At Wired, Katie M. Palmer discusses an interesting (if only to brewers and beer fans) development in the quest for better beer:
For craft breweries, originality is everything. Your favorite microbrew prides itself on the particular combination of grains, yeast, and hops that go into its fermented nectar. Regardless of the magic that goes into the recipe, though, a lot of those ingredients come from the same big suppliers — bulk barley, high-yield yeast. So when agricultural geneticist Sean Myles was visiting his brewing buddies over at Tatamagouche Brewing Company in Nova Scotia, the conversation turned quickly to the one place where microbreweries can really distinguish themselves: hop varieties.
“I’m a craft beer fanatic…a little bit,” says Myles, who researches at Dalhousie University. “I ended up hanging around the hop yard, and we were taking a look at the vines.” In Nova Scotia, brewers grow the same varieties of hops you’d see elsewhere — Cascade, Willamette, Fuggle — which add aroma, flavor, and bitterness to a beer while helping to preserve it. But the vines don’t thrive like they do on the dryer, warmer west coast. The region’s high humidity makes the plants vulnerable to mildew. Myles looked at the hops growing in the brewers’ backyard, stunted and suffering from fungus, and had an idea: “I said, well, let’s go get some pollen.”
So Myles and Hans Christian Jost from Tatamagouche traveled from Nova Scotia to Corvallis, Oregon, where the USDA has one of the biggest hop collections in the world. “In order to get new varieties you need to let these plants have sex and generate some offspring,” says Myles. The National Clonal Germplasm Repository — which includes a gene bank in addition to physical collections of berries, mint, and nuts — is one of the only places where hopheads have access to pollen from male plants. (The pine cone-shaped hops that go into your beer are the flower of female plants, so most growers don’t bother keeping any males around.)
At the USDA hop library, which has dozens of varieties bred for different taste profiles, disease resistance, and viability in different climates, Myles worked with hop expert John Henning to find four different male mildew-resistant hops. But he couldn’t take the plant material across the border to Canada — so he stuck baggies over the top of the plants, collected their pollen, and brought it back to sprinkle on top of the female flowers grown by the brewery.
That’s the beginning of what will be a multiple-year process of growing, seed collection, and growing again to select the most mildew-resistant plants that still keep their floral hop character. When the brewers are done, they’ll have a unique variety of hops that they can call their own — and hopefully grow more of, thanks to its improved mildew protection.