There may not be an online distance-learning course for the experimental hops project at Oregon State University, but there is remote access to the vast knowledge being cultivated by the plant geneticists and fermentation scientists at the school; it's called a phone call with program donor and hops aficionado Roger Worthington of Bend's Worthy Brewing.
From his office in Los Angeles, Worthington—who makes his home in Bend—was eager to talk about developing the perfect hop cone (the part of the female hop plant that is used in brewing beers). In his opinion, the key to the future of craft beer is creating new strains of hops that are better at resisting disease and above all else, deliver complex aromatic oils.
A few years back, Worthington says, that future was in jeopardy.
"In 2008 there was a hop crisis, a shortage" explained Worthington. "What happened at that same time was Anheuser-Busch was bought out by InBev. The importance of that was that even though [Anheuser-Busch] weren't a craft brewer, they had long been a supporter of hop research in the U.S."
According to Worthington, that event, as well as the drying up of government research dollars used for the USDA-ARS Hops Research and Breeding program at Oregon State University, created a vacuum. Through the launching of Indie Hops—a venture aimed at servicing the craft brewing industry with designer hops—Worthington and partner Jim Solberg decided to fill that void by committing $1 million to the OSU project with the goal of engineering the most durable, sustainable and aromatic hops ever grown. Super hops, let's call them.
The process—unsurprisingly—is long and expensive.
Creating a grow experiment to develop new genomes and hop varieties requires both male and female hop plants and consequently, a lot of land. Pollination of the female plants by stud male plants needs to occur in order to produce seeds that can then be grown themselves and tested for things like mildew resistance, length of time to harvest and ability to withstand less-than-ideal growing conditions (read: weather). So far, that system—even though accelerated by using greenhouses and skipping the natural selection process of picking winners and losers— has gone on for five years.
And all of that work funnels into perhaps the most important goal of the Indie Hops/OSU relationship.
Whereas other experimental hops projects in places like Germany and even Yakima, Wash., have focused on increasing the potency of alpha acids in hops (the acid responsible for beer's bittery taste) Indie Hops and the OSU program are zeroed in on enhancing the beta acids—essential oils as they are also called—found in hops. These oils are what give beer its aromatic qualities, adding tasting notes like sandalwood or grapefruit.
Traditionally, there have been four main essential oils identified in hops, but Worthington says the OSU project has already expanded that number to 32 by the cross breeding of random varieties and experimenting with harvest times. Meaning, the beers made with these hops could have flavors brand new to craft brewing.
One part of that process requires less science and more human involvement through a technique called "rub and sniff" where evaluators crush the hop cone into their hand unlocking the aroma of the oil and discerning its properties.
"We are looking for varieties that really expand our palate," said Worthington. "Trained brewers can do a rub and sniff on the same hop and have different opinions. One man's lemon meringue is another brewer's cat pee. It can be that diverse."
Mitigating those differences requires volume.
"It's really important to get a nice panel of experts," said Worthington. "That's one of the reasons why I built Worthy Brewing. I want to pilot brew with these brand new genotypes. I want to bring together the brewers in Bend, Oregon, because Bend is a hot spot for really smart beer brewers and really smart beer lovers."
As a result, Worthington says the program is getting much closer to using these hops to finally make beer.
"If you have a trained snout, you can start to develop some opinions about that hop cone," explained Worthington. "Last year we did rub and sniffs on about 16 of 17 varieties of hops that we developed, and had the brewers rate them. And based on the data we have about five to 12 that we think have serious promise. This will be a big year because at the end of this year we should have enough to start small brew trials."
As an added benefit, these new hops varieties can then be patented. That's where the sustainability of the program comes into play. Indie Hops and OSU will hopefully share in the royalties of the new genomes, thus providing a funding mechanism to finance future development programs and cutting out the need for federal dollars to keep this kind of experimentation going.
And while that's a decidedly important side-effect to the work that's being done, Worthington is still most excited about the new aromas being creating within the hops and what that will mean for the future beers that brewers will craft from them.
"The bottom line is it comes down to oil," said Worthington. "Bitter is bitter, there's no real complexity to it. But with oils, that's where you get those interesting notes."