10 June, 2011
New Zealand Hop Harvest 2011
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.
Fact - hops add bitterness and aroma to beer, but there’s more to them than that.
Humulus Lupulus, the wolf bine, somehow really does get its claws into you. Once you start down the path of hoppiness it’s hard to turn back, and frankly, why would you.
So for any true hop enthusiast a trip to the hop fields really is something akin to a spiritual experience and not an opportunity to be passed up.
If a trip to the hop fields is a spiritual experience, then Doug, the CEO of NZ Hop Co. is the high priest. Doug was an accomplished brewer before he took on his role at Hop Co. We even briefly worked together at the Malt Shovel Brewery in Sydney. Doug’s low on bullshit, but high on enthusiasm for his product, and rightly so!
New Zealand hops are among the best in the world and some kiwi varieties would have a good shot at the top slot. NZ hops are cheekier and have a bigger flavor that many of the traditional European varieties, but they do this with more finesse than their brash American counterparts.
Now they’re getting a name for themselves, NZ hops are in demand all over the world. On the day we visited Hop Co. huge bales of freshly kilned whole hops were being made ready for their trip to the US, destined for the kettles of Sierra Nevada for their now famous Southern Harvest brew.
The highlight of the trip? The fields, rows of hops bines on their vertical wires, vibrant green and on the cusp of ripeness. Every morning in the harvest the farmers will walk their fields and inspect the hop cones in order to catch them at the their absolute peak. Too early and the all important resins won’t have developed to their fullest, too late and it’s all over and the cones will have begun to deteriorate.
And the highlight of the fields? A visit to George’s farm, one of the oldest family run hop farms in New Zealand. At George’s farm the harvest was in full swing.
In a huge wooden barn the freshly harvested hop bines were being brought in from the fields, the cones striped off and kilned to dry and preserve them at their height of freshness. It’s hard in words to describe the experience. The noise of the picking and sorting machinery - caked in resin from years of use.
The heat of kilns and drying floors where whole rooms of vivid green hop cones are being slowly preserved. But most of all the smell. Hops. Mountains of hops.
Brewers try to capture this in a bottle, but we’ll never match the intensity of huge mounds of freshly kilned hop cones. At George’s farm the hops marry with the smell of the warm wood of the barn to create something very special. It’s magic.
From here the hops are baled and sent to Hop Co. and from there they will make their way around the world. New Zealand beer drinkers should feel very proud of hops this country produces. They’ll certainly be playing a starring role in the Garage Project.
For a lot of pilgrims the journey is one of hardship and suffering. With Doug as our guide we drank quite a lot of beer, ate quite a lot and wondered around the hop fields in the sun. It was tough, but we left with our faith reaffirmed and even strengthened.
We’re already booked in for next year.