Many small businesses have a special story to tell. They are built on passion, commitment and a long-held dream. Each has a flavour, history and ethos that is all their own. Some are steeped in history, others are brand-new and excitingly different. Altitude Brewing, who last year took all of our green hops to flavour the delicious “Me and Jimmy McNamee” beer, is one such business with a story to tell.
The other day I popped into their new building on the Frankton Marina, to visit partners Eliott Menzies and Eddie Gapper, and hear the tales behind…
All the stars aligned last weekend and suddenly our hop harvest was underway. The flowers weren’t supposed to be ready for another ten days, but the weather gods smiled and the hops ripened fast.
Fortunately, it was Easter and so plenty of people had a day to spare. My plans for a quiet holiday flew out the window. We had to get the hops picked pronto, so the call went out — HELP!
Thank goodness, our family and friends rallied round.
A Trial Crop
Hops are an interesting crop — and an experimental one for our farm. You see, according to some experts, hops shouldn’t thrive this far south in New Zealand. It’s too cold; too windy; too far down at the bottom of the world. But the experts hadn’t seen the vine Cousin Matt had been quietly nurturing in a sheltered corner of his garden down the road. We knew that one hop plant would grow, but could they grow on a larger scale? We decided to find out.
It didn’t take us long to identify the perfect hop-growing-spot on our farm. We call it the “Tree Surrounded Paddock.” It’s sheltered from the wind in every direction and flat as a pancake. Add in some beautiful soil and you’ve got a southern paradise for hops. And, two years down the track, the hops seem to agree.
Hops seedlings start out small, but in just a few months they shoot up four metres or more. Everyone in the family helped to build the frames needed to support such tall plants.
Hops need plenty of water and fertilizer, so we put in a small automatic watering system. Last year the timer worked perfectly. This year it didn’t. We watered them when we could but the drought sucked every drop out of the farm for months. So the hops had to get by on short rations. Just like the rest of us.
It didn’t seem to bother them much. I mean, just look at all the flowers!
To harvest the flowers we cut the vines at the top and bottom and carted the whole plant to the picking room aka my brother-in-law’s carport.
On a large hop farm with a huge volume of flowers, this is all mechanised but we must pick and sort every flower by hand. With our wonderful friends and family, we set to work. Eddie and Eliot from Altitude Brewing brought some friends along to help.
Somehow, we got the whole crop done in two days. It’s not hard work, but plucking flower after flower after flower gets rather boring. Unless you’ve got “Me And Bobby McGee,” and “The Gambler” on your iPod. Fortunately, we had all the classics to get us through: music, conversation and lots of food.
Hops are one of beer’s four essential ingredients. When the flowers are ripe they develop a distinctive yellow resin. And that’s what flavours the beer. There are many different varieties and they all offer different tastes. Craft brewers spend ages blending hops to create their own unique recipes.
Mostly, the flowers are dried and made into pellets which are easy to store. But our hops are heading straight to Queenstown’s Altitude Brewing. Eliot’s planning a special Garston green-hop brew.
This means time is of the essence because the flowers have to be fresh. There is a very short window of opportunity when making this sort of beer.
In New Zealand, and indeed worldwide, there is a burgeoning interest in craft beer. Homebrewing is on the rise and microbreweries are springing up in all sorts of interesting places.
Nowadays, people are more and more interested in beer as a drink to savour and appreciate. I think it’s all part of the slow living, back to our roots movement that’s happening all over the world.
We’re aiming to support our local micro-breweries. Wouldn’t it be great to give them naturally produced, locally grown hops. Minimal food miles and maximum goodness, that’s the plan. Sounds perfect to me.