The Seeds of Something New: An Interview with Hop Breeder Michael Ferguson

Tim Kostelecky recently sat down with Michael Ferguson, hop breeder for John I. Haas in Yakima. They discussed this year’s hop harvest and the HBC experimental varieties under evaluation—many of which are brewed and also sensory-tested at the Haas Innovations Brewery. The Hop Breeding Company (HBC) is a joint venture between Haas and Select Botanicals LLC and has developed some amazing hops, including Citra®, Mosaic®, and EkuanotTM.

Tim Kostelecky: Now that harvest is complete, I know you’ve had some time to go over the data for the HBC experimental varieties. What’s your general impression of how the crop went—and did you get any insights into which cultivars you’d like to move forward?

Michael Ferguson: In general, our current elite experimental hop varieties have performed to our expectations. We are always cautiously optimistic at this early stage of development, as we have relatively few data points. In order to gain confidence, we observe a new variety on multiple locations and slowly increase scale. As we observe a new variety over multiple years and farm locations, we get a more firm grasp of variety performance. This is critical, both for the brewer and grower. We have a few experimental selections which have reached a point to where we are expanding their scale to further determine commercial suitability.

We’ve been particularly impressed with HBC 438, 586, and 692—which are big, bold IPA hops—and HBC 353, an experimental more attuned for a classic lager. We’re also making good progress with HBC 682, a high-alpha bittering hop. All of these are some of the more established, what we call “elite” hops, that are gaining traction, and some with the potential of being commercialized in the coming years.

Tim: In your breeding program, what characteristics are you looking for in potential hop varieties? It seems like the spectrum of flavor is constantly expanding—is it hard to know where to focus?

Michael: I agree that there are a lot of choices now, and there’s certainly a greater range of flavors than ever before. Brewers are always looking for something unique. Just a few years ago, I couldn’t imagine hops with pineapple, coconut, and woody, barrel-aged effects in beer. I’m sure there are still more surprises on the horizon.

When we do see some uniquely flavored hops, we never know how they will perform agronomically until they’ve been expanded and matured beyond the small experimental plots. And it’s frustrating to get excited about a particular hop only to see it perform poorly in the fields. Any time, though, that happens to a particularly intriguing hop, we try to use the strain for cross-breeding purposes, to see if it might get better agronomical performance with intriguing flavors.

Tim: You mentioned coconut and barrel-aged effect…that’s HBC 472, right? Can you talk a little bit about what’s happening with that variety?

Michael: Yes, that’s created quite a buzz in the past couple of years because of the amazing flavor character it gives to beer. Virgil McDonald, our master brewer here at the Haas Innovations Brewery, thought he made some sort of mistake the first time he brewed with 472. It was crazy—the coconut and woody, barrel-aged notes—Virgil told me he’d never seen that from a hop before. He figured it was coming from fermentation or some other source. But batch after batch, he consistently got these flavors, and it was corroborated by other brewers that have tested it as well. HBC 472 has yet to prove itself as far as sustainability (particularly yield), but we’ve see some great potential from one of its siblings, HBC 438, and a daughter of 438, HBC 692.

Tim: Looks like a pretty successful genetic line. Can you explain how these family ties work in hop breeding…siblings and daughters and such?

Michael: When a cross is made in hop breeding, we take the pollen from one selected male to pollinate the hop flowers of a female when it’s in the receptive or the “burr” stage. Once the pollinated hop flowers have matured into hop cones, we take the seeds and germinate them. Each one of the seedlings from that cross are “siblings”. They are genetically similar but with very different characteristics and personalities. Each seedling is a potential new hop variety. HBC 472 and 438 are sisters from the same cross. We then used HBC 438 as a cross with another selected male hop and collected the seeds, which are her sons and daughters. It’s the females, or daughters, we’re interested in for brewing, and HBC 692 is one of those daughters.

Tim: So, do HBC 438 and 692 share many of the same flavor characters as 472?

Michael: Not exactly, but beers made with HBC 438 do show the family traits of coconut and tropical, but with a somewhat unique combination. We’ve also seen some difference in the citrus descriptions from the beer, sometimes with a bit of tangerine-like flavor in the background.

HBC 438 provides the most complex flavors that I’ve tasted in a beer, when flavor is solely derived from hops. I believe it is a worthy candidate of being the spotlight ingredient in a single-hop beer—not many varieties are balanced enough to make that work. There are bold aromas and flavors, but also a plethora of subtleties and depth. A good friend of mine was visiting during harvest and tasted the Haas HBC 438 beer we had on tap; he described it as “mind bending.”

Tim:  I guess that’s the type of response you’re ultimately looking for. Congratulations on the find. Is HBC 438 a good candidate for commercialization? Looks like it has some traction.

Michael: It’s a great hop with great potential of ultimately being released as a new named variety. We’ll see how it progresses in the coming months as we get even more feedback from brewers trying it out. I can’t help but be optimistic after seeing the positive response we’re getting with 438. A hop like that makes all our breeding and brewing efforts worthwhile.

For more information about HBC 438, please contact your Barth-Haas Group representative.

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John I. Haas, Inc.
1600 River Road
Yakima, WA 98902


John I. Haas, Inc.
5185 MacArthur Blvd. N.W. Suite 300
Washington, DC 20016
+ 1-202-777-4800