27 March, 2012
There is something central to the human psyche about the idea of pilgrimage, of reaffirming and celebrating your faith by making a journey to some spiritual heartland. For some it might mean a trip to Mecca or to Jerusalem.
For us it was a trip to the hop fields of Nelson.
That’s what I wrote last year about our trip to the New Zealand Hop Harvest. So inspired were we by that trip that we immediately began planning our 2012 visit. It would have to be something bigger, more challenging, with higher stakes and possibly even greater rewards.
Garage Project’s unofficial motto could be why do something the easy way when it’s so much more fun making it complicated? Why bring hops to the brewery when you can bring the brewery to the hops? So the idea was hatched, a wet hop brew, in the hop fields, using whole hop cones, fresh from the bines.
When hops are harvested they are immediately dried to preserve them. Without the drying process the hop cones would quickly deteriorate.
But what if you use the hops straight away? What if you can get them into a brew while they are at the peak of their freshness If you’ve ever been in a hop field at harvest time you’ll know what I mean. The clusters of ripe cones on the bines are a vivid green, which is almost hyper real. They are literally bursting with freshness, sticky with resin and so pungent that the still air between the rows of bines is almost dense with their piney, spicy aroma. Last year I wrote that for any true hop enthusiast a trip to the hop fields really is something akin to a spiritual experience. I’m not kidding. If you love hops it’s enough to put you into a state of rapture.
What if you could capture that intensity in a beer?
That’s the aim of a wet hop brew. Exponents of this brewing style liken it to using fresh basil or coriander rather than the dried equivalent. It isn’t a brewing technique that I’d ever had the opportunity to try before, but I’ve wanted to give it a crack from the moment I first heard of it.
What we needed first was to find a hop farmer who was willing to tolerate an over enthusiastic brewer with a scheme to brew in their field during the frantic height of their working year. We got lucky when we were put in touch with Colin Oldham, a third generation hop farmer from New Hoplands, in the Tadmor Valley near Tarawera. Not only was New Hoplands one of the very first farms to grow organic hops, well ahead of their time, but they also grow an amazing variety of different hops, which speaks volumes of the enthusiasm and passion that Colin has for his work.
So with a hop farm sorted I hired a van, loaded up the little pilot brewery that has served us so well over the 24, and Garage Project hit the road.
Getting off the ferry and heading down the Wairau Valley I discovered that the van I’d hired was notable for two things - that the speedo read 15km faster than the van was travelling, giving an impression of speed that the vehicle was totally incapable of giving, and that it took corners like a medium sized yacht.
I finally arrived at Colin’s farm to find it in the full swing of harvest, with the drying floors working round the clock to process the harvest, rooms full of huge sacks of hops waiting to be dried, and literally mountains of dried cones waiting to be baled up and loaded onto trucks.
Part of my pilgrimage was to actually sleep in a hop field. I just thought it would be fun. Colin looked at me a bit funnily when I told him this and offered me a nice warm bed in their guesthouse, but I assured him that I’d be fine. I’d come prepared with a sleeping bag and hammock tent complete with mosquito net. What could go wrong? I slung the hammock between the poles of the hop rows and as I lay looking up into a crystal clear night, full of stars and framed by the hops above me, a shower of shooting stars went over. I’ll tell you, it felt pretty special.
About four hours later I woke up, drenched in dew, feeling colder than I can ever remember being and thinking whose fucking clever idea was this? I’ve no one to blame but myself.
When the sun finally came up, and I’d stopped exhibiting the early symptoms of hypothermia, I unloaded the kit and fired up the brew.
Sometimes the reality of fulfilling something you’ve always wanted to do can fall short of your expectations, but not here. Brewing in a hop field with the harvest in full swing around me exceeded all expectations. Colin and everyone at the farm were as generous with their time as they were with their hops. Walking through a hop field, hand picking hops and throwing them straight into a rolling boil has to be one of the brewing highlights of my life.
The concern I always have when I try a new way of brewing is that the finished product will somehow be unremarkable. What if we went to the effort of brewing a fresh harvest beer, only to produce just another hoppy beer like any other? I can’t say for sure, but based on the intense and unique hop aroma that came off the boil as I threw in mounds of fresh green cones, I’m pretty confident that we’ve got something pretty exciting here.
With the test brew in the fermenter and the van loaded with huge sacks of fresh hops I took off on a mercy dash to Christchurch, to get the hops to Three Boys to brew a large scale version of our harvest beer. It was an uneventful trip other than the discovery, somewhere over the Lewis Pass during a sudden down pour that the van’s windscreen wipers offer what can only be described as an implied wipe.
But what pilgrimage is complete without some moment of existential crisis where all seems lost? At Three Boys, the plan was to boil the wort with the fresh bittering and flavour hops, and then using the mash tun as a huge hopback, to pass the wort through a mountain of whole cones to capture that fresh hop aroma.
This large scale version of our hop field brew went like a charm, without so much as a hitch, that is, right up until the end of the boil when the hot wort, laden with whole cone hops just flatly refused to come out of the kettle into the hopback where the late hops were waiting.
I normally manage to maintain a fairly optimistic approach to brewing. There’s almost always a way of dealing with a crisis, no matter how bad it may seem at the time. However, after exhausting almost all my mental list of possible solutions, I’ll admit I felt the first twitch of icy, sphincter clenching panic at the prospect of having to just open up the bottom of the kettle and dump the brew, chalking it down as a painful learning experience.
Luckily it never came to this and with an improvised hop filter in line and a bit of fiddling the kettle finally gave up the wort to our improvised hopback. I used to use hopbacks in England, and there’s almost nothing better than watching and smelling the steaming hot wort running through a mountain of whole cone hops. It’s simply magic, and all the sweeter having so narrowly averted disaster.
And that’s it. The pilgrimage is complete. The harvest brews are tucked away in their fermenters. Thanks to Tony at Three Boys for his support in our moment of crisis. Huge thanks too to Colin Oldham for letting us brew on his farm, for his generosity and tolerance. It’s always inspiring to meet someone with such a knowledge and passion for their work, so inspiring we’re calling this brew Oldham’s Farm. How often do you get to fulfill a dream and have it live up to all expectations? I can hardly wait till next year.