Improving Hop Cultivars

July 2016

Scientist Ron Beatson has been developing superior hop cultivars in New Zealand since 1984

NZ hop breeder Dr. Ron Beatson of Plant and Food Research at Riwaka is using a new pilot brewing plant to speed up selection of new hop cultivars.

The focus is on breeding seedless hops, because seeds impart impurities in the brewing process because they contain fatty acids. Other parts of the hop growing world such as the US and Germany have overcome that by removing all the male plants from the commercial growing areas.

Dr. Beatson says “In NZ from an early stage they decided they wanted to breed seedless hops. We breed hops with a difference, we don’t want to be in the same space as the US and Germany. We don’t have any pest and disease problems, we don’t spray with fungicides and insecticides, the only sprays we use are herbicides. We are pretty unique, but we produce less than 1% of the world crop. The industry here has a target of growing to produce 2% of the world’s crop in the next 15 years.”

Through the late 1970s and early 1980s hops were a cottage industry, with hops produced only for the domestic market. But cyclical problems of production internationally when there were bad seasons opened up markets for NZ when it picked up medium to long term export contracts. NZ got some long term contracts to supply hops into Germany, the UK, Japan, North America and Australia.

The industry has doubled in production since then, from 400 to 450 tonnes to 750 to 800 tonnes now. By 2020 the target is to produce around 1000 tonnes.

The industry is spread 30km around the Motueka area, which is the centre of hop growing in NZ.

The hop cultivars are not only seedless but also have points of difference in terms of their flavours.

When craft beer boomed in the last decade, New Zealand hop cultivars found favour with craft brewers, particularly in the US, where cultivars such as Nelson Sauvin are suited to more hoppy beers.

Sauvin was released in 2000 and has distinctive grapey passionfruit flavours to it. Lion Breweries used it to brew Aromac at the Macs Brewery in Stoke, the first time it was brewed in a commercial beer. Nelson Sauvin would be a standard bearer for the craft brewing industry, and is the best known of New Zealand cultivars.

Others are two sisters, Motueka and Riwaka, the latter a highly sought-after cult hero of craft brewing. It was first used by Dominion Breweries but it had a slower start because of lower yields.

There are a whole series of more recent cultivars just starting to make their mark. They are specialty high alpha hops with good bittering properties such as Waimea and Pacific Jade, the latter of which is used for Steinlager Pure because of its very clean bitterness.

Aromatic hops include Wai-iti and Kohatu, they have lower alpha acids and great aromatic properties. Others are Southern Cross, Rakau, Dr Rudi, Sticklebract, and Pacific Gem. Wakatu is an aromatic hop used by Coors Brewery in the US.

The latest hop is Brooklyn, which was released in late 2015, it is a high alpha type with very good bittering properties. Experimental brews were made last year by Garage Project in their “Hop Trial” series. It has just been commercially brewed for the first time by Epic Brewery in their “One Trick Pony” series.

Dr. Beatson advises that probably the biggest challenge faced in our science has been getting a pathway to creating enough genetic variability with our seedless hop breeding population.

“We can’t import hops at the moment due to MPI regulations and when we can, it is very expensive. We have managed to overcome some of these problems by our innovative approaches in creating new seedling populations.  Another challenge is how we select amongst these wonderful seedlings.”

The process from crossing two plants to get a new seedling, right through to using the new plants commercially, usually takes eight to 10 years.

Waimea was crossed in 2004 and released in 2012, and Brooklyn was crossed in 2006 and released this year.

Dr. beatson says “We’ve had a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment project here which is government funded with support also from industry. The MBIE funded project is looking at taking hops right through to beer production and using our sensory capability to show in a more scientific manner which hops will be more successful in the end product. The pilot plant is being used to shorten the cycle, and we can latch onto winners earlier.”

The pilot brewing plant is a joint venture with the industry. Scientist Dr Jo Stephens runs the plant with Lawrence Graham. It is a fully commercial brew kit built locally by Chris Little of CLE Brew Systems. His firm builds craft brewing plants throughout Australasia.

“If you include the building and resourcing we put in, it is worth maybe $150,000. The kit itself is worth in excess of $80,000.”

“We have brewed close to 100 times since we started with the pilot plant in September 2014. Our aim is test 50 to 70 new hop selections in a year.”

“The hop is the only variable in the system and the pilot plant allows us to complete a brew from a single plant. Commercial brewing trials need 100 to 200 plants. Our pilot plant is a tool in plant breeding and a part of speeding up the screening process.”

“In the past year we have identified three plants we consider to be outstanding, these hops would not have seen the light of day, if it had not been for the pilot plant. It came up trumps. Keen to see it in commercial production.”

Dr Beatson was a finalist in the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards 2015. The KiwiNet awards celebrate heroes in research commercialisation, those individuals and organisations whose best practice approach is changing the innovation landscape in NZ.

Under the leadership of Ron Beatson, many NZ grown hops have become a household name in the international brewing industry. Since 1984 Ron has been instrumental in developing many new specialty hop cultivars, which are a major factor behind the global boom in popularity of craft beer.

Thanks to his research, NZ Hops have transformed from a cottage industry supplying hops to NZ based brewers to a sophisticated export product with more than 85% of production now exported to some of the world’s leading beer producing nations such as USA, UK, Germany and Australia.

Dr Beatson’s research is highly applied and closely aligned with the needs of hop growers and the brewing industry. The end product of his research is a cold, tasty beer!