Eoghan Walsh takes a deep dive into the incredible rags-to-riches tale of New Zealand’s hop industry.
Monday 20 January 2020
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It’s 2010 and Brent McGlashin, owner of Mac Hops, New Zealand’s largest hop farm, is sat in the AGM of the New Zealand Hops growers collective. There’s only one thing on his and his fellow farmers’ minds: “Shit, where do we go to next?” Hard as they have worked to keep the century-long tradition of New Zealand hop-growing alive, they haven’t reached a critical mass that would keep the industry viable. Do they throw it all in, rip up the beautiful, mature hop bines and replant something – anything – more profitable? McGlashin reckoned that they had one or two more harvests in them. Fail to deliver – and deliver big – and that would be that.
“And then,” he says, speaking from his farm in Riwaka on a warm, blustery day in early summer 2019, “the big boom year happened…That kept us above water again and we’ve gone from there.” There are few people better placed to track the phenomenal rebirth of New Zealand hops in the last decade than McGlashin. He’s a fifth-generation farmer who experienced the difficult transition as the industry weaned itself off commodity bittering hops and relaunched itself as a premium source of hops with aroma and flavour compounds unique to New Zealand and fawned over by brewers around the world. And instead of uprooting hop bines by the thousands, McGlashin can barely plant enough Nelson Sauvin, Motueka, or Riwaka on his farm to keep up.
McGalshin stands in the farm’s yard, tall, wiry, and softly spoken with a slightly scratched throat. He runs two farms now, having just opened a state-of-the-art 80-hectare site, but both are quiet now. It’s off-season and most of the workers on the site are busy training the new hop bines to grow up their string supports. The tall trestles and slanted poles of McGlashin’s hop fields dominate the landscape up here at the top of South Island, and place names are redolent of pungent local hops; towns like Nelson, Motueka, Moutere, Waimea, Riwaka, have all been adopted by locally-grown hop varietals.
Hops have been grown in this part of New Zealand since at least 1880, when early colonial settlers from southern England and Germany brought hop growing traditions with them. Nowadays, the vast majority of the region’s hops are processed a 20-minute drive from McGlashin’s farm, at a nondescript facility run by New Zealand Hops (NZ Hops), the 28-farm growers’ co-operative of which Mac Hops is one member. Hop-growing has flourished in the region since those early settlers, George Tunstall of NZ Hops explains as he shows off the processing centre. “Nelson’s a weird, unique place. It has a very unique microclimate, supported by some of the hill ranges round here,” he says. “[It] gets a little bit of cold, but not too frosted out. It has a high number of sunshine hours and [low] rainfall.” Geographic isolation and stringent biosecurity regulations mean the industry is pest-free in a way that’s impossible for European or US hop growers.
"NEW ZEALAND IS AN ISLAND IN THE MIDDLE OF BLOODY NOWHERE”
For most of the 20th century, NZ Hops focused on hop varieties with high alpha acids that could be sold in bulk to act as bittering hops. This was ultimately a dead end of the sector, and it couldn’t remain competitive with bigger and cheaper rivals in Europe and the US. “New Zealand is an island in the middle of bloody nowhere, and everything costs us,” McGlashin says. So it stopped competing and went back to its hop catalogues, to see what it could pitch to US craft breweries interested above all in characterful, aroma-driven hops for pale ales and IPAs. “[And] that’s where we’ve been successful,” Tunstall says, “in finding hops that are different, [finding] large range of varieties, [and] finding hops that are not similar even to our existing hops.”
The big breakthrough for NZ Hops came in 2000, with the launch of Nelson Sauvin, named for the nearby town and the characteristics – “new world” gooseberry fruitiness – it shared with Sauvignon Blanc. “It wasn’t popular when it came out,” says Tunstall. “People thought it was too dank, too catty.” But a trickle of interest soon became a flood, as brewers became more adventurous in their search for new and interesting aromas for their beers. Exactly the niche to which NZ Hops was pitching. “Now for all the reasons it was unpopular, it’s super popular,” says Tunstall. “It’s already 50% of all the farms we work with.”
Nelson Sauvin's popularity has propelled the region to record hop harvests, and 1,041 metric tonnes of hops passed through NZ Hops’ baleing and pellitisation facility in 2019. Those hops have left behind a pungent smell that permeates the building even in the middle of the off-season. It’s an even more fragrant place in March when harvest is in full swing. “You can tell when we’re processing Nelson Sauvin because it’s got such a distinctive aroma, a sharp, catty smell to it,” Tunstall says.
