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Friday, January 22, 2016

Marks of the Modern Era: Hop Breeding

Looking back on a decade of blogging, one of the biggest revolutions has been the emergence of hops as the central player in craft brewing--a phenomenon that stretches all across the globe.  This has been driven by a couple things. First and foremost--and the subject of a future post--the way in which beer styles have evolved to take advantage of the flavor and aroma of particularly New World hops (US, New Zealand, Australia). But a possibly overlooked dimension in all of this are the hops themselves.

Breeders have been busy for the past four decades adding to the world's inventory of hop varieties. The focus in the early decades was on alpha acids; every few years, breeders managed to goose the alpha acids in hops so that "high alpha hops" went from 8% up to the low teens. When they kept going, breeders invented a new category, "super high alpha," to describe them. Large industrial breweries were driving these innovations, because the higher the alpha acids, the fewer the hops they had to use in a batch of beer.

Craft brewing changed that calculus, as drinkers became attracted to the vivid, often exotic flavors of New World hops. There were a decent number of first-gen varieties to choose from, principally the classic "C-hops" (Cascade, Centennial, Chinook). As craft brewing turned more toward hoppy ales and brewers started focusing more on techniques to enhance these hops' flavor and aroma, breweries started to look for new varieties to give their beers distinctive flavors. Stan Hieronymus would probably be able to comment more knowledgeably on this than I, but it appeared that the development of Citra, led by the Widmer Brothers and Sierra Nevada, marked a turning point. 

Developing hops takes a long time and is expensive and laborious. Unusual, off-putting compounds in these new hybrid hops are not always evident until they've gone into a number of beers. (Summit has a compound that tastes of onions to a minority of drinkers, Sorachi Ace a dill note--flavors not generally admired by those who detect them.) Producing a winner like Citra means finding several also-rans. Nevertheless, the blend of incentives created by the new direction of craft brewing post-2005 has shifted hop breeding firmly in the direction of aroma varieties. 

After Citra, a succession of new hops has hit the market--Mosaic, Equinox, Meridian, El Dorado, Palisade--all bred to give breweries more options. This is only the start of things. Breweries have a huge interest in finding hop varieties that will (generally in combination with other hops) give them IPAs that taste like no others on the market. They're looking not only to newly-bred ones, but forgotten varieties (Comet has made a comeback), indigenous varieties, and uncommon foreign varieties. What follows is an incomplete list of hops you may see appearing in your local IPAs:
What's been really amazing is how these effects are translating to new varieties in Germany (Mandarina Bavaria, Huell Melon), the Czech Republic (Kazbek, Vital, Bohemie), and the UK (Sussex, Sovereign, Endeavour)--all places where classic varieties had previously been sacrosanct. The British strains seem to be the most New-world of the bunch, and Americans may soon be turning to the new varieties there to trick out their hoppy ales.

When I started this blog, it was possible to keep track of all the hops used in commercial brewing. As a homebrewer, I was able to brew with most of them and learn how they behaved and tasted. Now it seems like every week I encounter a beer made with some new hop. The very popular ones, like Mosaic and El Dorado, find their way into enough beers that we can hope to identify them. But Tahoma? Minstrel? TNT? It's getting harder and harder. I suspect this will slow down at some point, but it's the new normal for now. And it's been quite a transformation.


  1. Hop breeding started over a century ago.

  2. So, one can't help but see a parallel development in the burgeoning high-end marijuana breeding programs that really took off in the late 80's and of course the last 10 years or so have seen absolutely astonishing development of hundreds of trait-specific strains.

    Given the close familial similarity of the two plants, I'd say we haven't seen the tip of the iceberg here. So many traits begging to be brought out of this flower, with careful tending, in another decade we'll have beer that we would have never dreamed of 10 years ago.

  3. Jeff, that's a great point. Totally agree.

  4. I'm more impressed that they're starting to breed hops that are more than just ultra high alpha hop dildo IPA varieties.

    Drinking a Jarrylo-based Rhenish-style lagered cerevisiae beer at the moment and it's quite nice.