New hop cultivar emerges from public-private partnership

The new Strata hop variety developed from a partnership between Indie Hops and Oregon State University.

A public-private partnership between the Indie Hops company and Oregon State University has yielded its first new hop cultivar after roughly seven years of research.

The variety, dubbed “Strata,” combines the sought-after citrus aroma with the “dank” smell often associated with cannabis, said Jim Solberg, CEO of Indie Hops.

“We’re pretty confident the hop will catch on and be a strong new variety,” he said.

Breeder Shaun Townsend collected the seed that would become Strata in the winter of 2010, when Indie Hops began contracting with OSU to develop new cultivars for craft brewers.

A field of female Perle hops had been open-pollinated by multiple male varieties from a nearby research yard, producing seed that germinated into roughly 10,000 plants with a wide range of characteristics.

At the time, the relationship between OSU and Indie Hops was controversial in Oregon’s hop farming community because a public facility would be used to develop controlled private varieties that aren’t widely available to growers.

Farmers had built trellises and other infrastructure at OSU that would no longer be used for public research, said Michelle Palacios, administrator of the Oregon Hop Commission.

“There was a lot of heartburn over that,” she said.

Since then, though, Oregon hop farmers have mended their relationship with OSU, which continues to cooperate with the industry on plant pathology and fermentation science, Palacios said.

“I think the industry has accepted it as it is,” she said of OSU’s public-private partnership with Indie Hops.

Disputes over public-private partnerships aren’t unique to the hop industry, said Ann George, executive director of the Hop Growers of America.

The “strings attached” to private money granted to public universities is a common point of debate, she said. “There’s always going to be that difficulty, when you have public research institutions that are not entirely funded publicly.”

Strata was one of roughly 10,000 seedlings that were exposed to mildews and other diseases in an OSU greenhouse, with the aim of weeding out plants susceptible to pathogens.

Those that survived were planted out to an experimental yard at OSU where they weren’t treated with fungicides and generally were not fussed over, as they would be at a commercial farm.

The goal was to identify naturally disease-resistant plants that would thrive without much encouragement, said Solberg. “They’re pretty hard on the plants at the experimental yard.”

As the plants were being evaluated for their agronomic traits, their cones were analyzed for chemistry and brewing potential on a small scale.

Hops that showed promise in the field and at the brewery were then moved to an advanced nursery trial in which their vegetatively propagated descendants were grown in about 30 different locations.

Strata was seen as having potential to stand out in the market, leading to further study in a commercial pilot where it was planted to five acres at several farms.

Strata’s vigorous growth, strong root system and decent early yields convinced Indie Hops to plant it commercially on three farms totaling 95 acres this year, with the first commercial crop to be harvested in 2018.

The cultivar had to be unique enough to warrant a commercial release at a time when growers have many more varieties to chose from than a decade ago, said Solberg.

Strata also came of age during a tough hop market, he said. “It’s definitely a market that’s oversupplied with hops.”

The new variety is now one of 84 on the official Hop Growers of America list of cultivars, said Ann George, the group’s executive director.

The list isn’t comprehensive, since some likely future varieties have yet to be added to it while some older varieties have fallen out of favor, she said.

More hop cultivars are now available to growers, but farms are also cultivating a greater diversity of them, George said. A typical grower now produces 12 or more varieties, up from the traditional six to eight.

“Most growers will agree they’re growing double the number of varieties than they used to,” she said.

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