Major boost for UK hops industry

Hop field

A pioneering collaborative project between University of Kent researchers and Wye Hops alongside National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB)the British Hop AssociationThe Hop Plant Company and LGC genomics has been awarded over half a million pounds by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to develop environmentally resilient ‘super hop’ varieties.  

The £574k five-year project will involve  Dr Helen Cockerton, Industrial Research Fellow at the School of Biosciences, working closely with Hop Breeder, Dr Klara Hajdu, 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 £10 billion 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. 

There is huge potential for UK-grown hops – of which 50% are grown in county Kent – to regain a leading status within the UK brewing industry but to do so, hop growers need to overcome a series of major challenges. Verticillium wilt, the number one disease threatening UK hop production, is currently untreatable and able to kill entire hop gardens. Extreme heat and droughts are also becoming more commonplace in the UK.   

This new project aims to provide a solution to these challenges and supply UK breweries with high quality, sustainably produced, local hops. Dr Cockerton will contribute a wealth of expertise in genetic informed breeding to the project. This technique has advantages over traditional breeding as it enables scientists to use their understanding of a crop’s DNA to select varieties which, when bred together, will produce varieties with desirable traits, such as drought or pest resistance. This is one of the first hop breeding programmes in the world to use this approach. 

Dr Cockerton said, ‘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.’ 

Dr Hajdu added, ‘Through this collaboration we are not only addressing important issues such as the development of climate resilient British hop varieties but also re-establishing a dynamic, research-driven hop breeding programme capable of future proofing the UK hop and brewing industries in the face of evolving challenges.’       

This project is funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) Farming Innovation Programme and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Transforming Food Production challenge whichfunds ambitious research and development projects to overcome production barriers and create a more productive and sustainable sector.