If ever there one man could be described as being on the ‘pursuit of hoppiness’ it’s Dr Ron Beatson.

The “Dr Hops” scientist is approaching his 50th year in plant breeding this month, with 37 of those dedicated to hop cultivar development at Plant and Food Research.

He has until recently headed up the hop development programme there, developing a series of rock-star hops, such as Nelson Sauvin, Riwaka, Motueka and Nectaron. Each of them are cult favourites amongst brewers and household names for craft beer drinkers and the most sought after hops in the country come harvest.

Beatson’s career in hops began when it was still a cottage industry in 1984  – and since then he has taken the cultivars this country is known for to new, heady aromatic heights. “The hops we produce now are very unique, packed full of flavour and aromatics, which is exactly what brewers and craft beer drinkers around the world want.”

He says predicting trends and meeting the demand for more flavour is a challenge that still excites him, but it is the breeding science involved that gives him huge satisfaction. “I am hugely passionate about what I do. I love it, I do. Looking for that wow factor, that next rock-star hop, that gets me up in the morning.”

Colleague and successor to the hop development programme at Plant & Food Research Kerry Templeton calls Beatson a “legend in breeding”.

“There aren’t many breeders around that will leave a legacy like Ron’s. Working alongside him, it’s a dream job. He’s coming up to 50 years as a plant breeder, that’s a fairly decent number of years.  That’s a hell of a lot of knowledge. There wouldn’t be many plant breeders in New Zealand with the success rate and history that he has got.

“The industry has changed a lot over that time, and he has been able to shift with those changes, and that is one of his strengths. He’s brilliant.”  

“What brewers are really after is the weird and wonderful stuff. Now weird may not be cool today, but in 10 years’ time it might be the thing that they are after. The odd hops, we call them our freaks, they may not be commercially viable at the moment, but  there’s something different about them and we can use them to breed other things or we can hang onto them until there is interest in them.  And that’s how something like Nectaron comes about.”

Beatson has made an impressive contribution to the industry says Craig Orr, chief executive of the hop growers’ cooperative NZ Hops Ltd.

“The hop breeding programme at Plant & Food Research is fundamental to our industry.  It provides the solid foundation on which our farms develop and our hops become known around the world. Ron Beatson is truly a master of his craft. He’s cultivated literally thousands of seedlings and can painstakingly work through these to select an individual star that will thrive in our conditions, like Nelson Sauvin, and more recently Nectaron.  The fact we now have NZ Style IPA recognised as an official beer style is testament to our unique hops and the respect that continues to build for NZ-grown hops around the world. Ron is quite simply, a legend.”

Long-time industry colleague Tracy Banner, Sprig & Fern owner and master brewer says brewers around the country are indebted to Beatson’s work.

“I, like every brewer in the country have huge respect for Ron. I love it when the phone rings and he say’s he’s got something special he wants me to try. He’s passionate. He’s meticulous. He’s built a great team around him and he’s a very humble guy. I take my hat off to him – and thank him for the hops.”

 With more successful cultivars under his belt than most could dream of and a successor working alongside him in Templeton, Beatson could be forgiven for entertaining the idea of retirement.

“Let’s just say there’s certainly no one pushing me out the door, but it might be getting to that time where I could start to dedicate some of my time to other parts of the programme. I certainly don’t want to go cold turkey, but Kerry is running the programme now and has the direction he wants to take with it, and I can contribute in other ways.”

Templeton is hopeful his mentor will be around a bit longer in order to glean as much experience as he can.

“I am excited at the prospect, the challenge, of following in Ron’s legacy. Those are big shoes to fill. He’s been the man for 37 years. Hops are on a growth trajectory in the industry and in this organisation. It’s quite a cool spot to be.

“I’m not sure what his firm future plans are, but Ron will remain a mentor to me. The longer he wants to hang around, the better.”