The flower of the hop plant (Humulus lupulus) contributes flavour and bitterness to beer, and has been used in brewing for at least 1,000 years. Hops belong to the same plant family as hemp (Cannabis sativa).
Hops in New Zealand
Hops and tobacco are both associated with the Nelson region, especially around Motueka. Nelson’s warm, sunny climate, and its many small landholdings, suit the crop. In summer, along the road from Motueka to Riwaka, hop vines can be seen growing on wires strung between high poles.
Hops were first grown in Nelson in 1842, and by the 1850s local breweries had established large hop gardens. The intensive seasonal work of picking was mostly done by women and children. By the 1870s, small farmers as well as the breweries were growing hops. Hops provided a cash crop for farmers clearing areas of bush, as well as on more established properties. The market was volatile, and prices were poor when supply was too high. A leading Nelson merchant organised marketing in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, and the crop was exported.
From the 1890s until the 1970s, the area planted in hops remained at around 240–280 hectares.
Hops must be dried within 24 hours of harvest. In 1890, the West Coast Times reported a social event at a hop grower’s property, where a hop kiln was kept well supplied by pickers: ‘Over three hundred people visited Mr Kortegast’s hop garden on Saturday last, where hop-picking is still in full swing. A merry time the young people were having among the long poles with their graceful draperies, a running fire of good-humoured chaff being kept up incessantly among the groups gathered among the hop bins.’ 1
The original varieties cultivated were Fuggle, Bumford and Goldings from England, and Halletauer from Germany. Due to the shorter daylight hours of the New Zealand summer, yields were lower than in Europe. In the early 1900s Bisley Brothers and Co., a Nelson merchant firm, imported a Californian variety more suited to the New Zealand climate. Yields were higher, but the variety was highly vulnerable to black root rot, a soil disease that became common from the early 1930s.
In 1939 the government established a Hop Marketing Committee with a monopoly on hop marketing. The committee set up long-term contracts with the major breweries, stabilising the industry. In 1947, with industry support, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research established a hop research station at Riwaka. By the mid-1950s, it had developed a hop which combined the Californian variety’s high yield with the Fuggle’s resistance to rot.
From the early 1960s mechanised picking became widespread. Breweries financed growers who wanted to modernise their plantings to enable machine harvest. By the mid-1970s the world market was oversupplied – partly because more potent varieties were being grown, so less was needed. These have higher concentrations of alpha acids (which give beer its bitter taste). The number of growers halved, and renewed attention was paid to quality. New, more potent cultivars were developed in New Zealand, and more aromatic hops were also grown for small breweries making specialty beers.
A boutique brewery revolution began in 1981, when Mac’s Brewery brewed its first beer in Nelson using locally grown hops. Their philosophy was that only malt, yeast, hops and water should be used. While the large breweries used New Zealand hops, they mostly brewed quite sweet ales, with added sugar muting the hop flavour. The boutique breweries created a demand for different varieties of hops.
Seedless varieties were developed in response to brewers’ demands. The main innovation after 1985 was processing hops into pellets. Pelleted hops are easily stored; they are concentrated and convenient for brewers to use. The pellets can be kept cool and are vacuum packed, so they retain flavour well.
With beer sales declining in New Zealand from the late 1980s, the only way the industry could grow was by increasing exports. By the mid-1990s some 80% of the New Zealand crop was exported, compared with 48% in 1985. Exports rose from $1.4 million in 1990 to $5.6 million in 2004. Total production had grown from 281 tonnes in 1980 to around 800 tonnes per year in the 2000s. The industry was deregulated in 2003, and a private company took over the functions of the Hop Marketing Board (formerly the Hop Marketing Committee).