and connect the family hop farms with the brewers,” said Alex Rumbolz, communications manager for YCH Hops.

Oregon State University also runs a hop breeding program, financed largely by Indie Hops, an Oregon distributor. That program developed Strata hops, released last year. Indie Hops has contracted enough land to can an IPA made with Strata after the 2018 harvest, according to the Daily Barometer, OSU’s student newspaper.

Walsh said WSU’s breeding program has been dormant for several years since the university lost its breeder. Most of the varieties developed recently have been from HBC.

“WSU and the USDA sort of lost stream for a while and now we’re hoping to rebuild,” he said.