Hopsteiner is one of the oldest hop breeding, growing, and trading firms around. The company was formed by S.S. Steiner in 1845 in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg. Since then, the company grew to have operations in nine regions around the world, from Germany to the Yakima Valley, and even China.
Now that the 2016 harvest is complete, I had an opportunity to ask some questions about the company, the development of new hop varieties, as well as some lessons they learned from this year’s crop.
Can you tell us a bit about Hopsteiner as a company? Of course, we see your 1845 incorporation date, so it’s obvious you’ve been around the block a few times, but you also have operations in Spain, the UK, Germany, and even China. How did those relationships come about?
As we are international in scope, we have always established a physical presence in the key hop producing and beer production regions around the world. It is important to be close to our suppliers, our growing base and our customers in order to provide top-shelf products and services.
How does your breeding program work on both a macro and micro level? Can you discuss the idea that hops are "clones" and so successive generations are less hardy/disease-resistant? How does that work?
The overriding goal of the Hopsteiner hop breeding program is to develop new hop varieties that are agronomically superior. The first goal is to have hops that are naturally resistant to powdery and downy mildew. Secondly, new varieties must be, “Grower Friendly”, meaning that they have good yields, pick and dry well, store and pelletize well, and overall are easier to grow. Using less plant protection material, water and land to produce a crop is a high priority. By making traditional crosses of the best commercial hop varieties we create potential new hop varieties – not clones or regenerations of existing varieties.
On the R&D side, what do you look for from a flavor and aroma standpoint when developing new varietals?
First of all, a potential new variety has to be agronomically superior – healthier hops. Then we look for new and exciting aromas and flavors that provide our brewery customers with tools to make the most interesting beers possible. We are always looking for hops that are different in a good way – berry, orange, vanilla, chocolate, coconut notes that are not exhibited by the current lineup of commercial hop varieties.
When a new variety is “different in a good way,” how does the lab at Hopsteiner isolate the flavors and aromas in a way that is useful for both growers and brewers?
The analytics of a variety are measured by the lab (alpha/beta/CoH/Oils). The flavors and aromas are measured by the sensory teams and by brewers via rubs of samples and test brews.
[Ed: Alpha acids are the hop compounds that impart bitterness and dissolves into wort immediately (called isomerization). Beta acids are compounds that do not naturally impart bitterness, but can be transformed into a light stable bittering agent. (CoH) Cohumulone is a type of alpha acid that may impart harsh bitterness. Essential Oils are isomerized into wort that provide flavor and aroma compounds.]
In that vein, when do experimental hops move from "experimental" and get a name? When they're popular enough? When there is enough stock?
It typically takes nearly 10 years from the time of a cross between breeding parents until the naming and commercial release of a new hop variety. Denali (06277) was a cross from 2006 and released in 2016. Eureka! (05256) was from a cross in 2005 and released in 2015. A very methodical process is followed to assure that any new variety is sustainable, remains true-to-type, and is of interest to the brewing community as a potential new hop.
What about standardization? How does, say, a Cascade from NY compare with one from Washington? Are you making efforts to standardize/homogenize varieties or are you trying to separate how a NY Cascade is different from a Washington Cascade?
In the United States we produce hops on Hopsteiner-owned farms and buy hops from independent growers only in the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Micro climates from state-to-state, or even within a given state, can give us hops of the same variety that have slight variation. This is mostly seen in alpha acid content and yields. Our goal is to develop new varieties that will thrive in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Variation between these growing areas is small.
Now that the harvest is wrapping up, what sort of lessons did you learn from this year’s harvest that you can apply in the coming season?
We had two new potential hop varieties this season that were moved from the Multi Hill Nursery stage (between 4 and 80 plants) to a full five acre commercial test plot. Both showed promise agronomically and from a uniqueness standpoint. Notes of berry, jam, Jolly Rancher, and licorice in one, orange and vanilla (Creamsicle) in the other. We will use the farming data and comments from brewers who rubbed hop samples this fall of each variety to further assess the commercial application for these hops.
When brewers provide comments on hops, what sort of things do they say, and what sort of “assessments” do the lab folks do on the new varieties once they move on to the test plot?
We listen for comments from brewers that affirm our belief that a new hop is different from existing varieties that are offered. Their specific comments affirm the unique flavor and aroma potential of these hops in their specific brewery. The role of the lab at this stage is to measure alpha/beta/CoH and oils. The final determination relies more on brewery acceptance and agronomic results in the field.
Do you have questions about commercial hop growing we can pass along to Bill? Let us know via firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill Elkins, Craft Brewery Account Manager in Western US and Canada for Hopsteiner, one of the largest hop growing, trading, breeding, and processing firms in the world.