The Hop Father
Wednesday 06 December 2017
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If hops are the rock stars of the US-inspired craft beer world, Jason Perrault of Select Botanicals Group is undoubtedly its Brian Epstein. Not only is he the man behind Mosaic – showcased in our single hop IPA this month – he also played a key role in the development and commercialisation of many other iconic varieties including Citra, Simcoe, Warrior and Ekuanot. Ferment caught up with Jason to discuss the art and science of hop breeding.
Ferment: Your name appears beside many of the best-loved hop varieties in craft. How did you get where you are today?
Jason: First and foremost, it’s my passion. It’s something I’ve grown up with and have always really enjoyed. That said, it’s really taken a lot of different people to develop these varieties. I had the pleasure of working with Chuck Zimmerman for a number of years, who made the original crosses for our breeding programme at Select Botanicals. I worked alongside him as we selected varieties such as Simcoe, Palisade, Warrior. That’s really how I learned, working with him on those varieties. Not just the science, but an appreciation of the art of breeding hops.
Then, later on in my career I had the pleasure of working with Gene Probasco, another very prolific hop breeder. Citra was one of his varieties, and I worked alongside him when that was being commercialised in the 2000s. And in subsequent years I’ve worked alongside the team at Select Botanicals as we’ve selected varieties such as Mosaic and Ekuanot. So more than anything it’s been a great team effort over the years.
Ferment: Tell me more about the art side of that equation.
Jason: As you design crosses and pick parents there’s obviously data you look at to help you guide that decision making process. But there’s also those things you can’t really explain very easily; intuition about the direction we should go. The art really comes in during the selection process. When you go out and walk those fields and look at the hops, that gives you a true understanding of the plant: what it should look like internally, how they might behave in different conditions. You can’t make those kind of judgements through a purely objective lens. And then there’s the truly subjective factors such as aromatic quality; the ability to find that and select for it out in the field is a really gratifying part of the job.
Ferment: That process can take a very long time though?
Jason: Absolutely. Selection is a decade-long process of continually stepping through these different rounds of screening and vetting. It takes about ten years from the initial cross to when we have a variety ready for release. That starts a whole new process, commercialisation, where you hope you’ve done everything correctly and you’ve got a real winner on your hands. If you’ve done that correctly, the new variety should be pulled into the market, rather than you having to push on it. I’ve learned over time that you begin to feel that pull early on. If you don’t start to feel that pull before release, if it’s not generating excitement among the brewers, then you’re probably going to have a challenge getting it commercialised.
That’s not to say it won’t be successful, just that it might take a bit longer. In this respect, we were very fortunate with Mosaic, because it emerged onto the market just as we were beginning to see this high volume of IPAs and other very hop-forward beers. Citra, which came before it, took much longer to gain traction simply because there wasn’t as much demand for that style of hop. Luckily, we had enough of a specialised following that it stuck around long enough to enjoy the growth in IPAs.
Ferment: That must be tough, constantly having to look ten years into the future?
Jason: Well, that’s another piece where that art comes into play. Over the years, I came to appreciate keeping plants around that may not have a place in the world at that point, but for whatever reason there was something about them that I found intriguing or attractive. Then who knows, maybe that’s something I can bring back at a later time and it will find success. Much of the material we have now that we’re breeding with or selecting for advancement has been around for a while.
Ferment: And the craft movement has changed what people are looking for?
Jason: People are asking for new flavours all the time now, which definitely makes the work even more exciting. When I first started about 20 years ago, we were primarily breeding for efficiency. Aroma breeding was not just a secondary thought, it was considered nearly impossible to get anything like that accepted. We had very few smaller customers we were targeting; they were all large multinational brewers. As craft took off that changed things, and all those characteristics that we loved as breeders suddenly became relevant. As craft and the idea of being hop-forward spreads to new styles, that adds this new element to the selection process. It means we can select for characteristics that will complement specific styles.
Ferment: As that’s happened, have things like efficiency and resistance to pests and disease become less important?
Jason: Yield and robustness are still very much in the front of my mind – they’re critical. However, if you have something exceptionally unique and innovative, we may look at yield as a secondary factor and say “the concept itself is innovative enough”. Yield is fundamentally a breeding issue, so if we can pursue the concept, meanwhile breeding for better yield and other factors, then we’re on the right track.
Ferment: Hops are so important to craft beer right now, but do you see them staying pre-eminent in the long term?
Jason: I think hops will stay at the forefront, yes. I’m not saying yeast won’t have its day to shine too though; what I think we’ll see is more of an understanding of the interaction between yeast and hops. What we’re able to see and understand about dry-hopping in the presence of yeast, and how that biotransformation impacts on the beer, and what different flavours and aromas we can achieve through interactions like that. I think that’s going to be more important in the future than, say, picking one ingredient over the other.
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