The real test, the real magic, in what breeders do, lies in what happens between the greenhouse and the growler. They’ve designed a new hop. Sure enough it survived in the field, no matter how small. But will it be any good? If no one wants to brew with it, or, more to the point, drink that brew, what good is said hop even if it is, say, tolerant to Prunus necrotic ring-spot virus or boasts beneficially low cohumulone?
In working with commercial brewers, breeders obtain feedback on whether they’re building the next Rolling Stones or the next Milli Vanilli. And just like it takes a major record label to really support a band and turn them into rock stars, typically only larger regional breweries pony up to support growing experimental hops and see if they have something worthy of the top of the charts, or trellis as the case may be.
Widmer Bros. Brewing brewmaster Joe Casey said John I. Haas, Inc, now part of the Hop Breeding Co., approached him in late 2007 with an experimental strain created by their breeder, Gene Probasco, back in 1990, simply numbered 114. “We subsequently dubbed it ‘X-114’ inside the walls of Widmer.” Its mother was a comely Hallertauer mittelfrueh and its father was a U.S. Tettnanger on the prowl. The bouncing offspring displayed notes of citrus as well as tropical fruits like lychee and papaya.
Widmer didn’t get to play with it exclusively, since it was co-funded by Sierra Nevada and Deschutes as well. But Casey did brew with it and entered that beer into the 2008 World Beer Cup, where it promptly earned a gold medal. Convinced he had a winner on his hands, the brewery signed a five-year contract to keep them in steady supply. Having said that, contracts are generally tied to a varietal, but given a year or two’s notice, that can be swapped for a new one in case something sexier comes along.
At that same time, Sierra Nevada paid to play with three acres of this hop—a relatively tiny amount—that has proven to be a worthy investment. Moving forward, before it became trademarked, the Hop Breeding Co. started using the moniker HBC 394. Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman said, “You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. Breeders don’t do this for free.”