What's up, brew

The home of New Zealand’s rock-star hops was hit by two tropical cyclones this year, so does this signal a sour note for beer drinkers?

When I call Dr Ron ‘Mr Hops’ Beatson at Plant & Food Research he is mid-clean up after Cyclone Gita swept through the region.

“We got very badly flooded here, at our site we got quite badly smashed.”

Thankfully, he says, the damage was mainly to infrastructure. “The hops themselves were a little damaged with wind and rain but there has been very little plant damage.”

Beatson is the science group leader for premium crops at Plant & Food’s Nelson Research Centre and really is a true legend of the hop, having spent over 30 years developing specialty varietals.

Many of the cultivars now dubbed the rock stars, Riwaka, Motueka and Nelson Sauvin, earned their celebrity status under his careful development.

“The rock stars now were crossed in the 1980s and they were released 1990’s and early 2000’s, you don’t become a rock star over-night.”

Which brings me back to the cyclone, was a legend in the making potentially wiped out by Gita?

Unlikely he says.

“We have got a lot of stages through the process of developing and harvesting. If you can visualise a pipeline: you have crosses at one end being created, then seedlings raised and collected, and at the other end of the pipeline what trickles out is the odd cultivar.

“Basically you have a cast of thousands at the early part of the programme. It's every now and again one pops out that the brewers and the growers like.”

From identifying something special, to brewing trials, getting a sufficient supply for brewers to brew up and identify as a hop with potential, which can then be pushed out to growers, who in turn supply enough to create quality beer with a certain ‘hoppy’ quality beer drinkers take a shine to – turning it into a rock star – can take anywhere between 10 and 15 years.

A lot of Beatson’s work at present is looking at how they close that gap and speed up the process.

“We’ve got one selection in particular the brewers are keen on at the moment.  It has a lot of big note fruity flavour, sub-tropical, quite citrusy, stone fruity with a hint of mango - that one is close to a decision from industry.”

While just a code at the moment, he assures me, it could be close to take off.

This is good news for the New Zealand hop industry which exports more than 90% of its hops, generating around $17 million a year.

There is a global demand for new beers with novel flavours, and international craft brewers are focussed on identifying new varieties of hops that can deliver the flavour and aroma consumers want.

The global beer market is worth US$500 billion a year, and around 5% is captured by the fast-growing craft and specialty brewing sector.

The New Zealand industry is working hard to meet that, aiming to double its global contribution by 2025, largely through the introduction of hops with new flavours that demand a premium on the global market.

Figures released in ANZ’s 2017 annual craft beer report showed 6 new hop growers signed up for the 2018 harvest. 

One of those was Cam Ealam, who converted 35 hectares of his Nelson family farm from dairy to hops. 

The combination of two tropical cyclones and a drought made this year a challenge, but as the harvest came to an end he was confident they’d had a good crop.

“The harvest was good, but it was a steep learning curve.

“We had to learn how to operate the harvesting machines and the kilns.  There were some big hours; I think the first night I got home about five in the morning.

“The first couple of weeks were pretty stressful, but once we got the hang of it and it went really well.”

The Ealam farm supports three generations, Cam and his partner, his parents and grandparents. The hop harvest was very much a family activity.

“Everyone was involved right through harvest; my grandad got stuck in as well helping load the machines with hop bines.  So that was pretty cool.”

Over 20 days they harvested 17 tonnes of hops off 14.5 hectares and are now focussed on developing another 20 hectares for the 2019 season. 

Cam is busy digging trenches for irrigation when we catch up.

“Once we get the stage two development completed we will focus on doing a good job of growing a good crop. Once we’ve got a few years under our belt we’ll reassess and look at whether to grow.”

While he’s sticking with established hop varieties at this stage Cam and other growers keenly follow developments over at Plant & Food Research where Dr Beatson and his team continue their work developing the next rock star hop.

“As a plant breeder you want to see your plant cultivars grown as widely as you can,” Beatson tells me.

While he’s confident the new variety that is showing promise will come through, I sense his time developing rock stars might be almost up.

After decades of work I ask him what keeps him awake at night.

“What does keep me awake at night is the fact that I am not young anymore so I can see that my role as the principal scientist in hops is coming to an end. 

“I’m fortunate that I’ve got an excellent lieutenant Kerry Templeton who has been appointed to our programme and he’s got more modern technology skills than I have.  He’s been trained in the molecular side of things so we’ll be implementing some of those techniques into our breeding programme as time goes on.”

And as for Cam Ealam – I ask if there is any chance of him heading back to dairy farming.

“No, not heading back to milking cows,” Cam laughs.  “This has its different challenges and there were a lot of learnings but on the whole it’s much more enjoyable than milking cows.”

ANZ will release an update into the craft beer market later in August – but a quick call to banker and keen craft beer enthusiast Sam Bree gives a sneak peek at what to expect from this year’s report.

“We’re very interested to see how the craft beer market is moving and growing,” Bree says.

“We expect to see a market that continues to grow with in terms of volumes and revenues with huge opportunity in front of it.”

ANZ research over the past few years has shown growth for the majority is tough in a market where competition continues to flood in.

But those with robust, well capitalised business structures and a clear strategy will succeed, Bree says.

“This year we expect to see a small number of craft breweries are leading the way and the rest are trying really hard to make it feasible.

“The hardest part for this industry is finding the right mix of mad scientist and astute business person.” 

And as for the harvest and the extreme weather events?

“Anecdotally, we’ve heard the hop volumes might be down this year but the quality of hops is right up there.”

So, international craft beer drinkers can relax knowing the only sour note will be intentional.

Written by Briar McCormack

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