Free the Hops!

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Of the four ingredients in beer, hops are the New World’s contribution. It seems rather fitting then, that North America has its economic paws allll over hops. Trademarks, patents, royalties – how are these business-y things having their way with our beloved hops? It must be big beer’s fault!

I understand why you’d want to make hops proprietary – it takes time, effort and money to painstakingly develop a new hop, test it eight ways to Sunday, and devote acreage to propagating it. It can take 15-20 years before any money starts coming in, and then on only a fraction of your experiments. But do you really need 20 years of royalties to recoup that investment? Off the backs of your growers and the lovely brewers who exalt your wonder-hop? C’mon, only big beer would do such a greedy thing.

Experimental breeding has brought us wonder-hops that can do it all: higher yields, greater alpha acid content (meaning fewer hops are required per batch), plus increased bitterness and aromatics. But why aren’t these wonder-hops available royalty-free like the US Department of Agriculture-developed varieties are? Are the USDA the heroes here?

Bloody big beer – hosing the little guy again!

Oh, hang on… It was Anheuser-Busch who encouraged the USDA to breed new hop varieties – the very same hops that the USDA lets anyone grow, royalty-free. Dr. Al Haunold, a now-retired geneticist at Oregon State University, created Willamette for AB, who wanted a higher-yield replacement for Fuggles. Al, bless him, dovetailed their need very neatly with his altruistic desire to breed hops domestically to save homebrewers from having to pay premium prices for imported hops.

And it was Coors who encouraged the USDA to commercialize Cascade, which had been discovered in the ‘50s but was mouldering in warehouses through the ‘60s just waiting for someone to brew with it. Coors was running short of Hallertau Mittlefruh, so when they heard that Cascade could replace it, they paid a premium to anyone who would grow Cascade for them. After that big outlay they discovered Cascade was too aromatic to be a direct replacement for Hallertau. Other brewers had fallen in love with it, though, and Cascade took its place as one of the three C’s.

And it was big beer who asked for higher alpha acid varieties. Higher alpha acids provide more bang with fewer hops, leading to more efficiency and lower costs. Which is great for big beer with the volume of hops they require. It can also make all the difference for small brewers with tiny profit margins.

Big beer has no use for the wonder-hops though. All they wanted was a more efficient hop, not these marvelous aroma hops that evolved. Heaven forbid their beers have flavour or aroma!

So crap, not only can I not blame big beer for hop-patenting, I actually want to thank them for leading us into this era of wonder-hops. I need a hoppy beer to help me come to terms with this revelation.

There are talented public hops available – Liberty, Mt. Hood, Sterling, Willamette and Cascade, to name-drop a few. And OSU is working on a schwack of new ones that they’re excited about. Suppliers like Cedar Valley Hop Yards are making a go of it without carrying patented hops. We don’t NEED the patented ones. We just like them.

Citra is a damned sexy hop. Mosaic is too. I freely admit that I love them. I’ve been known to go out of my way to drink beers proudly brewed with them. So long as you do too, brewers will pay extra for the hops, and growers will pay the royalties, and suppliers will source them, and developers will patent them.

So it ain’t big beer’s fault on this one folks, it’s ours. Only YOU can free the hops!

I’m indignant about patents on plants I think should be publicly available, but I ain’t so indignant that I’ll stop drinking delicious beers made with patented hops. It rankles that I only have myself (and all of you) to blame, but you’ll have to start the revolution without me.


Trademark Vs Patents

Trademarks provide ownership of a name, not of genetic material. No one else can market a hop with that name, but they could take the hop variety and sell it under another name. Patents, on the other hand, confer ownership of the form of genetic material of a particular plant – allowing only the owner the right to dictate the sale and use of the plant.




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