Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Hop Breeding

Part 2 of my hop series.

I don't care too much for British hops. There, I've said it. I know making such a statement tends to offend some of the die hard trad. fans. The truth of the matter is that to create the beers we want to make, British hops so far just haven't got what it takes to make the grade. The bigger family and regional brewers tend to use British Hops for their mainstream beers. If we did the same, we'd be pushing out beers that were the same, why would we want to do that?

Faram's breading program planted
5,000 seedlings in 2015
each one a new variety cross
On a personal level this upsets me quite a bit. If British Hop growers could manage to grow hops that do the same thing as the massive aroma of American hops, I'd not only be happy to buy them, I'd positively go out of my way to do so. The hospitality we have received at Stocks farm, for instance, puts that big bit of guilt into my head for my reluctance to use British hops. There are some really great people in the British Hop farming industry, they deserve success. I hold out an optimistic hope that they'll produce something really great.

We do have to remember that the hop growing industry in the UK is very much smaller than USA. I haven't got exact figures for the UK, but believe we have around 1,000 hectares of hop yards. In The States they have over 18,000 hectares1. There is a little more financial backing for development of unique, innovative and really stunning hop varieties. This has resulted in varieties like Citra and Simcoe, loved universally by craft beer brewers the world over. Even some of the more "established" new world hops are barely more than a couple of decades old. Cascade, on my brief research the oldest of what we'd consider "craft", was not released until 1972.

Is this the reason the British hop growers struggle to wow us? I think development of new hop varieties is part of the problem. I am lead to understand that there has been no government money put into UK hop breading for over 10 years, and yet EU money is provided for Eastern European hop growers, so my contacts tell me.

Verticillium Wilt
But I worry that terroir has a huge amount to do with it. It may just be possible the the UK climate, that fantastic "maritime" weather will always limit any success to strive towards what New World growers can achieve.

Never-the-less, I want British growers to continue to try. Charles Faram have a breading program, thank goodness, so there is hope.

Hop breeding focuses on one really important requirement - disease resistance. It seems that hops are really quite susceptible to disease. Powdery mildew, downey mildew, verticillium wilt etc are problems. There is no point growing a stunning new hop variety only to find that it is nearly impossible to grow without infestations. I wonder if it is inevitable that a variety that is resistant enough to the British weather will always tend to be more subtle in characteristics.

The problem is, breeding programs take anything up to 10 years to get a new variety from first cross breeding to selection of full commercial crop. Selection of promising cultivars have to go through disease assessment as well as aroma selection. Brewing trials at some point are necessary and if this is done in series, i.e. only after a variety has shown to be resistant, it can draw out the whole process.

Jester - one of the successes
Charles Faram have broken the rules somewhat compared to standard commercial programs. They can do this because they work with the growers sharing risks, and ultimately rewards. They instigate small scale commercial trials long before full disease resistance has been ascertained.

One result is the Jester strain, which seems to have achieved some success, with the down side that it is hermaphrodite; it produces both male and female flowers, only the females are any good for brewing. The proportions of male to female seems to depend on weather during the season.

This radical program can bring a new variety to commercial crop only 6 years after initial variety crosses have been made. There are some 20 or so named varieties due to go into brewing trials either this coming year or next. Many of these varieties have yet to fully pass wilt tests, so there are still some risks, but some of them have fantastic aroma descriptors, so I'm hopeful.

I do hope we eventually get great hop varieties in the UK. The trouble is, I just had a quick look on Ratebeer. I know I shouldn't, but  I did. One brewer who has done a large range of single hop beers, named to give the impression one particular style of beer was being killed off - you know the one. Look at the scores, tells a tale. Universally the American varieties are the ones that win.

Personally, with the bad news coming out of the overall northern hemisphere I think craft brewers need to reassess the mix of hops that go into beers. We are certainly doing that. Craft brewers of course are very happy to embrace any technology that is required to get the result we need. We're working on ideas that might just be able to achieve the same, and possibly even better results by judicious application of new techniques and ideas.

Thanks to Will Rogers for the fascinating talk at the Hop Seminar, and in advance for turning a blind eye to plagiarising his presentation. The pictures here are all stolen from the file kindly sent from Faram to my inbox.

Apologies to Faram, Stocks farm, Ali Caper and The British Hop Association for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies here. Some of the information was stored in my fallible grey matter and is liable to data corruption. Please put any corrections in the comments.


