Saturday, May 19, 2012

What's Cooking in the USDA's Hop Kitchen? A Conversation with Head Hopster Dr. John Henning

Dr. John Henning
In Part 1, we talked about a proposal for creating a royalty-sharing program that could help strengthen the public’s hop breeding and research program.

In Part 2, we’ll take a look at what’s happening down in Corvallis at the USDA-ARS hop breeding and genetics program, which is run by Dr. John Henning. Dr. Henning has been managing the hop program since 1998 (CHECK THIS!).1996.

I called up Dr. Henning who was kind enough to give me a snapshot of what’s cooking. First, and this is cool, Dr. Henning reported that despite a shrinking budget he has about 50 crosses and 40,000 seedlings for this years breeding nursery. Within that “gene pool” he has a “seedless” Perle derivative, as yet unnamed, that has shown promise. Because of a downey powdery mildew invasion in the USDA greenhouses in Corvalliswhere his material was being evaluated a few years ago, most of his genetic material has been moved to WSU greenhouses in Pullman,located in Washington.

Dr. Henning is very excited about the “in kind” support the USDA has been receiving from farmers. The partnership has allowed him to “ramp up” the intensity of his benchwork research on crossing, propagating and selecting promising hop lines, without having to manage greenhouse and field trial operations. Unlike the Indie Hops-OSU breeding program, Dr. Henning’s focus is on both aroma and super alpha development, no small order.

I was curious about the process for “checking out” public and experimental hop varieties from the USDA germplasm repository in Corvallis. The repository contains clones of about 200 public varieties and 100 experimental lines. To be sure, unlike a public library, you can’t just walk in ask for rhizomes for your backyard garden. The purpose of the repository is to collect, preserve and distribute hop material to foster research.

Here’s a few questions I posed to Dr. Henning about the “in kind” support paradigm, the inside scoop on his Perle brainchild, and the stuff that keeps him motivated and up at night.

RGW: I just want to make sure I have this down right. The USDA does not supply germplasm to farmers for testing; rather, you provide rhizomes, or plantlets to select farmers who then propagate and grow them out? Does anyone outside of the parties who sign the MTA [Material Transfer Agreement] have knowledge of what's being tested or where?

JH: The USDA-ARS breeding program provides rhizomes of experimental lines directly to a grower or growers who are under contract (Material Transfer Agreement) to grow out said experimental lines for “On-Farm trials.” These growers are chosen by the respective State Hop Commissions (OHC and WHC) and Hop Research Council (HRC) to perform this function. Funding is typically provided the grower(s) to recompense them for their costs—in most cases this is around $6000 per acre. In all cases, State Commissions and members of Hop Research Council (HRC )(FOOTNOTE1) are fully aware of what experimental lines are put into those trials.

HRC members and State Commissions have made specific requests regarding which experimental lines they would like to see sponsored in “On-Farm” trials. USDA-ARS can also suggest experimental lines if not included on the list of lines HRC or State Commissions select for advanced testing. Finally, The USDA-National Clonal Germplasm Repository does not provide any experimental lines to growers, merchants, brewers or other researchers unless specifically requested by myself. Typically, this is done in cases where researchers from different countries and breeding programs have agreed to germplasm exchanges of important material. It is in this fashion that USDA-ARS was able to obtain true dwarf hop germplasm for genetic and breeding research—by agreeing to provide pollen from USDA-ARS hop male lines that were not released as well as a few publically released hop varieties such as Teamaker and Newport.

RGW: So you don’t hand pick the farmers for testing experimental lines?

JH: Correct. I don’t pick the growers. I use both WA and OR growers and these growers are selected by their respected State Hop Commissions and the HRC.

RGW: Can you tell us more about the Triploid Perle you’re working on? Has anyone pilot brewed with it?

