Bit­ter har­vest

Meet the Motueka plant ge­neti­cist who’s helped breed new hop cul­ti­vars now in de­mand from brew­eries and beer afi­ciona­dos all over the world.


Motueka-bred hops are now in de­mand all over the world.

Dr Ron Beat­son is a man happy to talk about hops. “Oh, I could talk about hops all day,” says the plant ge­neti­cist who has headed up the Plant & Food Re­search hop breed­ing pro­gramme from its Motueka site since 1984. “Peo­ple just like work­ing with hops. In fact, we of­ten talk about ‘happy hops’ be­cause peo­ple like work­ing with hops so much. We should re­search the plant’s anti-anx­i­ety prop­er­ties.”

Peo­ple have been grow­ing hops – and us­ing them to make beer – for hun­dreds of years. The old­est recorded food stan­dard is the Rein­heits­ge­bot, or Ger­man beer pu­rity law, which states that beer can only be made us­ing hops, malt and wa­ter. It was passed in the 16th cen­tury.

But we’re only just start­ing to un­der­stand the po­ten­tial of this plant, Ron says. “I think it is one of the most un­der­utilised plants grown. Some­times it an­noys me that cannabis seems to get all the sci­en­tific at­ten­tion.”

Cannabis and hops are closely re­lated; both mem­bers of the hemp fam­ily (Cannabaceae). Botan­i­cally they are very sim­i­lar too, Ron says, although Hu­mu­lus lu­pus is a vine whereas Cannabis sativa is a free-stand­ing plant. “And hops is le­gal to grow, of course,” he adds. In the gar­den, hops is a peren­nial herb, the rhi­zome un­der ground be­hav­ing as a peren­nial, with veg­e­ta­tive growth shoot­ing up in spring and dy­ing back in win­ter. It’s lat­i­tude sen­si­tive, do­ing best be­tween 40oS and 48oS (Nel­son, cen­tre of com­mer­cial hop pro­duc­tion in New Zealand, is 41oS), and it is the short­en­ing of day length that trig­gers flow­er­ing and the for­ma­tion of the hop cones. Hops are dioe­cious, mean­ing they have male and fe­male flow­ers on sep­a­rate plants, and it is the ma­ture fe­male in­flo­res­cence for which the plant is grown.

On the in­flo­res­cence are glan­du­lar hairs, tech­ni­cally known as tri­chomes, and on those is a sticky yel­low pollen-like sub­stance known as lupulin. And it is that which con­tains most of hops’ ac­tive in­gre­di­ents. “The glan­du­lar hairs con­tain all the good­ies you want for brew­ing,” Ron says. “Cannabis sativa is the same, it is the tri­chomes that con­tain the com­pounds peo­ple want. And in both it’s the fe­male plants that pro­duce the most.”

Sci­en­tists are not sure why the hops plant started to pro­duce chem­i­cal com­pounds, Ron says. “We think it was for pro­tec­tion, as a nat­u­ral de­fence mech­a­nism.”

But hops ended up pro­duc­ing three chem­i­cal groups that are im­por­tant in brew­ing: al­pha acids, which make beer bit­ter and which have an­ti­sep­tic qual­i­ties; beta acids, which have an­ti­sep­tic qual­i­ties; and essen­tial oils, which im­part aroma and flavour.

To be­gin with, it was the an­ti­sep­tic qual­i­ties that in­ter­ested brew­ers. “Orig­i­nally hops was added to beer be­cause its an­tibac­te­rial prop­er­ties stopped the beer spoil­ing,” Ron says. “But then they re­alised it also changed the flavour.”

How hops change the flavour how­ever, de­pends on when you add them. The al­pha acids are not bit­ter them­selves, Ron says, but dur­ing the brew­ing process, they are heated, which con­verts them to iso-al­pha acids

“Hops has huge po­ten­tial. It is one of the most un­der­utilised plants grown. Some­times it an­noys me cannabis seems to get all the sci­en­tific at­ten­tion.”

which then give beer its bit­ter taste. So if you add the hops at the be­gin­ning of the brew­ing process, the bit­ter flavours come through and other flavours from the volatile essen­tial oils are burned off. Whereas if you add hops later, you get the “hoppy” flavours and aro­mas com­ing through, thanks to the oils.

