Saturday 24 September 2016

The past and future of hops

The latest IBD meeting I attended was about the perennial favourite hops. First we had Dr Peter Darby of Wye Hops showing us round the hop collection at Queen Court Farm. 

There are 250 varieties growing here, historic varieties and interesting breeding lines.

It's a whopper
All dwarf varieties are descended from this male
 We got to hear about hop history too, including I'm pleased to say the importance of Farnham.

Mathon may be in the midlands but this plant originated in Farnham
Then it was back to Shepherd Neame brewery to hear some more fascinating facts.

Several topics were covered in the talk.

When Wye College was closed down by the institution I studied microbiology at great efforts were made to save the hop collection.

The main site is at China Farm, and Queen Court acts as a back up.

The changing taste in hops has led to a re-evaluation of the varieties in the national hop collection.

Already Keyworths have been returned to production, and we can now add OZ97a, now known as Ernest. It's named after Ernest Salmon, the great hop breeder, as it's one of his varieties.

As every hop seedling is a new variety there has been a proliferation of new varieties in recent years, not just from hop breeders but also hop growers and hop merchants.

At Wye Hops they changed direction to start breeding for flavour in 2011, taking Cascade as their starting point. In England it crops very late so it was bred with early males to try and bring this forward. Breeding for specific oil and inbreeding to increase desired characteristics was then carried out. Cascade itself the result of a lot of Fuggle inbreeding (and Citra is a result of Hallertauer mittelfrüh inbreeding). Hop merchants Charles Faram have open pollinated Cascade  to get Jester and Olicana.

Efforts to breed a wilt-resistant Fuggle have also continued and after at least 60 years finally seems to be bearing fruit. Or should that be cones?

The English hop breeding programme has beer based on Goldings, as though they're susceptible to wilt they carry genes (presumably recessive) for wilt resistance. Fuggles have no resistance at all but it has finally reached the stage that three Fuggle seedlings have been bred with wilt resistance. 

They are now undergoing farm trials and look very promising.

Resistance to aphids has been a continuing focus, as apart from Boadicea, (which only makes up 3% of the crop) all English hops need spraying for aphids. A problem is that Boadicea and its progeny have a very distinctive smell, which many dislike. In 2014 a selection was finally made of a seedling without this characteristic. 

Advances in genetics have allowed precision breeding using marker assisted selection to start taking place.

Early genetic investigations into hops were too crude to be of use to hop breeders.

But over the years techniques have become more sensitive to the point that known genetic markers can be tied to traits seen in the phenotype.

SNP (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms) can now be used to screen seedlings for traits as early as six weeks after sowing, greatly increasing the speed and efficiency of hop breeding.

It is not however without its problems, and is still to expensive to use for all seedlings.

A series of crosses have been made from four hops varieties to find markers for four types of characteristics: Fuggle (traditional), Cascade (new), Pilgrim (disease resistance) and Boadicea (aphid resistance)

This is being carried with a number of different institutions, and it is possible that it is from one of these places that Peter Darby's successor will come.

New challenges are still affecting the hop industry and climate change is one of them. People are now looking for drought resistance and it is now not just Bramling cross that is failing to thrive due to Winters being too mild. After this excellent talk no-one could argue with the final point that more hop research is essential!

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