1Source: Paul Corbett's Power Point presentation from the hop seminar 2015 - exact figure given 18,307 estimated. Up from 15,382 in 2014 the increase driven by this so called craft beer revolution.


Eddie said...

British hops don't make your grade Dave, no, but they make mine, and very nicely too.

For subtlety, balance and drinkability UK hops are perfect. I'm not sure what other attributes are important in good beer.

Unknown said...


I am in now way suggesting that British beer that is made with British hops does not have it's place. It is indeed the thing that makes British hops special, and different. Indeed some American Craft brewers are taking British hops and making a thing of their own.

But with the thirst in the UK for American Style craft beers, and because Hardknott is about replicating that style without the expense and transport of imported beers, the only way we can do that is by importing New World hops. There are quite enough beers out their using British Hops, this is not what we want to do.

We want to make stunning beers, not subtle beers.

Ed said...

British hop breeders spent the best part of a century breeding out American flavour, so some of the new varieties that Charles Faram are trialling are in fact old varieties that were previously rejected.

Cascade was not developed for 'craft' beer, it was in fact bred as a Fuggles replacement!

Unknown said...

Ed, an interesting perspective that doesn't reflect my understanding of the situation, unless I can drill though an apparent contrary motive.

You are correct in as much as Cascade was breed from Fuggles, that much is true. It is also the case that British Cascade is somewhat more subtle than American Cascade.

However, the motives behind where hop breeding programs have been, or are going, is probably a lot more complex than you are suggesting.

It obviously is the case that hops in the UK have been breed to cater for a combination of growing ability in our climate and the commercial demands that the growers see.

So, resurrecting old varieties? Not my understanding. They have planted 5,000 seedlings this year. Each and every seedling is a brand new cross, a new variety. Perhaps some of these crosses have come from previously rejected varieties, but they are new non-the-less.

It might be interesting to question where Cascade fits into the whole craft beer thing. Back in the 70s when it was breed I dare say it was breed to match the requirements of the American growing conditions.

However, as Sierra Nevada started brewing in 1979, and has Cascade as a corner stone of it's brewing, by their own words "He returned with the whole cone hops and began brewing the hop-forward beers Sierra Nevada is famous for."

Which came first, the desire for more progressive hop characteristics, or craft beer? I think it is a symbiotic relationship, and I love that.

I know, for sure, that British Hop growers and British Hop merchants alike are striving for that very thing that you say they have worked 100 years to eliminate.

I wish them the very best of luck, and hope to engage in some of the brewing trials really soon.

Unknown said...

Just had a chat with Will, regarding hops we are going to use this year. We've got a couple of projects on the go for using Brit hops. We've agreed on using some of the experimental varieties. Should be fun.

One of he key points made was that Faram's Breeding Program has a keen focus on producing big hop arms, just like those we are looking for. The program is two pronged:

1. Disease resistance
2. Big aromas

Some are simply to safeguard against existing varieties developing susceptibility. But others are very much trying to compete against American hops. I'm all for that. Infant, watch this space.

However, we have a sour project to progress first.

Eddie said...

'Subtlety' and 'stunning' are not mutually exclusive.

Just sayin'.

Ed said...

Oh aye, farams are definitely breeding new hop varieties, but they've also revived some old ones.

Unknown said...

Eddie, hmmmm......

Ed, well, I did listen to Will talk for a good while on the subject, and chatted o the phone today with him. It is possible that I'm completely misunderstanding what is going on, but my interpretation is that very much most of the work they are doing is breeding new varieties.

They may have revived some old ones, but that's not core to the work they are doing.

Unknown said...

We are already seeing the signs of a two tier hop system, where anything seen as new or different is coveted at the expense of well known varieties. This is a fairly high risk strategy for brewers who have to spend time understanding their ingredients or going gunge-ho and brewing with relatively unknown hops.

I think there is a place for both the newer and the more established hops. Look for example to Belgian and German beer where traditional varieties are heralded in the wake of the craft beer market.

There will always be a place for the more traditional hops, amongst then some unique varieties with flavours that are not found in American or New World hops... I.e. Bramling Cross.

Hop growers are understanding that they need new products to compete. This is agood and exciting thing! I do hope it's not at the expense of some of the more tried and tested hops however.

Unknown said...

Apologies for the spelling and grammar - far room early typing that out on a smartphone!

Unknown said...


Interesting and balanced comment I think.

I'm not so sure about hard demarcation between two tiers, but I get your point. There is to some extent a bit of that.

