The Minds Behind The Hops

The Minds Behind The Hops

 //  February 15, 2024



The Hopsteiner Breeding Program

The Hopsteiner breeding program stands as a cornerstone in the ongoing innovation and evolution of hop varieties within the brewing industry. Founded on a rich legacy of over 175 years of hop cultivation expertise, Hopsteiner has established itself as a global leader in hop research, development, and breeding. Our program integrates traditional breeding techniques with cutting-edge technologies to create hop varieties that meet the diverse needs of brewers worldwide and stand out in the crowd of existing varieties. With a steadfast commitment to quality, sustainability, and continuous improvement, our breeding efforts aim to push the boundaries of flavor, aroma, yield, and disease resistance, ensuring a vibrant and resilient hop industry for generations to come.

Hops in the Yakima Valley

When examining advancements in hop growing and breeding, it’s imperative to understand just how small-scale and new the hop industry is compared to other agricultural categories. The Yakima Valley is truly the heart of Pacific Northwest agriculture and a prosperous area for apples, cherries, grapes, corn, and of course, hops. The apple industry alone represents over $2 billion in annual economic impact for the state of Washington (Baltazar, 2023). That being said, apples and other fruits and vegetables have origins that date back as far as 200 BC, with millions of dollars invested into research and development so that present-day farmers can make growing and breeding advancements based on vital groundwork completed decades prior. In 2023 the hop industry brought in $562 million to the United States, which is far from chump change, but still incomparable to other agricultural divisions (McCormick, 2023). Because the hop industry is so small and niche in relation to others, the same funding was never allotted for research and development to lay the groundwork for future growers and breeders – and that’s where we come in.

Our Dedication to Progressing Hop Science

Over the last ten years, Hopsteiner has invested significant amounts in mastery-level education for employees, top-tier equipment, and next-level laboratories to conduct research experiments and testing that could not be done elsewhere. Funding a combined two master’s and Ph.D. in hop science and bioinformatics from Florida State University and John Hopkins University, the Hopsteiner research and development team is truly world-class. Since there aren’t endless resources to reference when conducting growing and breeding experiments, we created those baselines to build from and our team’s passion has fueled it all.

Meet the Breeding Team

Paving the way for the hop industry since 1845, the Hopsteiner Breeding Program has made groundbreaking advancements in breeding and growing, revolutionizing how new hop varieties are bred and grown. While a lot of their work happens in the shadows, their efforts are seen worldwide. Their specific skillset and prowess combined with their deep passion to advance the world of hop science create a team unlike any other.

Nicholi Pitra

Nicholi Pitra, Technical Director of Plant Sciences – and the department head, has been with us for 13 years. Nicholi started his education at the University of Northern Iowa in Chemical Engineering and shortly after found an advisor who specialized in hop research from Germany. He switched his focus to biotechnology, where he worked with a technology called S.A.G.E. (Serial Analysis of Gene Expression), one of the first technologies used for analysis before sequencing became as readily available as it is today. Research began, and they set a lofty goal to look for differences in transcription in various tissues in hops and to be able to describe those effectively. Shortly after, a poster announcing their research project was presented at a research conference, where it caught the attention of Hopsteiner, and they were thrilled to fund it. During this time, his team also created a genome assembly where they practiced sequencing with the now popular G.B.S. (Genotyping by Sequencing) technology when it was at the ground level prior to being used on hops. They partnered with Cornell University and renowned plant scientist Edward Buckler – famous for primarily studying statistical genetics in corn, where they found immediate success while using G.B.S. on hops. The second half of Nicholi’s undergrad was based around tissue culture – where his team established that tissue culture could be done on hops. Nicholi received his first master’s degree in biotechnology funded by Hopsteiner in Northern Iowa, moved to the Yakima Valley to work for Hopsteiner, and has been working with hops for around 20 years now, with undergrad research included.

Ryan Gregory

Ryan Gregory, Agronomist and Breeding Research Scientist, has been with Hopsteiner for four years. Ryan received his bachelor’s degree from Texas Tech University where he majored in Environmental Crop and Soil Sciences, working primarily with the public cotton breeding program of Texas A&M AgriLife Research. Ryan then went on to receive his master’s degree in Agricultural and Horticultural Plant Breeding from Texas Tech University. Becoming a master in his field, he worked in the cotton industry for nearly nine years leading throughput phenotyping and field technology for the U.S. Commercial Cotton Breeding Team, specializing in drone research, weather data collection, and soil health. Ryan’s homebrewing hobby is what sparked his interest in the hop industry and led to him relocating to the Yakima Valley to work for Hopsteiner where he has improved our agronomic analysis greatly. When a potential new variety performs well agronomically, it’s important to assess its growth in other potential growing regions as well, and Ryan’s work has allowed us to do just that, making sure growers in Oregon who experience more rain than in the Yakima Valley or Idaho can successfully grow this hop to its full potential. Along with expanding our pre-commercial plots, Ryan has also redesigned our R&D fields to give us more statistical agronomic data when making breeding decisions, while implementing crucial regenerative agriculture practices to ensure optimum soil health, requiring fewer synthetic fungicide applications and lowering our carbon footprint. Ryan’s forward thinking and our team’s ability to understand the hop genome to select varieties for their natural traits regarding resistance to powdery and downy mildew have allowed for new Hopsteiner varieties to rank at the bottom of the Hop Variety Carbon Footprint Comparison Chart.

