It goes without saying that hops are crucial to craft beer. A trip to Tasmania at hop harvest time reveals how scientific advances in hop production are helping brewers work wonders…
By
James Squire

14 Jul 2014 - 10:40 AM  UPDATED 24 Jul 2014 - 2:50 PM

Throughout history, the best, most successful, most influential, most groundbreaking, most creative partnerships have generally been greater than the sum of their parts. Sure, the individuals themselves may have crafted extraordinary work in their own right, but, really, where would Lennon have been without McCartney, Jobs without Wozniak, Torvill without Dean, Lillee without Thomson, Hewlett without Packard, or Bonnie without Clyde?

Well, in the case of the last couple, probably not on a murderous and ultimately suicidal rampage, but you get the point: when partnerships work, they are capable of producing something extraordinary.

That’s certainly the case in the world of craft beer, where brewers and hop farmers blend their knowledge, skills and experience. The results speak for themselves. Witness James Squire One Fifty Lashes Pale Ale with its judicious use of Galaxy hops, or the new James Squire Hop Thief 6 American-style Pale Ale with its Simcoe and Columbus hop combination?

Some partnerships are accidental. Others, though, appear fated – and there certainly seems to be a cosmically preordained connection between James Squire craft beer (named, of course, after Australia’s first brewer) and Australia’s oldest hop farm, Bushy Park in Tasmania.

About Bushy Park
Hops were introduced to Tasmania by Kent farmer William Shoobridge in 1822. His son, Ebenezer, established Bushy Park some 55km outside Hobart in 1867. That small plantation is now owned and operated by Hop Products Australia (HPA) and has grown into the largest hop farm in the southern hemisphere – a place that supplies hops around the world.

The numbers at Bushy Park are staggering. The farm has just completed its 148th harvest. One hundred and fifty people worked in shifts covering 20 hours every day to harvest 1.5 million bines across 220 hectares – all in about three weeks. It’s a scale of production that the Shoobridges couldn’t even have dreamt about in a time before mechanisation (when up to 2000 people used to help pick the hops), but they certainly knew a thing or two about choosing the perfect hop-growing location.

‘Hops can only really grow in latitudes of around 40 degrees,’ explains Jeff Potter, Head Brewer at the Malt Shovel Brewery (home to the James Squire craft beer range), as we drive out to Bushy Park to witness the hop harvest first-hand. ‘They also require a lot of water and if rain can’t provide it, you have to irrigate.’ Which makes Bushy Park’s location in the idyllic, very English-looking Derwent Valley, at the foot of Mount Field National Park and bordered by the Styx and Derwent Rivers, about as good as it gets.

At harvest time, hops don’t just scent the air, they smother it with seductive sweetness. ‘I love it,’ chuckles HPA Managing Director Tim Lord. In fact, the smell is crucial – indicating that the hops are mature and ready for harvest. Which explains the urgent efficiency of the operation. If Bushy Park misses its small harvesting window, its hops are no use to the brewers, which means no craft beer – a prospect no-one wants to contemplate.

There’s no danger of that happening at Bushy Park, though, as Tim (pictured centre in the first picture, above, with Jeff on the left and Rob Freshwater, Senior Brewer at Malt Shovel Brewery, on the right) takes us to where a converted pea harvester is cutting down the metres-tall bines. (No, that’s not a misprint: bines are climbing plants that climb by their shoots growing in a helix around a support – in this case three long lengths of string. Vines, on the other hand, use tendrils or suckers to climb. Here endeth the lesson!)

From there, we’re taken to see the hops being harvested, dried and packed into bales. Some will be sent to breweries in that form, but most – including the varieties favoured by Jeff and the other James Squire brewers – are turned into pellets before being transported.

Science and hops
At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that hop production at Bushy Park – as evidenced by the throb of machinery, by the tractors moving along the rows, by the black irrigation pipes waiting for the pumps to hum into action – is a highly mechanised operation. It is, of course, but only up to a point.

Bushy Park is conscious of its environmental footprint (using sheep rather than insecticides to keep weeds at bay and mulching old bines and other organic matter to use as fertiliser), but it is the work that happens away from the hop fields themselves that is perhaps the most interesting part of the estate and that best exemplifies the difference between hop cultivation in the 21st century to that of the Shoobridge era.

The original oast house (aka ‘the Text Kiln’) still stands on the Bushy Park property. It is inscribed with Ebenezer Shoobridge’s name and his favourite passages from the Bible. Back then, it seems, hop production was seen as a partnership – there’s that word again – between Nature and God. Now, though, it's Nature and Science who are working together.

‘We’re investing all the time in research to find new cultivars that we can grow,’ says Tim. Bushy Park has its own breeding program and the new cultivars developed open up new flavour or aroma or bitterness possibilities (as governed by the likes of the alpha acids in the hops) for craft brewers. HPA (which has another hop farm in Victoria) already produces such noted hops as Galaxy, Ella, , Topaz, Summer, Cascade, Pride of Ringwood and more, but it’s the potential inherent in new varieties like Vic Secret (get the joke?) that really excites men like Tim and Jeff.

Plus the research conducted at Bushy Park offers greater understanding into the inheritance, molecular genetics, physiology and chemistry of important hop traits. That not only allows for improved efficiency of production, but it gives the brewers greater control during the brewing process.

So whatever your craft beer of choice, take a moment as you savour the flavours to consider the process and the partnership that made it possible – between hop farmer and brewer: brothers in hops, partners in craft.