However, leaving aside progression of hop varieties for the purpose of flavour development, although important as that might be, nothing will ever stay the same because of nature.

The first, the very first thing that any hop breeding program considers is disease resistance. In fact, the very need for a breeding program at all is for that very reason. As I said in my post, hops are difficult to grow. They are susceptible to various diseases. The very fact that every single plant commercially grown is a hybrid cultivar propagated asexually. That is, every plant is a clone of a single seedling and genetically, at least in theory, identical to every other plant. This is done by cuttings from a single sexually reproduced seedling.

Now, there is an advantage to sexual reproduction. Every living thing on this planet that is reproduced by sexual reproduction is genetically different. With the exception of identical twins, however, arguably that is the result of asexual reproduction of a single embryo, however.

The advantage of sexual reproduction is that this genetic variation, by it's very nature, makes it harder for disease to get hold. We're all different, which is why just because someone close to you catches a cold, doesn't mean you automatically catch that cold. OK, sometimes with animals it's immunity created by their own defences, but let's not get too technical, I'm already in too deep as it is.

Genetic variations means that single mutations in disease find it harder to get hold. The plant next door might be immune, reducing the spread of disease. The pathogens have to mutate to keep up with the genetic variation created by sexual reproduction.

Now, with hop growing we need every plant to be the same. We need this because we treasure the flavour and aroma of a particular cultivar. But, this also allows disease to settle into a pattern and can risk the future of whole varieties of hops.

I know there is at least one British hop variety that is at risk of becoming commercially unviable for exactly this reason.

So, over time, it is not necessarily possible to maintain a variety for ever.

But the main lesson here is that we need sex. It's what makes us different, and we should be pleased about that. Even plants need sex, although I have to say, they do have a strange way of going about it.

Unknown said...

Don't worry about spelling, I'm far from perfect in that regard!

Ron Pattinson said...

You've clearly never brewed a beer with masses of whole leaf Goldings. The effect is magical. It's not so much the hops themsleves but how you use them.

Unknown said...

You know Ron, with all due respect, a beer brewed with shit-loads of Styrian Goldings is always going to taste like a beer brewed with Styrian Goldings.

Ed said...

Hmmm...the internet can be a very hard place to communicate at times! I never said reviving old hops was the core of Faram's hop development programme, but it is a part of it. And being into hop history it's a part I find particularly interesting.


The two Keyworths are old varieties being tried again:


Unknown said...

Yes Ed, indeed, this is the danger with the Internet.

So we don't really disagree.

For me, if the old hops varieties make a comeback that creates what the kids want, I'm all for it.

I should also point out that I am not wishing the existing varieties to be grubbed up and completely replaced either. I can't see that happening. For a start, British hops are being exported so craft brewers in America can make British style beers. Sometimes they even put those beers into cask, crazy guys over there you know.

Equally, brewers, like hop merchants and growers are all businesses. We all want to do certain things a certain way, but at the end of the day being in business means maximising sales. If our customer base wants a certain favour in their beer, if the beers we find most successful are not the ones that have British hops in them, then we'll do what it takes to make beer that people seem to want.

Ron Pattinson said...

I didn't say Styrian Goldings. They aren't even English hops. And you've proved my point: a shitlaod of EKG's take on a totally different flavour. You should give it a try sometime. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Unknown said...

Ron, my bad.

None the less, wherever the hops are grown, a shiload of Goldings in a beer will still only make the beer taste like it's been brewed with Goldings.

It's just not what Hardknott does.

Moreover, I have heard it said, by people who know a thing or two about British hops, that the EKG thing is just a bit of marketing hype. Good luck to them I say, but still, makes me wonder.

Ron Pattinson said...


all I can say is: try it. Because after a certain level it doesn't taste like Goldings at all.

What's sold as EKG is a group of related whitebine varieties and probably none of them are exactly the hop Mr. Golding selected. It doesn't make the hops any the lesser.

Bowlercat said...

Some British beers do use American hops. It's not only the hops which make British beer, it's also the skill of brewer. How ever, British hops do bring the authenticity to the beer which is a great thing.

Ron Pattinson said...

Dave, do you have my email? Get in touch.

Charles Faram Charlie said...

Our hop development varieties are all new. Cheers Charlie. Charles Faram.

Charles Faram Charlie said...

Our hop development varieties are ALL NEW.

Not to be confused with Wye Hops hop development varieties. I'll get Will to write a bit on here.


Unknown said...

Golly Charlie, you're catching up with very old news here! Doubt people will be reading this anymore?