Garage Project's Jos Ruffell (left) and Pete Gillespie

Leading from the bottom: How Kiwi craft brewers are taking innovation to the world

In an impossibly crowded market, New Zealand beers are rightfully being recognised as some of the world’s best. According to one of the men behind Garage Project, that didn’t happen by accident. 

New Zealand grows some of the best hops in the world. New Zealand also brews some of the best beer in the world. You’d think these two things would have developed hand in hand, yet surprisingly, that hasn’t been the case.

The hop industry in New Zealand has been a bit of a closed shop, according to critics. There have been murmurings of parochialism, of a lack of innovation that has seen hops treated as a commodity crop rather than a premium one, which has risked leaving us lagging behind other hop-growing regions.  

In 2018, Hāpi Research Ltd, a joint venture led by Wellington craft brewery Garage Project and American-owned Nelson hop grower Freestyle Farms, partnered with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) on a $13.25 million research programme that aims to change that. 

The aim is to connect hop growers in little old New Zealand with the world’s best brewers, something that technological developments and the rollout of ultra-fast broadband (UFB) have certainly made easier. 

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In the last 10 years, ultra-fast broadband has changed the way New Zealand connects with the world. In this new series in partnership with Chorus, The Spinoff will survey the changing nature of New Zealand’s business landscape and how fibre broadband has enabled new levels of innovation and economic growth.

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Garage Project’s Pete Gillespie (left) and Jos Ruffell

The Garage Project team have been described as “craft beer rockstars”, churning out increasingly exciting, innovative beers since they launched in 2011, which have earned them a slew of awards and made the global beer scene sit up and take notice.

New Zealand’s hops, most of which are grown in the Nelson/Tasman region, are being harvested right now: brewers head there in droves to get their hands on the freshest hops to take back to their breweries around the country. Then it’s a race against the clock to make some very special beers before the sticky hop cones start to deteriorate. 

The rise of New Zealand’s craft beer scene and the simultaneous global recognition of the unique quality of our hops has run almost parallel to the roll-out of UFB. As the internet makes us more accessible, our hops and beer have found recognition around the world. This year Garage Project was ranked 59th best brewery in the world by online review site RateBeer. Now, 15 of the top 100 breweries are coming to New Zealand for the Hāpi festival to get a taste of Aotearoa’s special hops at the source.

On the eve of the Hāpi 2020 Festival, Garage Project co-founder Jos Ruffell spoke to The Spinoff about why New Zealand’s beer industry should be held in as high regard as our wine industry is. 

The Spinoff: What led you to dive into the world of hop-growing and join forces with Freestyle Farms?

Jos Ruffell: It came from a shared desire to improve the quality and access brewers have to hops, and to see what we could do to help breed and create some new hop varieties and through that improve their farm and our brewery, and lift up the industries around it.

The industry hasn’t really embraced craft as swiftly as other hop-growing regions have. Access and ability to do lot selection [where brewers visit growers to select the hops they use] hasn’t been possible, whereas that’s increasingly a key part overseas. 

You’ve got the best brewers in the world wanting access, the ability to pick and choose like the top chefs of the world would do with the ingredients they cook with, and that wasn’t possible. We decided to do something about it.

How good are New Zealand hops?

We definitely have a unique terroir [a word most commonly used for wine, meaning how the environmental factors of a particular region affect the taste of a crop grown there], and there’s an interesting opportunity to explore what the terroir might be in other regions of the country as well, not just the Nelson region. We do seem to produce hops with unique aromatic qualities in New Zealand that are quite different to hops growing around the world.

Why was it important to get MPI on board?

Working with MPI was an opportunity to be part of the PGP programme, primary growth partnership. It’s a co-investment programme where we put up 60% of the money and they put up 40%, but it’s also a programme that’s flexible to allow research that can lead to commercial growth, and that’s really the purpose of it.

It’s not just a pure science grant, it’s all about bringing transformative growth to a primary industry, and that allowed us to bring together research around hops – the way we grow them, breed them and process them, but also how craft brewers brew with them. 

How much potential does the New Zealand craft beer industry have?

With the starting point of the hop industry at the time being about a $25 million industry, even if it increased 10 fold, it’s still not that appealing to government – they have other industries that could potentially become multi-billion-dollar industries. But when we start linking together the craft beer industry in New Zealand to the unique hops we grow so it’s hops that help push growth across beer, then suddenly we have a really interesting proposition on our hands.

It’s exactly the same as the wine industry – the government wouldn’t just fund contract grape growers to help fund and develop the potential of the wineries. I think the result from that [wine industry investment] has been astounding, and we think that we can do something similar for beer and hops. 

Garage Project, Wellington

Where is the Hāpi project at currently, and how has new technology been involved?

We’re in our second year – we started in late 2018 and unfortunately missed the window to get the first wave of proper experimental hops in the ground for the 2019 harvest. But we’ve been pushing forward in all sorts of areas around farm-based research and drying techniques, and publishing a lot of information on the Hāpi website. Last year we held the Hāpi Symposium, where brewers came in from around the world and we connected them to New Zealand brewers.  

This year is our first proper harvest of experimental hops, but the nature of hop breeding is that we won’t really see anything for quite a few more years yet. We’ve got two brilliant partners on the hop-breeding side [Lincoln University and Select Breeding] who are taking some quite novel approaches on that front.

On the farm side, we’re starting to use drones with UV cameras and field sensors, which hasn’t been seen before for hops. We’re starting to move from the traditional “when the hop is ready is when it smells good” to doing in-field testing and chemical analysis to actually understand at a plant level what’s happening and whether it’s ready to pick at that moment.

Why is it important to get international brewers interested in what’s going on down here?

It’s about working on the demand side of the equation ahead of the supply side, if that makes sense. We want the best brewers in the world getting familiar with what we’re doing then wanting access to the hops that we’re breeding. Then when we have those hops ready, we want farmers in Nelson and in other areas to be able to take up those licences knowing they have a healthy level of demand for those varieties. 

For this year’s Hāpi Symposium & Festival, we have over a hundred brewers flying in from overseas, they’ll be picking and selecting hops in Nelson then coming up to Wellington for the symposium, spending time with New Zealand brewers in the Opera House on Friday 3 April. The festival’s on Saturday 4 April and it’s a chance to try beers from some of the best brewers in the world. 



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