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Hops, tobacco and hemp

by  Jim McAloon

Beer, cigarettes and marijuana – the pleasurable vices of many – are all produced from plants. Hop flowers are grown in New Zealand to flavour beer, but tobacco is no longer a commercial crop. Low-narcotic hemp varieties are cultivated for fibre and oil, while the more potent variety is grown illegally.


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 happiness

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.

Government involvement

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).

  1. West Coast Times, 17 March 1890, p. 2. › Back


Early tobacco growing

Tobacco was first grown in New Zealand in the mid-1800s, on a much smaller scale than hops. It required more processing, and so was less lucrative. ‘The growing of tobacco does not progress in New Zealand,’ noted the 1893 Official year-book. Plantations declined from 34 acres (13.7 hectares) in 1889 to just 4 acres (1.6 hectares) in 1893.

The Wills factory

Local cigarette manufacturing began in 1919 when W. D. & H. O. Wills, as a joint venture of British and New Zealand interests, set up a factory in Wellington. At first it mainly used imported tobacco, but price rises raised interest in stimulating local supply. The company required local growers to supply the factory with flue-cured, kiln-dried tobacco. A small number of Brightwater farmers promoted the crop in the early 1920s, and by 1925 tobacco growing was established. The Wills company often financed farmers, especially to build kilns. As with hops, tobacco was attractive because a relatively small area of land could produce a paying crop. As a cash crop, it became so important to Motueka farmers that their standard greeting was not ‘Gidday’ but ‘How’s your Baccer?’

By 1931 there were 326 hectares planted in tobacco in Nelson and 106 hectares around Auckland. In Nelson in the first seven years of the 1930s, the area planted increased by 15%, and the yield per hectare increased by 110%. Most of the crop was flue-cured for cigarettes, with around 11% being air-cured for pipe tobacco.

Tobacco tyres

In the 1930s some Nelson growers illicitly sold tobacco directly to the public. ‘One grower was well known to have taken loads of his brew to the West Coast for sale to men in the relief work camps there. Packaged in paper bags of a pound or so, the illegal tobacco was sold for 7s 6d a packet to the eager buyers. Customs raids did occur, but the clever “smugglers” soon devised a variety of ways of avoiding detection. Successful hiding places included beehives and petrol drums. One truckload stopped and searched on the Hope Saddle kept its secret well – the illicit cargo was hidden in the truck’s tires.’ 1

Government protection

Low prices and high government duties led to considerable uncertainty in the industry during the early 1930s. After some years of lobbying and discussion, the industry was regulated by the Tobacco-growing Industry Act 1935. All growers were licensed and all trading in raw tobacco was managed at fixed prices by the Tobacco Board. Manufacturers were required to use at least 30% domestic leaf. Member of Parliament Keith Holyoake, who came from a Riwaka hop, tobacco and fruit farm, lobbied so much on behalf of the growers that they dubbed him ‘minister of tobacco’.

With this protection, tobacco growing expanded after 1945. With other horticultural crops, it was a major employer of seasonal labour in the 1950s and 1960s. Manufacturers had long-term contracts with growers and often financed them to improve kiln and harvesting technology, but by the mid-1960s there was a considerable tobacco surplus. In the two years after the 1964–65 growing season the number of growers fell by 200, to 529.

Tobacco crisis

In the 1970s, the industry was in decline, in the face of heightened public awareness of tobacco’s effects on health, and manufacturers challenging the level of government protection for growers. They argued against enforced local tobacco content when they could import tobacco more cheaply. A new Tobacco Act in 1974, however, maintained the 30% local-content rule. It attempted to combine flexibility with certainty in production by requiring manufacturers to give growers forecasts of their needs.

End of an industry

By the end of the 1970s many protected industries were being scrutinised. The government announced in 1980 that over five years, the licensing system for tobacco growing would come to an end. The local content requirement would be phased out even faster, so tobacco was no more protected than any other similar crop. Growers and their allies lobbied for a slower transition with more certainty. There was an exodus from tobacco growing, and government payouts helped growers shift to other crops. The last commercial tobacco crop was planted in 1995. 

    • Patricia K. O’Shea, The golden harvest: a history of tobacco growing in New Zealand. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1997, p. 64. › Back


Hemp is the fibre of the cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa). Cannabis varieties grown legally in New Zealand for their fibre are known as industrial hemp and have a much lower narcotic content than the illicit varieties (which are about 75 times as strong). More potent varieties are cultivated illegally for drug use.

Hemp fibres are very long, making them desirable for manufacturing rope, fabric and other products. The seed oil contains essential fatty acids, and has similar health-giving properties to fish and flax-seed oils.

History of use

In the 1900s hemp-seed oil was a common ingredient in imported patent medicines, being prescribed for ailments such as gastric illnesses, rheumatism, headaches, and menstrual cramps. In the 1890s, the nun and nurse Suzanne Aubert reputedly grew hemp up the Whanganui River at Jerusalem and made her own remedies. Hemp was also recommended for natural insect control in orchards, but it was never grown intensively as a crop in New Zealand. Confusingly, native flax (Phormium tenax) was sometimes also called hemp.

In 1941 the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research planted 1 hectare of hemp as a trial crop, and the fibre was cut for processing into rope. Towards the end of the war the Ministry of Agriculture planted 4 hectares at Foxton. Then, in 1948, the question was raised about what the ministry was growing. The trials ceased soon after when they realised that cannabis had narcotic properties.


Around the First World War, hemp was stigmatised as a moral and physical danger, and the Dangerous Drugs Act 1927 brought it under strict control. During and after the Second World War, cannabis was associated – in the official mind particularly – with the jazz scene and, later, the bodgie and widgie youth culture of the 1950s.

Cannabis use and cultivation attracted much more attention from the late 1960s. Most cannabis was imported until the 1970s, when illegal growing expanded. The underground and alternative press of the early 1970s included advice on growing the plant, and legalisation was debated.

It is impossible to assess the extent of illegal cultivation of cannabis, but in the early 2000s it was undoubtedly widespread, and a major part of the unofficial economy and culture in some regions, such as Northland, Golden Bay, the East Coast and the Coromandel. In annual cannabis recovery operations in the 1990s, the police regularly seized over 200,000 plants. Cannabis is the third most commonly used recreational drug in New Zealand (after alcohol and tobacco) and the most commonly used illegal drug. A 1990s survey found that 43% of respondents had used cannabis at least once, though only 3% were regular users.

Industrial hemp

From the late 1990s, a small but vocal lobby promoted the cultivation of non-narcotic industrial hemp, emphasising that it could be grown without pesticides or sprays. Many of the crop’s advocates have also campaigned for decriminalisation of the more potent variety. However, the New Zealand Hemp Industries Association has stated that it has no interest in the cannabis drug use debate, except where this impedes development of the hemp industry.


From 2001 the government allowed trial plantings of industrial hemp, and in 2006 the cultivation of industrial hemp was permitted under licence. Only specified low-narcotic types of the plant were allowed. Industrial hemp varieties have such low concentrations of THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) that they are of no use as a recreational drug. In the United Kingdom and Canada, trials of industrial hemp have led to the establishment of successful hemp industries.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Jim McAloon, 'Hops, tobacco and hemp', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 September 2021)

He kōrero nā Jim McAloon, i tāngia i te 24 Nov 2008