Aroma Hops Breeding Program develops, grows new Strata Hop

Shaun Townsend, assistant professor, senior research of crop and soil, stands in his greenhouse with a strata hop that was planted this past summer. 

By: Keana Pigg Practicum Contributor

OSU partners with Indie Hops to introduce sensory-complex IPA craft beer.

The award-winning hop, known as Strata for its layered skunky resinous aroma, has been in the Oregon State University Hops Breeding pipeline since early 2009 and now has brewers, craft beer lovers and distributors waiting for more of it.  

OSU’s Aroma Hops Breeding Program contributes to the university’s recognition of being the state’s largest public research institution and is close to releasing its first hop variety this winter. 

The Aroma Hops Breeding Program, directed by Dr. Shaun Townsend, assistant professor, senior research of crop and soil science, is a breeding program for hops, a commodity principally used in the beer-brewing process, according to Townsend.

“The main goal of the breeding program is to develop new aroma hop varieties that are desired by the craft beer industry and suited to Oregon growing conditions,” Townsend said via email. “The Aroma Hops Breeding Program is a partnership between Indie Hops and OSU.”

According to Townsend, Indie Hops is an Oregon-based hops merchant that serves the craft beer industry.

Principal owners of Indie Hops, Roger Worthington and Jim Solberg, both grew up in Corvallis. After years of working in asbestos litigation and as a Nike executive, respectively, the two old friends decided to get into the hops business in 2008, according to Worthington.

“We decided we didn’t want to simply grow what everyone was growing,” Worthington said. “We wanted to help invent new hops and Oregon State and USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has an illustrious history of being on the front end of innovation for new hops going back to the ‘70s with Dr. Alfred Haunold.”

According to Worthington, Haunold developed 18 varieties of hops from household names such as Willamette, Cascades, Horizon and Sterling throughout his 30-year career with the USDA-OSU hop breeding program. There was a release from the program of a hop called Raineer in about 1999, but it had never gained much traction with brewers, so it was the only hop to have been released in the past 20 years or so.

“We (Indie Hops) thought we would give $1 million to Oregon State and sort of jump-start the Hop Breeding Program, which was running out of public money and running out of private donations or sponsorships,” Worthington said. “So one of the first things we started working on through Shaun Townsend and the faculty there at Oregon State and student body was a hop that Shaun had his eye on. It was a hop that had been growing in a yard, which turned out to be an open pollinated Perle.”

Due to this donation, in 2010, Townsend established a field nursery from the seed that he had collected, and soon identified a promising genotype.

“I selected the experimental genotype 9-1-331 in 2011,” Townsend said via email. “And after extensive testing for agronomic traits and brewing potential at Corvallis, and two Willamette valley commercial hop farms, X331 (as we informally called it) was named Strata and targeted for release. Strata also appears in packaged beers brewed by Fort George, Base Camp, Sierra Nevada and Odell, to name only a few.”

According to Worthington, it is about a 10-to-12-year process from the day a male and female are crossed to the day there is something that is commercially valuable to brewers. Worthington also mentioned that Oregon is an ideal location for aroma hops to grow. In fact, Oregon ranks second in the United States in hops production valued at $65 million in 2016, according to an OSU extension webpage.

The Strata Hop grew on 10 acres last year and produced enough material for brewers to get a chance to brew with it. In fact, Worthington owns a brewing company and restaurant in Bend, Oregon known as “Worthy Brewing”, and launched a Strata IPA in 22-ounce bottles, according to Worthington.

“We entered the Strata IPA into a competition in Portland for the Oregon Beer Awards and in the Hoppy Session IPA category,” Worthington said. “It won a gold medal and we are really pleased with that because we only used one hop so it’s a one-hop wonder, most IPAs use five to seven hop varieties to get that balance.

According to Townsend, the Strata hop was chosen for its sensory complexity and outstanding agronomic performance. Both the Strata hop and IPA are described as having various tropical fruit notes, citrus notes and dank notes similar to that of cannabis. This achievement couldn’t have been done without everyone involved in the process.

“It wasn’t just one guy or one group,” Worthington said. “It was Oregon State. It was Indie Hops. It was a bunch of farmers, and it was a bunch of students and graduate students, and it was a bunch of brewers.”

In fact, the Aroma Hops Breeding Program has contributed to the learning and success for multiple students at OSU, including Mandie Driskill, a horticulture major with an emphasis in plant breeding and genetics.

“This internship is huge for me because it has given me hands-on experience that a professional breeder would need to know and perform,” Driskill said via email. “I have performed many roles and duties that Shaun would do as a breeder himself because he believes in giving his interns real-life experience.”

A former intern, Brooke Getty, now a graduate student with a Master of Science in Crop Science and with an option in plant breeding and genetics from OSU, has a similar experience as Driskill when it comes to working with the program. As an intern and graduate student she helped with the evolution of Strata, as well as with field work and with the research process such as screening and testing for vigor, yield and rating disease, according to Getty.

“Working in the Aroma Hop Breeding Program as a student has allowed me step out of the walls of class and apply my education to prepare me for plant breeding as a career,” Getty said via email. “There is no better way to learn than out in the field with the plants. The program helped me solidify foundational plant breeding principles by taking on projects and responsibilities.” 

According to Townsend, he mentors students and advertises for help when he needs it, moreso during the growing season. Outside of developing the new hop for market, Townsend tasks his program with important hop-breeding research.

“My program is primarily tasked with variety and germplasm development, but I do explore the genetic basis for traits of interest,” Townsend said. “Some of this work is in collaboration with the USDA hops program.  We’ve also investigated harvest timing and how that influences the brewing profile, mutation breeding, and I’ll be investigating the inheritance and co-inheritance of many essential oil components this winter.”

Townsend is currently working on the plant patent that will protect the hops variety. Indie Hops has contracted 70 acres of land to produce and meet demand for the hop. They hope to have enough at the end of the 2018 season to start canning Strata IPA into 12oz cans, according to Worthington. 

“I would love to introduce the hop to as many students as possible who are of drinking age and get them inspired about the importance of dreaming,” Worthington said. “We started with a dream, Jim and I, and then one day we had a hop that we helped invent with Oregon State and it took about eight years to get there, but this dream is coming true.”

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