Words by Richard Rennie, images by David Letsche
It is very easy to think of beer as simply a hazy combination of water, malt and barley, but that would be leaving out the quiet heart of a good brew - the hops.
As an ingredient the flower cones are often unappreciated by consumers when it comes to understanding what makes a beer so appealing. But hops play a vital role not only in giving every brew its unique taste profile, but also in creating a vital niche sector within New Zealand’s increasingly varied farming landscape.
A Motueka family can claim five generations of hop growing in the country’s hop “sweet spot” where rainfall, sunshine hours and soils all blend into the picturesque landscape that belies the sector’s highly sought-after product. The crop is niche in every respect, with a specific use for flavouring beer, and only capable of being grown within the 35-55 degree latitude location.
The McGlashen family own Mac Hops, growing on one of the country’s largest hop operations over 110ha. They have recently significantly increased their operation by converting 80ha into a hop orchard.
More than doubling the size of their operation reflects the family’s experience and confidence in a sector that has recently begun attracting new operators, drawn by the global respect and demand New Zealand sourced hops are increasingly held in.
But Brent McGlashen cautions it is not a sector for the faint hearted.
Like any orchard or growing operation, it has the usual climatic challenges, with last year’s wet weather knocking young hop plant production back by almost 40%. It was a year Brent says he was glad to shut the door on.
But hop operations are also highly capital intensive, with expensive hop harvesting equipment and driers often topping $1.0 million, along with the purchase of quality land and erecting structures for hops to grow upon.
“You can easily sink several million dollars into an operation, and you do have a couple of years before you start to hit full production.”
Hop harvesting is a delicate game requiring rapid picking, separation and drying of the hop cones before they start to wilt and lose their quality.
The McGlashens supply their crop to New Zealand Hops, the Nelson based co-operative that traces its roots back to 1939, about 70 years after the crop was first grown here. Crops received by NZ Hops are pelletised and packaged for both local and overseas export trade.
Growing hops is not something unique to New Zealand, with countries like the United States boasting enormous 20,000ha plus plantations that dwarf this country’s 400ha area generating about 750 tonnes.
But New Zealand production is now growing after years of static harvests, with about 1,100 tonnes expected this year and 1,400 tonnes in the 2020 harvest.
And size has not proven a disadvantage on the world stage.
Brent says the United States market in particular has gained a taste for the variety and purity of New Zealand sourced hops.
The hops’ “frontal and fruity” flavours that resonate most strongly on the tongue rather than the back of the drinker’s throat are proving popular in that country.
Here in New Zealand, per capita consumption of beer has declined from a whopping 150 litres in the days of the 6 o’clock swill of the sixties to today’s 62 litres a head. This puts New Zealand 32nd on the world beer consumption rankings, about equal with Australia and Canada, but below United Kingdom and Germany.
However, drinkers here have become more sophisticated, riding the wave of new craft brews that has made the “high strength” (5% plus alcohol) section lift by as much as 34% in an overall beer market declining by about 1.5% a year.
Ralph Bungard, Brewers’ Guild board member and owner of renowned Three Boys Brewery says the growth of craft breweries has a parallel in the coffee industry in New Zealand.
Multiple small operators are taking their passion commercial, often on a small regional scale.
“This is in a country with the population of Melbourne. But New Zealand is now a major tourist destination, and beer is often a big part of people’s decision to come here.”
Such growth at home and abroad has been a Godsend for the likes of the McGlashens. Over a decade ago the industry was in the doldrums, with purchases dominated by a few large breweries, putting greater emphasis upon volume of supply rather than quality.
“But we now not only have more breweries seeking out quality hops for their brews, but we also have a larger home brewing market, meaning we have several hundred clients all wanting different hop types.”
Hop growers have learnt to take an almost tactical approach to their crop, growing several different varieties that help not only meet market demand for taste variety, but also mean reliance upon any one variety that may be susceptible to weather, or pests is reduced.
“So, when you talk about a good year or a bad year, it depends very much upon which variety you are talking about.”
This year is proving to be an almost uniformly good one, despite the dry weather experienced leading up to harvest. It is a welcome contrast after last year when the region received over 600mm through the summer period.
“That was very tough, we had 50ha of young plants and they really did not like the conditions. This year is looking far more positive.”
With harvest in late February, Brent was confident in getting the 50-60 workers needed for the labour-intensive work of picking the hops, and the family have managed to dodge the labour crises facing some in the horticultural sector.
“We have workers who will come back year in year out, who enjoy doing the job and often bring friends along. If you look after them, pay them well they will come back.”
The diversity of crops and jobs those crops generate in the region mean it is quite possible to make a living as a seasonal orchard worker, moving from harvesting to pruning to maintenance in the course of the year.
Brent attributes the hop sector’s long time, world leading alliance with Plant and Food (formerly HortResearch) to helping New Zealand keep ahead of overseas competitors when offering innovative market led varieties that brewers seek.
New Zealand Hops has worked with Plant and Food Research for over 50 years on a plant breeding programme, headed up by Dr Ron Beatson and based at Riwaka.
New hop varieties, pest control initiatives and environmental sustainability have all been priorities in a programme now emulated by other growing countries around the world.
The result has been varieties protected by Plant Variety Rights unable to be found anywhere else in the world, and proudly named with distinctive Maori and New Zealand names including Wai-iti, Moutere, Kohatu and Pacific Jade.
“That work and co-operation means we have been very careful about the varieties we develop, ensuring we don’t flood the market with numerous varieties that could confuse the brewing clients. We only focus on those hops that are truly unique and produce that ‘WOW’ factor,” says Brent.