A new generation of hops for beer is being developed by researchers in New Zealand, as the brewing industry looks to science to help it catch up with changing consumer tastes.
Scientists at New Zealand's HortResearch said they have mixed together hop varieties from New Zealand and Europe to create new strains that will produce tastier, richer beer.
So-called premium beers with stronger aromas have increasingly held up otherwise stagnant beer markets across Western Europe and the US over the last couple of years.
"Light, fizzy beers are losing popularity and we are seeing an increased demand for a broader number of styles such as dark beers, pale ales, and pilseners," said Ron Beatson, hop breeder at HortResearch.
Market research backs him up. So-called craft beers in the US outperformed the country's shrinking beer market there over the last year, while premium brands in Europe, such as Leffe and Grimbergen, have continue to defy market growth problems in some countries there.
Beatson said the work to cross European and New Zealand hop varieties to target changing consumer tastes had gone well so far.
"The result is a hybrid plant well-adapted to New Zealand growing conditions that produces hops with unique flavour profiles perfectly suited to brewing 'craft' beers."
He said HortResearch's hop breeding was moving away from 'high alpha' hops, that produce more flavour for less, to high aroma hops.
These are needed in bigger quantities, potentially increasing costs for brewers, although Beatson added that consumers had shown they were "prepared to pay a premium" for stronger beers.
HortResearch's breeding scheme, partly funded by New Zealand's hop industry, has already attracted attention from large international brewers such as Anheuser Busch, according to HortResearch.
Anheuser, which owns Budweiser, is one major brewer that has found it difficult to adapt to what analysts have called 'fragmenting' consumer tastes in the US.
The group, which alone makes up half the US beer market, announced in its recent first quarter results it had raised beer prices to push up domestic sales revenues. The American beer market shrank 0.4 per cent in 2005.