JH: The information on Triploid Perle is contained within the HRC yellow book reports. The triploid Perle line is a true seedless hop, which is highly desirable as Perle is normally a prolific seed producer. It has somewhat of a higher alpha at 11-12 % with beta acids around 4- 5 %. Yields for this line are tremendous—potentially on par with some of the “supers” that are out there. In addition, it’s high in essential oils that give floral and citrus notes. Finally, it has oil content exceeding 1.5 ml per 100g of dried cone. OSU’s Fermentation Science program is the only “micro brewery” to pilot brew with it. I’m sure others would love to experiment with it but I only have had hops from a single plant at the moment. After tasting the single hop brew that Tom Shellhammer (OSU) made, several breweries have expressed an interest in it. Unfortunately, I went from a single hill to multi-hill plots in 2011 and plants were in their baby year last year. There should be sufficient hop this upcoming harvest for multiple pilot brews by HRC members. It’s being grown on 40 hill plots in both Oregon and Washington. These plots are being sponsored (financially) by HRC.

RGW: You read about the number of Oregon hop farmers declining over the past few decades. What are your ideas for keeping the Oregon hop industry vibrant?

JH: My mandate from Congress is to for keep theing USA hop industry vibrant, not just Oregon. With that in mind, my best contribution would be to continue developing superior germplasm and cultivars that allow US growers to outperform other nations and make a finished beer that tastes better than beer made from hops from other regions of the world. With this said, Oregon growers have been particularly hurt by the surplus of ‘Willamette’ that was grown in the past and which was stored. This surplus has resulted in a significant drop in acreage (6000 to 3000) that has not been replaced by another line yet.

As you know, Willamette is susceptible to fungal pathogens and a replacement is needed for growers and brewers. The USDA-ARS and WSU are working closely with HRC brewery members to develop and release a disease resistant, higher yielding aroma hop as a replacement for Willamette. It is highly likely that a new public hop variety (Such as Mt. Rainier or the Triploid Perle) will be chosen to replace Willamette when inventory of Willamette is used up. If this occurs, we would most likely see a dramatic improvement and vibrancy of the Oregon Hop industry, as well as in Washington and Idaho (both of which groew Willamette).

RGW: What research topics most invigorate you? What are you most passionate about? What's your "dream legacy?"

JH: That’s a tough question!! I’m multi-faceted in what invigorates me and gets me passionate. I would love to have the legacy that Dr. Haunold obtained by developing superior hop varieties that are grown to a great extent throughout USA. At the same time, I’m striving towards developing molecular marker systems that would enable breeders to be more precise in selection as well as speed up the selection process. Finally, I’m striving towards working with other renowned hop scientists to completely sequence the hop genome. To achieve all three of these goals would be my “dream legacy.”

RGW: What's the story on Mt. Raineer, which you released in 2006?in 2008? Who's growing it? What was your target or objective in developing the cross? What was the production in Oregon on Raineer last year, if you know?

JH: Mt. Rainier is a fine hop that hasn’t taken off yet. I see it as a victim of outside circumstances—mainly issues of supply and demand in nature. Just prior to the release of Mt. Rainier, there were two years of crop failures. This was followed by a dramatic increase in planting new hops (including Willamette here in USA and Halletauer Mittelfrue in Germany). The result of this dramatic increase in hop plantings resulted in a significant oversupply of hops and hop products. Mt. Rainier was released right after this huge oversupply of hops occurred and there was very little demand for hops--new or old. The production and distribution of Mt. Rainier was also hampered by the appearance of hop stunt viroid in 2008. To make a long story short, it was entered into the Clean Plant Network as soon as possible and if I’m not mistaken, will become available this year for limited distribution of cuttings. While it was in on-farm trials at John Annen’s [FOOTNOTE 2] farm (5 AC), it was distributed to several craft brewers.

From the limited responses I received back, it was viewed as an excellent hop on par with, and similar to, true Halletauer Mittelfrue grown in Germany. Unfortunately, there was a huge oversupply of Halletauer Mittelfrue that was being sold for ~$1.50 lb and brewers saw no reason to pay $3.50/lb for Mt. Rainier when they could buy Halletauer for $1.50/lb. When Mt Rainier was growing in the 5 AC plot at John Annen, he regularly obtained 12 bales per ac. He barely had to spray for downy mildew and never had to spray for powdery mildew. My target in developing this hop variety was one of developing an aroma line that was somewhat higher in alpha acids and was disease resistant with excellent yields and good pickability.