The majority of that 2019 harvest has gone abroad – to the US, Europe, and Australia – with a good 20% kept for New Zealand breweries. “We could sell all our hops overseas tomorrow if we wanted,” says Tunstall. “We choose not to, because it’s nice to be big at home.” It also gives Tunstall and his colleagues a ready pool of local breweries, able to run pilot brews on the next experimental varietal to come out of NZ Hops’ research programme. Tunstall’s refrain is a common one: such is international demand, they could today sell the next harvest, and probably several harvests after that. “It’s not been that we haven’t wanted to supply people with hops, it’s just that we physically can’t produce,” exclaims McGlashin, back on his farm. “But we’re trying!”
And to seek to respond to this pent-up demand, NZ Hops and its 28 growers have been joined by two upstart rivals. Susan Wheeler is one. An ebullient ex-viticultural researcher with a penchant for “obnoxious” (her word) metal music and a love of beer, Wheeler is the driving force behind Hop Revolution. Wheeler and Hop Revolution are just gearing up for their first full harvest in 2020, planting and irrigating the fields at what is already New Zealand’s largest single continuous hop farm. With one farm up and running, and an adjacent field just purchased, Hop Revolution will eventually run to 600 acres, and it’s already a staggering sight. Row upon row of poles and hop trellises stretch unending across the Motueka River valley floor, with steep, wooded hillsides dotted by the odd flock of sheep on either side, and the snow-capped peaks of the Kahurangi National Park in the far distance.
STARTING FROM THE BOTTOM
Because they’re starting from scratch, all the different off-season processes have to happen concurrently. Wheeler’s team are busy planting anywhere up to 13,000 new hop plants a day in neat, GPS-defined rows, while others are, like McGlashin’s farm, training established plants up their strings. 60 acres have been given over to Nelson Sauvin, alongside a large plot of Riwaka plants. Riwaka is Nelson Sauvin’s older, more temperamental sibling. Launched three years before its more illustrious stablemate, Riwaka is prized for its high essential oil content as well as high alpha acids, making it a perfect dual-use hop. It gives characteristics of grapefruit, citrus and kumquat and, Wheeler says, is “a fabulous hop”.
“Brewers will pay more money for Riwaka than they will for Nelson,” Wheeler says. “And New Zealand brewers love Riwaka so much they will pay more too, so that’s why we’ve got contracts sold for as much as we have planted.” The only downside, Wheeler and McGlashin bemoan, is that Riwaka is a very fragile hop prone to snapping easily when handled. "A very temperamental female,” McGlashin describes it, adding: “If it didn’t taste so good, nobody would buy it [and] it’s a tough one to grow.”
Asked to what she ascribes the current upturn in New Zealand hop-growing’s fortunes, Wheeler casts about for an answer. “It’s one of those fortunate things, just something about the flavour, you know, it just hits the right notes and Nelson melds very well with other hops. It’s an enhancer, it helps other hops express their varieties and tastes.” Wheeler and her financial backers have set up Hop Revolution to make sure international breweries can get their hands on these tastes as soon as possible after they’ve been plucked from the field. Wheeler’s brand-new machinery will process 1,000 bines an hour before the majority of them are baled and shipped directly to Idaho in the US, where they will be pelletised and sold directly to brewers.
“I just grow the hop, they make the beer.”
For their first harvest next year, Wheeler hopes brewers will have hops from her fields in their boil kettles by June. “It excites me that they can already start brewing summer New Zealand hop releases.” Hop Revolution already has a bulging waiting list of anxious brewers, many of whom have already visited the farm, or will come during harvest to take part in sensory analysis and lot selection. Working with these breweries as close as possible is central to Wheeler’s business plan. She needs them to tell her what they’re looking for so she can start planting accordingly, and they’re able to give her quick feedback on her crop’s performance. “It’s about working with brewers,” she says modestly. “I just grow the hop, they make the beer. So I’m not going to teach them how to suck eggs!”
This is par for the course for hop growers the world over, and another new entrant to the New Zealand hop world has taken this dynamic to its logical conclusion: they’ve gone into business with a brewery. David Dunbar of Freestyle Hops is a most unlikely hop farmer. For one, he’s not even a farmer. Dunbar, with a runner’s frame and an outsized Garmin sport watch on his wrist, is a venture capital investor from California. Or at least he was, until a chance conversation with Greg Koch of California brewery Stone Brewing sparked interest among his fund’s partners in the New Zealand hop industry. Dunbar had just retuned to San Diego from visiting his New Zealand home and mentioned this to Koch. Koch implored him. “‘You need to grow hops. I would do anything to get more of these,’” Dunbar recalls. “Greg says a lot of stuff, and we were like ‘Yeah, sure.’” His firm did a little digging, saw an opportunity and discovered an old family hop farm, wedged between upscale wineries and million-dollar villas, was for sale.
