Cornell AgriTech launches hops breeding program

A $300,000 investment from New York state has paved the way for a new hops breeding program at Cornell AgriTech, which will grow and develop signature New York hops varieties – selected for high yield, preferred flavors and disease resistance – in support of the state’s $3.4 billion craft brewing industry.

The program – to be led by Larry Smart, professor of horticulture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – will integrate AgriTech expertise to help the state’s hops growers overcome breeding and disease-management challenges.

Craft brewing is one of the fastest growing segments of New York’s craft beverage industry, with more than 440 licensed breweries across the state. The industry contributes 20,000 full-time jobs and produces 1.2 million barrels of craft beer annually.

Cornell impacting New York State

But as the industry has grown, so too has the demand from consumers for locally sourced craft beers with a unique flavor profiles. And under current terms of the state’s 2013 farm brewing law, in order to receive a farm brewery license, no less than 60% of a brewery’s hops and 60% of all other ingredients must be grown in New York state.

 New York craft breweries struggle to keep up with these demands, due to in part to a lack of access to New York-developed hops varieties.

“Quirky hop varieties are all the rage to today’s craft beer consumer,” said Rick Pedersen ’81, owner of Pedersen Farms, which produces hops for a number of Finger Lakes breweries. “Consumers want ‘new and different,’ and this is why a hops breeding program is needed in New York state.”

New York growers have tried to produce hops varieties that are popular in other regions of the U.S., but have found that many don’t do well here due to their susceptibility to common diseases, such as downy mildew and powdery mildew.

“Securing this program on the Geneva campus specifically was a must,” said Pedersen, who helped lobby for the state funding with fellow members of the Hop Growers of New York, Inc. “Cornell AgriTech is already a hub for craft beverage expertise and has a long history of breeding fruit and vegetable varieties that work for New York’s climate.”

Smart will focus the breeding program’s early efforts on accumulating hop germplasm, and is working on acquiring some of the newest commercial releases in the U.S. for the collection. He also is securing seed and pollen for cross-breeding with both established and feral New York hop varieties.

Smart’s priorities in the program include breeding for resistance to downy mildew and powdery mildew, as well as improved yields. He will work closely with hops breeding team members who specialize in disease resistance, including Sarah Pethybridge, associate professor of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology; Chris Smart, professor of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology; and Frank Hay, senior extension associate of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology.

Larry Smart also will tap into expertise from the Cornell Craft Beverage Institute (CCBI), at Cornell AgriTech, to identify suitable flavor profiles for the New York craft beer industry and ideal varieties for New York growers.

“I think craft beverages are most successful and consumers are most engaged when there is a unique sense of place expressed,” said Chris Gerling ’99, M.S. ’07, senior extension associate at CCBI. “We’ve gained the most traction with products that suit New York as opposed to imitations of what works in other places. This breeding program will play a crucial role in providing hops to help brewers further demonstrate our own regional strengths and our own preferred styles.”

Smart will ensure that any new hop varieties the program develops are offered to New York growers first, through Cornell’s Center for Technology Licensing, although the development and release of new varieties could take several years.

“I’m excited that CALS has the opportunity to fulfill this critical need for the industry,” Smart said. “To make good beer, you need both barley and hops. With our new efforts in hop breeding to complement the successful CALS barley breeding program and expertise from the CCBI, we see a strong future for craft brewing in New York.”

Erin Rodger is senior manager of marketing and communications at Cornell AgriTech.

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Lindsey Knewstub