RGW: What is your worst fear about the future of Oregon hop f harm farming -- in terms of disease or pest invasion? What are you doing to anticipate and prevent major catastrophes? (Now that's a tall order!)

JH: In some sense, it’s already occurred. The hop stunt viroid has the potential for making hop farming extremely difficult both here in OR as well as WA and ID.

Furthermore, the potential advent of hop powdery mildew races that are “male AND female” as opposed to “either male OR female” and capable of mixing up genes from several races in the Pacific Northwest may make breeding hop lines resistant to powdery mildew extremely challenging. What this means is that new races of powdery mildew can arise quickly and overcome current plant resistance in hops found in such lines as Nugget or Newport.

Currently, I’m working on identifying molecular markers that will aid in selection for experimental lines that are resistant to both powdery and downy mildews. Once identified, these markers will help speed up the selection process as well as increase the accuracy of selection. I work closely with Dr. David Gent (USDA-ARS Plant Pathologist) in screening new breeding material for experimental lines that are resistant or highly tolerant to both pathogens. This is time-consuming, labor intensive and expensive doing things the old fashioned way—inoculate with the disease and visually chose resistant lines. We’ve had some success in developing new experimental lines that appear to have better “resistance packages” than currently grown varieties. These lines are working their way through the “breeding cycle” which can take upwards of 10 years before public release.

RGW – Thanks John. You’ve got a full plate. Naturally, I’m worried that hop research is being underfunded. I’ll take a look at the public funding of table and wine grapes, as an analogue to hops. My cursory research shows that the USDA-ARS budget for grapes has actually been increasing over the past few years, and is now up to over $15 million, with $2 millon dedicated to grape breeding and genetics alone. As we discussed in the last blog, the total USDA-ARS budget for hops is around $750,000, with only a fraction of that available for actual programmatic research.

I think it’s time to apply political pressure. A hearty collection of diseases could wipe out entire crops, and we haven’t even talked about pests. To keep up with an ever-changing battery of pests and diseases, we need a strong federal hops research program. And the last thing this industry needs is a concentration of breeding, growing, and processing muscle in one place. Wine grapes, for example, are grown in dozens of states and the USDA allocates funding to research facilities in 7 states.

More to come.

May 18, 2012

FOOTNOTE 1. Hop Research Council members include two craft brewers, Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada, and “industrials” such as Anheuser-Busch-Inbev, Heineken and Miller Coors. The HRC hop dealers include: Hopunion, Haas, Steiner, and Yakima Chief.

FOOTNOTE 2. John Annen is the Chair of the Oregon Hop Commission, which was created in 1964 to protect, serve and enhance the Oregon hop industry, as well as a hop grower and owner of Annen Farms.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The USDA-ARS Hop Research Program – A Modest Proposal for Creating a Sustainable Funding Loop

Check out hops from the National
Clonal Germplasm Repository in
Corvallis, Oregon
Part 1 of a 2 part series

Public funding of hop breeding and cultivar development is hardly a political priority. The budget for the USDA-ARS hop breeding program has remained frozen since 2000, at a scant $750,000 per year. Of that, when you factor in inflation, mandated program cutbacks, cost of living adjustments, maintenance and other costs, the amount of money actually available to perform research is a paltry $25-30,000 per year.

The mission, however, remains the same. Since the 1960s, the goal of the USDA-ARS hop program has been “to develop hop germplasm and cultivars that incorporate superior pest and disease resistance, increased yields and enhanced brewing characteristics.”

That’s a mighty big challenge on any budget, let alone one that is radically shrinking with no hope in sight for a fresh infusion of new public money from a tea party inspired Congress that is hell bent on dismantling basic scientific research.

