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By Marguerite Washut, BBBC Marketing & Events Coordinator
I made a promise early on in this series that I’d dive deeper into hop varieties and today’s the day I stay true to my word. I sat down with Patrick Smith, fourth generation hop farmer, co-owner of Bale Breaker, big brother to Meghann and Smitty, and Chief Nerd of Loftus Ranches (according to brother-in-law Kevin Quinn) to talk all things hops and what came out of it was a lot of fascinating information and mind-blowing scientific terms that I’ll try my best to break down in layman’s terms.
In all seriousness, the hop growing industry is a complex world with a pretty straight forward concept. Much like for cattle ranchers, dog breeders, and even your classic Adam and Eve story – the key to success comes down to the birds and the bees and some strong genes. Just like many species, the hop plant relies on the pollen of the male flower to fertilize the cones of its female counterpart to produce seeds. Hop varieties are essentially the offspring of a combination of two individual hop flowers.
Have I piqued your interest yet? Well then, follow along as we explore the evolutionary process behind one of the four main ingredients of beer:
GMH: According to a brief yet trusty Wikipedia search, I saw as of 2012 there’s around 80 hop varieties in commercial use but there’s considerably more as far as development and trial hop variations in process. First, let’s start with the basic question: how does one even create a new breed (or variety) of hops?
PS: All the plants you see in a hop field are female. Of course, to make new hop varieties, we have to cross a male plant with a female plant. The male plants are kept separate, away from the females, because hops are wind pollinated and we do not want the females to produce seeds – as seeds have negative brewing value. It adds weight in the form of the seeds but no alpha oil or anything like that. To create a new hop variety, of course we need that pollination, so what we’ll do is take a branch of a male plant and tie it to a branch of a female plant and cover that in a bag. All of the seed produced from the result of that particular pollination will drop to the bottom of the bag which we collect with confidence knowing all of that seed came from that particular cross.
(TANGENT: Why did Maury’s voice from the Maury Show just immediately pop in my head? “HBC XYZ – YOU ARE THE FATHER!”)
GMH: How very romantic. So, once a hop variety is bred (or produced – tomatoe, tomato), what kinds of trials and tribulations does the grower put it through to help build its character?
PS: After the cross is made and the seeds are collected, we plant each seed in a pot and see if they germinate (i.e. grow). If so, they’ll be screened initially for disease and pests. If we plant a seed and see it gets really bad powdery mildew right away, then of course, it’s eliminated. If not, then after about a year in the seedling nursery, the plant will be transferred to a single hill nursery. Varieties will live in a single hill nursery for about two or three years to give us a good opportunity to observe their growth habit and yield potential but also begin to evaluate them from a sensory and chemistry prospective in that one plant form. Ultimately, it’s like ‘Hop Variety Survivor’ – we start with this big number of contestants (i.e. seeds) and put them through a stage to weed out the weak or potentially harmful genes (i.e. a seed that is more susceptible to disease or is giving off a bad flavor profile). Although every seed comes from the same cross breed (i.e. parents), they are each genetically individual from one another (i.e. siblings), thus growing and reacting to outside influences differently.
GMH: The old tried and true ‘Survivor of the Fittest’ test. So, if a particular variety is deemed too weak to progress to the next phase, does it just go to waste?
PS: No, just like any breeding stock, we identify the best qualities of each variety and continue to breed those varieties with others to enhance the parents’ best qualities and evolve the next generation.
GMH: Conversely, how does a hop variety graduate from the development stage to commercial use?
PS: In the course of a variety’s development, the last stage before commercialization is what we call ‘elite trials’ and that’s where we plant 1-20 acres of that specific variety and grow over the span of 2-5 years before commercialization.
GMH: How long does it take for the hop plant to fully mature into a commercial variety?
PS: A minimum of 10 years.
GMH: Wow! No wonder there’s only as few as 80 commercial hop varieties since the first breeding took place over a hundred years ago in England. But if no plant/variety is the same, how do farmers across the world grow the exact same variety?
PS: Great question! We cut a root of the plant out and replant it.
GMH: So basically, you cut and paste?
GMH: So, let me get this right – the Citra® hop variety was born from a male and female plant in the Yakima Valley. All of the seeds produced by that particular cross breed are siblings of Citra®, however, Citra® was the strongest sibling to survive out of the lot, eventually becoming a commercial hop. Therefore, she is the one and only of her kind and can never be reproduced unless you cut a root from her and replant it somewhere else?
PS: Yes. Citra® is a female plant. She has a father and a mother, however, just like a human, you cannot recreate the same organism.
GMH: So just like you or I cannot be duplicated, a hop variety cannot be?
PS: Yes, although it took Mike and Cheryl (third generation hop farmers and parents of our fearless leaders here at Bale Breaker) two more tries until they learned that lesson.
(INSERT: eyeroll. Classic big brother joke)
GMH: How many hop varieties does Loftus Ranches (Bale Breaker’s family farm) grow?
PS: In commercial production, Loftus Ranches has 14 hop varieties and another seven varieties that are in ‘elite trials.’
GMH: So, the best is yet to come?
Until next month,
Girl Meets Hops: A monthly column highlighting what really goes on behind the buzz at Bale Breaker.
Posted February 26, 2020