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Scientists in search for sustainable super hops

Hop breeders and scientists have been awarded £0.5m for a five-year project aimed at protecting the British pint.

Wye Hops will lead the project with the University of Kent on “genetic informed breeding to create hop varieties which are more resilient to drought, pests and diseases”.   

Hops give beer its distinct aroma, flavour and bitterness and are an essential ingredient in the UK’s £10bn brewing industry. The UK was once the leading supplier of the industry’s hops but when lighter pale ales and Indian ales became fashionable in the 1800s, UK growers struggled to compete against foreign competitors, especially when UK hops were falsely purported to be of inferior quality. 

Now, there is considerable potential for UK-grown hops – of which 50% are grown in Kent – to regain a leading status within the UK brewing industry. However, hop growers need to overcome a series of major challenges. These include Verticillium wilt – the number one disease threatening UK hop production, which is currently untreatable and able to kill entire hop gardens – as well as extreme heat and droughts resulting from climate change.

Asahi CEO Atsushi Katsuki recently warned that beer could be facing an existential crisis: the French harvest is forecast to decline 10%, that in Poland by 9% and the quality of hops in the Czech Republic by 13%, Katsuki told the FT. And that is under the global heating scenario of below 2°C (which is looking ambitious). “There is a risk that we may not be able to produce enough beer,” he said.

The new hops project – also involving National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), the British Hop Association, The Hop Plant Company and LGC genomics – is aiming to provide a solution to these challenges and supply UK breweries with “high quality, sustainably produced, local hops”. 

One focus will be on ‘genetic informed’ breeding, which the scientists said has advantages over traditional breeding. This is not gene editing, Helen Cockerton, a research fellow from the University of Kent, told Footprint. “We are using marker assisted breeding and genomic selection – so [we will only use] natural breeding processes. [However], we use information from the DNA inside the plant to inform the selection of the breeding parents.”

Hop breeder Klara Jajdu from Wye Hops will lead the work, partnering with academics to select varieties which, when bred together, will produce varieties with desirable traits, such as drought or pest resistance. “The tools we will develop through this project will enable us to generate better hops faster than we could achieve through using traditional approaches alone,” said Cockerton.

The project is funded by the Defra farming innovation programme and UK Research and the Innovation (UKRI) Transforming Food Production challenge.


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