Size hasn’t only been a major influence in the development of the New Zealand craft brewing industry; isolation has also played a major role in the development of New Zealand’s distinctive hop varieties.
Hops have been grown in the Nelson region for more than 100 years, originally planted by English and German settlers who found the region’s long days, plentiful rains and lack of wind perfect for hop growing.
The country’s isolation has contributed to a virtual absence of pests and diseases. Together with an active breeding program that developed disease resistant strains by the 1960s, a significant portion of the New Zealand hop industry is now spray free or completely organically grown. Doug Donelan, a former brewer who now heads New Zealand’s hop growers co-operative NZ Hops, says that these factors have gone a long way to assisting the local hop industry develop interesting varieties. “For a long time we have been able to focus our breeding programs on positive hop attributes, not solving problems, and on their brewing qualities like aroma, not agronomic issues,” Donelan says.
A new hop variety takes up to 12 years to come through the development program and NZ Hops’ dedication to moving away from high alpha commodity varieties to specialty hops is coming to fruition with a number of successful breeds hitting the market over the past decade. Nelson Sauvin is the flagship of the new breed.
Named for the town of Nelson, where they were developed, and their aroma of crushed gooseberries that is reminiscent of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, the hop has gained widespread use across Australia and New Zealand and is starting to find uses elsewhere. “A handful of our newer hops—Nelson Sauvin, Motueka, Riwaka, Rakau and a couple of the alpha varieties, including Southern Cross and Pacific Jade—have all found their way into the U.S.” Donelan says.
Surprisingly, Donelan’s discovered that it’s the larger craft breweries that are most willing to experiment with newer hop varieties. “We have found that American craft brewers have a definite penchant for their own varieties so it has been difficult for us to get the smaller craft brewers in the U.S. to switch into New Zealand hops. We’ve had success with Sierra Nevada through their seasonal Southern Harvest. Anchor Steam also does a seasonal with our hops and New Glarus have started using Riwaka, so some guys are using us as a point of difference. Once some of the bigger craft brewers start to use your hops, there’s an effect downwards into the market.”
With a willingness to experiment identified as playing a role in take up of these hops, Donelan is targeting the most experimental part of the U.S. market. “We have been focussing on the homebrew market in the U.S. because we look at that as a seeding area where a lot of the most creative stuff is going on,” he explains. “Homebrewers were also much more interested in developing beers around these new varieties.”
With high alpha and aroma hops successfully on the market, Donelan says they are now going for a different tack with some of their new breeds. “One in particular is a very low alpha hop,” he says. “While everyone has been chasing high alpha hops for a long time, we are getting requests from brewers who want a low alpha hop because they want to make beers that aren’t necessarily all that bitter but they want to use a lot of hops in them.”
It’s an approach that ties nicely in on where the local brewing industry seems to be headed.