An urgent excursion to her hoppy homeland shows Alice Neville why brewers and beer drinkers the world over seek out Nelson’s pungent bounty.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, trainloads of working-class London families would temporarily migrate to Kent to work in the hop fields during harvest time. It was the closest thing many of them got to a holiday.
There’s something romantic about hops. They’ve got a certain olde worlde charm – row upon row of green bines (yes, they’re called bines, not vines) climbing skyward. But the reality for the Kent pickers was anything but romantic; they were often housed in squalid conditions and in 1849, cholera killed 43 hop pickers on a single farm.
The invention of hop-picking machines put an end to the whole business, but a century or so later, on the other side of the world, a hop-harvest migration of its own happens each autumn, when brewers flock to the Nelson/Tasman region to get their hands on the freshest hops to take back to their breweries around the country to make some very special beers.
This year, I tagged along with brewers from Lion to “help”. It was March 12, which now seems like another age – you’ll remember that quietly uneasy period, when shit had yet to hit the fan but there was a creeping feeling it was about to. New Zealand had five cases and the WHO had just declared Covid-19 a pandemic. A week later, we had 28 cases and the borders closed.
But on the 12th it was all still sufficiently not real that flying down to Nelson for the day to pick up some hops seemed a grand idea, so I joined Udo van Deventer, head brewer at Little Creatures, Lion brand manager Ben Fisher and Alyssa Hodgson, a brewer at Mac’s, on an early morning flight from Auckland. It was to be a fleeting trip, as fresh hops are fickle things, so it’s a race against the clock to get them into the brew kettle before the sticky cones start to deteriorate. Back in Auckland, van Deventer’s assistant brewer was to get the brew started earlier in the day, the idea being that we’d fly back that afternoon and hightail it to the Little Creatures brewery in Hobsonville Point to get those lovely fresh hops doing their thing at exactly the right stage in the process.
It’s a time-sensitive business, then, so you’ll understand why I was nervous about raising the prospect of Operation Stanley. Allow me to explain. Stanley popped up the day before my Nelson trip in the much-scrolled “dogs to rehome” category on my TradeMe app (I’d been looking for a small rescue dog for some time). He was listed by the Tasman pound, which, fortuitously, is in Richmond, the little town just south of Nelson through which one drives on the way from the airport to hop country. “Dogs as cute as Stanley don’t often end up in the pound,” read the first line of the ad. It seemed like fate.
I texted the number on the listing and got a speedy response from a very nice woman called Deb, who said it sounded like I’d give Stanley a lovely home. Problem was, I was in Auckland, Stan was in Richmond, and did I really want to adopt a dog without meeting him? The thing is, I told Deb, I’m coming to Nelson tomorrow… but only for a few hours. It will be rushed, but maybe I could convince the brewers to swing by the pound.
The brewers were chill. No one could say no to Stanley. We weren’t expected at the farm till 10am anyway, so after we picked up the rental car at Nelson airport, we whizzed via the pound, I had a brief but fruitful meeting with Stan (we got on like a house on fire), and we still had time to stop for breakfast in Motueka.
Anyway, back to hops. Our destination was Motueka’s Mac Hops, which confusingly has no connection with Mac’s brewery (which is owned by Lion) – it’s a family business run by Brent McGlashen. I like to say I have hops in my blood as an excuse for my excessive consumption of hoppy beverages (it’s kind of true, my grandad grew hops in nearby Upper Moutere, where Mac Hops opened its second farm a few years ago), but McGlashen really has hops in his blood – he’s a fifth-generation grower.
The first hops were grown in New Zealand in Nelson in 1842, with seedlings brought over by English and German immigrants, who found the region’s latitude ensured warm summers, regular rainfall and a relative lack of wind – perfect conditions for the sensitive humulus lupulus to thrive. Large hop gardens were established by local breweries and just like over in Kent, families took hop-picking holidays – packing up and moving into tents and cabins in the gardens. Most pickers were women and children – schools even timed holidays for hop harvest time.
Small farmers began growing hops too and soon they were being exported. In the 1920s, a new variety was introduced from California, better suited to the climate and producing higher yields than the old English and German ones, but it was wiped out in the 1940s by a root-rotting disease. The government had established a hop marketing board in Richmond in 1939, and in 1947, a hop research station was set up at Riwaka. By 1960, three disease-resistant strains had been developed, and in the 1970s, the world’s first seedless variety, developed in Riwaka, was released.
At the same time, however, partly because more potent hop varieties were being grown so fewer were needed, the world hop market became oversupplied and the number of growers halved – my grandad in Upper Moutere, like many others, gave up on hops at that point as he could no longer make any money out of them.
In the intervening decades, however, the remaining growers began focusing on quality, producing aroma hops rather than bittering ones. A range of new cultivars was developed and as the craft beer boom saw hoppy beers become all the rage, New Zealand hops became increasingly sought-after the world over. Brewers love hops like Riwaka, Motueka, Wai-iti and Kohatu for their distinctive tropical fruit, stonefruit and citrus characteristics, not to mention the hugely popular Nelson Sauvin, named for its “crushed gooseberry” attributes that call to mind a crisp sauvignon blanc.
Before these new hops are released with their snazzy names, they go by numbers, and certain brewers get the opportunity to experiment with them. Which brings us to the whole point of my Nelson jaunt: the rather unromantically named Hort 4337. We’re here to pick up a couple of sacks full of this trial hop, which has been very popular with the lucky brewers who have got their hands on some. (Trial hops go out to 15 to 20 different brewers over two or three years, says McGlashen, and “you’ll know it’s amazing when the brewer says, ‘Oh yeah, it’s not too bad, we’ll take everything you’ve got.’”)