Ron started work­ing with hops al­most ac­ci­den­tally. Do­ing his PhD in the United States, he re­ceived a study grant from DSIR (which has now be­come Plant & Food), which meant when he re­turned to New Zealand he went to work for the crown re­search or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Ron had been work­ing in ki­wifruit but the head of the Motueka-based hop pro­gramme, Dr Rudi Roborgh, was about to re­tire, so it was sug­gested Motueka-born Ron might like to work on hops.

Rudi had spent years im­prov­ing on hops’ dis­ease re­sis­tance, splic­ing the Euro­pean dis­ease-re­sis­tant cul­ti­vars into the Amer­i­can va­ri­eties which were high pro­duc­ing but sus­cep­ti­ble to a phy­toph­thora known as black root rot.

But Ron de­cided to take the hop breed­ing pro­gramme in a new di­rec­tion, con­cen­trat­ing on flavour. And when the craft brew­ing boom started in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a move­ment to­wards flavour­driven beers, such as IPAs, which de­mand hops that de­liver aroma and flavour rather than bit­ter­ness. Luck­ily enough, there were the hop cul­ti­vars de­vel­oped by Ron and his team which had un­usual fruity flavours of cit­rus, trop­i­cal fruit, pas­sion­fruit and even stone fruit.

New Zealand hops are now in de­mand glob­ally. While we pro­duce a small per­cent­age of the world’s crop, ex­ports have in­creased four-fold in the last 15 years to about $20 mil­lion a year, and are ex­pected to dou­ble in three to five years. “We were ahead of the game,” Ron says mod­estly.

Plant & Food are still look­ing for new hop stars. Ron’s team con­tin­ues to make about 50 new hop crosses a year, pro­duc­ing be­tween 2000 and 3000 seedlings. The best are grown on for a cou­ple of years, then eval­u­ated for com­mer­cial po­ten­tial.

And how do you eval­u­ate hops you may ask? By mak­ing it into beer, of course. For the last four years there has been a mi­cro­brew­ery – the Hop Lab – at Plant & Food’s Motueka site. It pro­duces ex­per­i­men­tal beers us­ing dif­fer­ent hop se­lec­tions which are eval­u­ated by in­dus­try ex­perts. Promis­ing hop cul­ti­vars are then passed on to the in­dus­try to grow and trial.

Fancy plant­ing a few vines for your own home­brew? Ron has a few words of warn­ing. Be­fore hops are used in brew­ing, they go through a com­plex dry­ing process. “So I usu­ally say, grow a few plants for in­ter­est, but buy hops from your home­brew store! The qual­ity will be way bet­ter.”

Sci­en­tist – at Plant & Food and else­where – are also look­ing into this plant’s non-beer ap­pli­ca­tions. “Com­pounds found in cannabis are be­ing stud­ied as a po­ten­tial drug for epilepsy, as a treat­ment for Parkinson’s dis­ease. Hops has very sim­i­lar com­pounds, yet there would be a thou­sand times more re­search on cannabis than on hops. It is not a well-re­searched plant.”

But Plant & Food has al­ready dis­cov­ered a com­pound in hops that ac­ti­vates what is called the “bit­ter break” (an evo­lu­tion­ary mech­a­nism that re­duces ap­petite when we eat some­thing bit­ter) and that is al­ready on the mar­ket as a weight man­age­ment sup­ple­ment. Else­where there is re­search into hops’ po­ten­tial anti-can­cer prop­er­ties, and whether it is a pos­si­ble treat­ment for di­a­betes.

But while that work goes on, there is still in­ter­est – purely sci­en­tific, you un­der­stand – in mak­ing a bet­ter beer. “I do think I have the best job in New Zealand,” Ron ad­mits. “That’s why I’m re­luc­tant to re­tire!”

Dr Ron Beat­son, along with beer writer Ge­off Griggs, is giv­ing two work­shops on hops as part of Ra­paura Springs Gar­den Marl­bor­ough from Novem­ber 8-11.

‘Ko­hatu’ ‘Motueka’ ‘Ri­waka’

‘Nel­son Sau­vin’

‘Pa­cific Jade’


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