They bought it, and soon after Dunbar teamed up with Wellington brewery Garage Project to found the Hāpi Project, a hop breeding research programme (Hāpi is the Maori word for hop) supported by New Zealand government funding. The two companies had previously worked together on Block 19, a Garage Project beer made with hops grown exclusively from an individual plot of Freestyle hops. From there, the Hāpi project emerged “out of discussions about wanting to do new interesting different things,” says Dunbar. “And to do something [with hops] that was purely aimed at serving craft.”
The Hāpi research project is aimed at finding exciting varietals and flavour and aroma profiles that may have previously been overlooked, or which were not yet commercialised. Having a brewer baked into the project gives Freestyle direct insight into what they are looking for in next generation varietals. “Having the craft brewer inside the tent and running things was much more likely to lead to outcomes that were great,” says Dunbar.
Hāpi has several varietals selected for accelerated development, and expect more to come online in the next couple of years. But Dunbar doesn’t expect results to filter through for several years, if even then. “I think there is definitely a significant portion of luck to this,” he says of the hop development process. “We’re hopeful that in the next couple of years there’ll be something exciting that will actually be getting into the hands of brewers… we’re trying to combat that [uncertainty] with numbers and creativity as much as we can!”
THE WOW FACTOR
Avaricious consumers of New Zealand’s unique hop characteristics may not have to wait that long. Because back at Mac Hops, Brent McGlashin and George Tunstall are confident that NZ Hops’ research programme has already delivered the next blockbuster hop. For now it’s officially called HORT4337, but the growers have given it a nickname. “It got described as Wow early,” says Tunstall, and the still-limited supply can barely keep up with demand. “It’s gone like a bull out of the gate.” McGlashin is equally glowing about 4337’s prospects and his hop nursery, housed in a large greenhouse next to his hop harvesting plant, is wall to wall pots labelled with three little letters: WOW.
McGlashin complains light-heartedly that 4337’s a similarly finicky plant to grow as Riwaka, but worth it for what it contributes to beer, and consequently for the prices it’s likely to get. “It is just a phenomenon in terms of its tropical profile, even within our own range we have about 18 varieties,” Tunstall says, describing the hop as “ridiculously pineapplely.” Like Nelson Sauvin and Riwaka before it, NZ Hops’ farmers will struggle to get enough plants in the ground to keep up with demand and because it’s a propriety varietal, for now they’ll be the only ones growing it. The success of 4337 - it’s due to be christened officially in April, and expect something new as NZ Hops are moving away from the existing naming convention of placenames as they’ve more or less run out - has come as a bit of a surprise even to Tunstall.
But as David Dunbar at Freestyle Hops suggested, there’s a fair chunk of luck in coming up with the right hop at the right time that can satisfy what brewers are looking for. Nelson Sauvin succeeded in this, eventually, and rescued the New Zealand hop industry from obscurity. With 4337, Tunstall and his colleagues think they’ve found a worthy successor. “If we find another one like it in 30 years I’ll be surprised,” he says. “It’s pretty special.”
New Zealand Hop Varieties
The hop that started it all, rejected at first for its pungency but subsequently embraced by craft brewers for its white wine fruitiness and gooseberry character. Good as an aroma and a bittering hop due to its high alpha acid levels. There will be many farmers able to retire off of Nelson Sauvin.
A fragile hop that causes farmers no end of stress due to its propensity to snap and break while growing. Released a couple of years before its more illustrious stablemate, Riwaka has a pronounced tropical fruit/grapefruit/passionfruit character, stuffed as it is with essential oils. Used to great effect in IPAs and Pale Ales.
A cross between a New Zealand breeding selection with a Saaz hop, Motueka is an aroma hop known for its distinctive citrus lime character, often found in New Zealand Pilseners.
The next blockbuster New Zealand hop, 4337 is still only in limited release for commercial brewing trials and has shown itself to be full of tropical fruit and citrus aroma character. Tunstall says it has worked well with English ale yeasts to give an added tropical punch to New England IPAs.
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