A sister of the Waimea hop, Hort 4337 has an intense tropical fruit character that lingers in the glass. It’s been nicknamed “wow”, because that’s the usual reaction it elicits, McGlashen tells us. He grows 18 or so different hops, and enjoys giving trial varieties a go. “We tend to do a lot of experiments,” McGlashen explains. “Some hops are insane to brew with but agronomically not good – they’re hard to grow.”
The Hort 4337 experiment came about after a visit to Plant & Food Research’s hop-breeding site in Motueka some years ago, he explains – the trial process takes seven to 10 years. “I said, ‘What are these pots?’ They said, ‘Just some variety, we’ll probably biff them.’ I said, ‘I’ll bloody grow them!’”
And grow them he did, as I saw with my very own eyes and smelled with my very own nose. Even if you’re not a hophead, hop harvest is something to behold. You’re first hit by the aroma – like sticking your whole head in a double IPA, but more intense, more dank, more marijuana-like. (Hops are, of course, a member of the Cannabaceae family, closely related to cannabis, which is why my sneakers still stink like it three months later, despite the fact I scrubbed them with Janola and put them through the washing machine.)
At Mac Hops, they were everywhere: spilling out of trailers onto the concrete as Rosie the hop dog ran about trampling them, and inside by the kiln in enormous piles that any self-respecting beer fan would be tempted to dive into, like Scrooge McDuck dived into his piles of money. In a big shed bordering the farm itself, it’s like Willy Wonka for beer nerds – I watched mesmerised as the long, hop-laden bines were hoisted up to the roof and pulled along by what McGlashen describes as “a giant Meccano set”, with high-vis-vest-clad workers scurrying about underneath with long brooms, sweeping up the detritus. The bines whizz along sticky belts, through rollers and past fans as the cones are removed and come tumbling down a sloping belt, waterfall style, at the end. This is the Bruff hop-picking machine, a 60-year-old marvel that modern machines apparently don’t come close to for efficiency or care.
We walked through to the hop kiln – where the hops go to be dried after emerging from the Bruff. My mum remembers my grandfather sleeping in the little hop kiln building during harvest, as he had to get up and stoke the furnace regularly. I’m pleased to hear that still happens – McGlashen has slept next to the hop kiln pretty much every harvest for the past 30 years, he reckons, as drying is a delicate process that must be managed carefully. He barely gets two hours’ sleep a night during harvest. The process is much more high-tech these days, though, with digital temperature control rather than my grandad’s educated guesses. Mother also recalls working on Grandad’s mobile hop-picking machine in the hop garden in the late 60s, pulling leaves out of the hops on a conveyor belt. It’s what made her deaf, she reckons.
Once the hops are dried they’re turned into pellets, which is what the vast majority of beer is made from – an all-round more user-friendly and reliable product than the volatile fresh hops we’re here for today. But it’s the unpredictability of fresh hops that brewers love, the sense of urgency, the challenge of not knowing what you’re going to get at the end. Known as fresh-hopped, green-hopped or wet-hopped beers, they showcase the flavours and aromas of different hops at a whole new level, imparting herbaceous, “green” characteristics that change from year to year.
We scooped up a couple of huge sacks of the freshly picked Hort 4337, stuffed them into the back of the rental car and high-tailed it back to the airport. But only after we’d had a tour of the hop farm, sampled some of the delicious fruit growing on the property, had a good old yarn with McGlashen and many pats with Rosie.
Speaking of dogs, the pound had been in touch to say Stanley was all mine, and would I like to take him back with me to Auckland that afternoon? We were seriously cutting it fine to make our flight, and if we missed it we risked jeopardising the whole brew, so it was a no-go – though when we were pulled over for speeding on the way back to the airport I secretly hoped we might miss the flight, which would give me plenty of time to book Stanley in on the next one.
We made it though – cue comical scenes of hop-laden trolleys being wheeled towards check-in at lightning pace – and were relieved that the Air New Zealand staff didn’t blink an eye at the brimming 60-year-old Mac Hops sacks McGlashen had kindly lent us. We farewelled our hoppy cargo and boarded the flight, catching huge whiffs of hops as we climbed the staircase to get on the plane at the same time as they were lobbed into the hold.
I swear I could smell them throughout the flight, but then again it could’ve been my aforementioned sneakers. There were certainly big whiffs as they came rolling out on the conveyor belt at Auckland luggage claim, with one of our fellow passengers, on seeing them emerge, exclaiming, “I thought I could smell hops!”
By beer o’clock we were back at Little Creatures, lugging our precious (and heavy) cargo past curious punters and into the brewery behind the bar to complete the mission: Brewjolais, a 2020 take on the first fresh hop beer to be brewed commercially in New Zealand. Mac’s brewer Colin Paige was the protagonist back in 2006, which was early in terms of the craft beer revolution. These days every brewer worth their salt is on board the fresh hop bandwagon, but it’s a relatively new thing, at least commercially (cue some beer nerd emailing me to mansplain that actually an obscure Oregon woodsman was making fresh hop beer in 1873).
Anyway, Brewjolais 2020 was meant to be launched at an event at Little Creatures a couple of months later, kegged and sent to bars around the country. Late April/early May is usually a lovely time for the beer enthusiast, with fresh hop events around the country at which you can try an array of these special brews made with fresh-from-the-bine hops to which great lengths were gone to obtain.
Sadly, a little global pandemic put a kibosh on that, but many of the beers were canned and available online or to those making essential supermarket trips – Brewjolais included. Juicy, but with a dry finish, and some lingering bitterness to cleanse the palate, a can or two of it was enjoyed by Stanley and me over lockdown.
(Yes, he flew up the weekend after our first meeting, and we lived hoppily ever after.)