Assuming that the public even has a compelling interest in nurturing the US hop industry (we think, of course, that it does), the question arises: if we can’t count on federal money, and private money is becoming more scarce, what can we do to rebuild our once robust USDA-ARS hop breeding program? How can we insure a sustainable funding stream?

It’s time to think creatively. Let’s break it down. There are at least four major players: 1) the USDA-ARS, which creates the germplasm, 2) the farmers, who grow and test the new hop lines, 3) the brewers who analyze the experimental lines for desirable characteristics, and 4) the private breeders, whose goal is to obtain patents on new hop varieties, license their patents to select growers, and maximize profit.

Under the current model, the USDA-ARS “partners” up with trustworthy farmers to grow out it’s germ lines. Right now the USDA has about 40,000 seedlings from about 50 crosses. To save money, the USDA distributes those plants for testing among growers in Oregon and Washington. The farmers’ costs are generally reimbursed by the Oregon Hop Commission and the Hop Research Council. Instead of cash, private growers and brewers, at least in theory, are asked to pony up “in kind” support.

Under this model, the USDA at least on paper maintains control of the experimental lines. Their legal vehicle for doing that is a “Material Transfer Agreement,” basically a contract between the USDA and the farmer. The MTA is an interesting document. On the one hand, it smartly restricts the grower from transferring the new lines to third parties and from disclosing data from the testing. Parenthetically, there is no budget or staffing for monitoring, inspection, or enforcement.

On the other hand, the MTA acknowledges that new hop lines conceivably could be transferred or shared with third parties, i.e., private breeders, if the farmer negotiated a written deal with the USDA.

Hmmm. This is a new program, only a few years old, so we don’t yet have an instance we know about in which a farmer, either directly or through a proxy, sought to commercial exploit a publically owned experimental hop line. Could it happen? Possibly. Will it happen? Maybe.

So when it does happen, how is the public’s interest going to be protected? Here’s where we need to think about the same mechanisms the federal government uses to extract royalties from oil, timber, cattle and pharmaceutical companies. The idea is for the USDA to negotiate a royalty fee whenever a private breeder intends to market, sell, license or otherwise “own” a new culitvar that’s the direct result of the USDA program.

Think about it. The future of public hop funding is bleak. In the past 12 years, we’ve released two varieties (Newport in 2002 and Mt. Raineer in 2008). Meanwhile, private breeders have been churning out the big bread winners, such as Citra® and Simcoe®. I’m not saying that the breeders behind either of those “homers” had it’s snout in the public trough. They bred great hops, took a big risk, invested a lot of time and money, and won in the marketplace. They should be rewarded.

But what about the future? New and valuable cultivars will emerge from the present USDA/private farmer partnership. In my view, in order to build a sustainable funding loop, the USDA can and should negotiate a co-ownership interest that reflects the value of its contribution. Moreover, it can and should negotiate terms that will bind the private co-owner to license the hop with growers according to fair and transparent criteria.

How much money could this type of model generate? I’m just spitballing here, but the numbers look … meaningful. Take a look at the 2011 US harvest: about 65 million pounds of hops. Of that, about 14.6 million were proprietary hops (not counting Summit, Amarillo and a few others), or about 22% of all hops grown. If, and this is a big if, those proprietary hops emerged from publically owned hop germplasm, and/or were the result of some measure of public funding, and the average price per pound was set hypothetically at $5.00/lb, and we applied only a nominal 5% royalty, then the USDA would be looking at revenue of over $3.5 million per year. That’s almost 5 times more than the entire current budget.

Look, I don't know nothing about nothing, but it seems to me that the people should get a return on their investment. And, in turn, that financial return can and should be reinvested in a fortified basic and applied hop research budget. The US consumer’s appetite for new hops is growing. The demand is there, and so is the treasure. Now it’s up to the USDA to assert itself as a major stakeholder and get back at least some of what we give.

May 10, 2012

P.S. And by the way, in terms of the public’s interest, don’t forget that we’ve barely scratched the surface on the neutraceutical and cancer-fighting potential of humulus lupulus.