Craft brewers hope to give private hop breeders some more competition by funding a USDA-administered public breeding program based in Oregon.
The goal is to develop new public hop cultivars that are resistant to common fungal diseases and can be cultivated without licensing agreements by farmers in the Northwest and elsewhere.
In recent years, the trend has increasingly been for new varieties to be patented by private breeders, said Michelle Palacios, administrator of the Oregon Hop Commission.
“We’re seeing the public varieties become less and less competitive,” Palacios said.
Private breeders often want to closely control distribution of their hop cultivars, so their agreements with farmers are similar to contract production, said Fred Geschwill, a farmer near Woodburn, Ore., and president of the Hop Research Council.
“Their licensing agreements are very tight,” Geschwill said. “I grow it, give it back to them, then they sell it to the marketplace.”
Private breeders can better regulate supply and demand under this scenario, but farmers have less control over planting decisions and brewers have fewer suppliers competing for their business, he said.
While growers can still turn to traditional public cultivars, some of them have been losing their resistance to powdery mildew and other diseases over time.
For example, Cascade aroma hops have long been an industry staple but now they’re getting “long in the tooth,” said Chuck Skypeck, technical brewing projects manager with the Brewers Association, which will contribute an undisclosed sum to public breeding over five years.
“You can’t live on your good graces forever. You need to keep things in the pipeline,” said Skypeck.
As public funding for hop breeding has dried up in recent decades, the U.S. brewing industry has seen a resurgence — from fewer than 100 breweries in the 1970s, the number is expected to reach 6,000 by the end of 2017, he said.
“That landscape has changed,” he said.
Craft breweries don’t just need hops to impart bitterness, they rely on aroma varieties to create unique flavors that differentiate their brands, Skypeck said.
Unless they have desirable agronomic qualities and disease resistance, though, even the tastiest hops won’t gain traction on the farm, he said.
There currently isn’t a reliable mechanism for new hop varieties to be tested by brewers and growers, Skypeck said.
Aside from providing funding to USDA for breeding, the Brewers Association plans to form an advisor panel with members from both industries to guide research, he said. Trials of potential cultivars will also be studied in breweries and on farms.
“There are usually a lot more misses than there are hits,” Skypeck said of the breeding process.
Money from the Brewers Association will pay for one post-doctoral breeder position as well as a technician, said Ryan Hayes, a geneticist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. The hiring process has already begun for the post-doctoral position.
Once the initial five-year deal with USDA expires, the Brewers Association can enter into another agreement with the agency, he said.
Cultivars suited to moist Western Oregon may also be successful in New York and other regions where hop production is seeing a revival, said Geschwill.
As long as they source a certain portion of their ingredients from within New York, for example, farmers in that state can launch on-site breweries, he said.
Farmers in Michigan and Wisconsin are also experiencing more hop production, which would be aided by new public cultivars, said Skypeck said.
“They’re our partners in this industry,” he said. “It’s a unique solution, but we are a unique industry.”