Rachel Bussey

Rachel Bussey, Associate Breeding Project Lead, has been with us for 11 years and is referred to as the backbone of the department by her colleagues. Rachel has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Whitworth University. Rachel manages all cyclical and seasonal work like the annual powdery mildew screen to ensure high rates of disease resistance; her focus is on the details. Even in the off-season, there are still plenty of moving pieces, and Rachel ensures everything is on track and as optimized as possible.

Lauren Lopes

Lauren Lopes, Molecular Biologist, has been with Hopsteiner for two years. Lauren was recruited by Hopsteiner while attending college in Florida for her bachelor’s degree. Lauren worked on multiple hop research projects while in school to advance the industry early on. While Lauren’s specialty is wet bench molecular biology, she also helps Rachel with cyclical testing and screening that keeps the department running smoothly

Daniela Solis

Daniela Solis, Laboratory Technician, is the newest addition to the team. Daniela received her bachelor’s degree in biology from Heritage University. Her role in the R&D department is primarily tissue culture and the oversight of micropropagation of hop plantlets in a sterile artificial environment. During the growing season, Daniela also assists with pollen collection and breeding analysis, and during harvest, she is all hands on deck helping manually harvest potential new varieties. With no prior experience in the hop industry, Daniela’s curiosity about hop genetics and the tissue culture process led her to the industry.

These individuals are integral to the success of the Hopsteiner Breeding Program. Their expertise spans various fields including hop research, biotechnology, agronomy, and molecular biology. They work diligently to improve hop breeding techniques, optimize breeding processes, and enhance disease

resistance screening. Their combined efforts contribute to the development of better, more sustainable hop varieties, ensuring the program’s continued success.

Collaborating for Success

Our R&D team works cross-departmentally towards the success of new varieties. From pesticide testing to oil composition testing, our team handles it all. In the last year, Hopsteiner invested in an in-house pesticide laboratory. Previously this testing was outsourced and was not time efficient nor sustainable. Sample results in the past ranged anywhere from weeks to months to receive, whereas now we receive results in as little as a few days. Using industry standards and quality control measures our chemists have developed hop-specific methods that ensure end results are repeatable and accurate. With the current MRL policies, it is imperative that we continue our research and efforts to lower pesticide usage on the farms so that hops can be exported to other countries and meet their requirements. The efforts made by the R&D team to lower our carbon footprint play heavily in meeting this requirement. The more natural resistance a plant has to disease, the less fungicide is needed, making meeting those stringent policies even more achievable.

Hopsteiner has invested significantly in the development of a laboratory to detect and identify hop oils, terpenes, and sulfur (thiol) compounds in hops. The new equipment provides enhanced testing capabilities for a more total oil composition. With our end goal being enhanced reporting, identification of new and unique hop aromas in our breeding program, and optimizing harvest windows and kilning/conditioning regimens. After a hop is selected for advancement in the breeding program, passing multiple assessments and agronomy checkpoints, it makes its way into our pre-commercial yard where it is put to the ultimate test. At this point, the hops are harvested like any other variety and sent to our in-house laboratory for an oil/terpene assessment where we can attribute flavor and aroma to the actual chemical makeup of the hop. After the compounds are identified, we can then use them as a base for true-to-type testing in the future to ensure biosecurity.

After experimental hops have been kilned, baled, and pelletized, we perform an in-house sensory panel. While smelling hops is a great way to get an idea of their characteristics and aroma, we wanted the ability to test their brewing capabilities as well. In the past year, we have brought in a brewer to work alongside our research and development team to further expand our sensory panel assessments. Being able to test potential varieties’ brewing capabilities early in the selection process is a massive improvement in helping to make those decisions easier and quicker.

The Future of Experimental Varieties

At Hopsteiner, our commitment to advancing hop science is unwavering, and we have achieved remarkable progress in recent years. The growth of the industry must continue conducting research and experimenting as the demand for different aromas and qualities in beer changes. In doing so, we aim to propel the hop industry forward, shaping a promising future for growers and brewers alike. For the latest R&D creation, try Alora in your next brew!


Baltazar, A. (2023, September 27). Stars align for stellar Washington apple crop. The Packer.

McCormick, T. (2023, December 22). 2023 Hop Report Released – Production Up 2% From Last Year but Value Down 9%. ProBrewer.

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