A-Z of Hops: N is for New Zealand

It only produces 0.7 per cent of the world's hops. Two varieties that have been barnstorming the British beer scene make up less than ten per cent of that crop. So how the hell did New Zealand begin to punch way above its weight in the hop world?

Hops have been in-country since arriving with European settlers in the mid-nineteenth century. Nelson province on the South Island became the industry's cradle, benefiting from a temperate climate, high number of sunshine hours, regular rainfall and relatively wind free conditions. The imported varieties were moderately successful, but the industry was transformed by the introduction of an West Coast American hop in the 1920's.

'Late Cluster', known in NZ as 'Cali', offered better growth and greater yields and became the hop crop of choice. But twenty years later, Cali was crippled by a soilborne root rotting disease, phytophthora, and the country's hop industry was in dire straits.

The response was the establishment of the Hop Research Station at Riwaka in 1949. Tasked with breeding new high-yield varieties resistant to phytophthora, three cultivars were developed (Smoothcone, First Choice and Calicross). By the mid-sixties when these hops were well established, the industry faced a new challenge.

Lager's growing popularity boosted the worldwide requirement for seedless aromatic hops. Whilst Europe was busy eliminating the seeded male hop plant, New Zealand took a different tack. They developed a virtually sterile seedless plant that still retained the aroma and bitterness characteristics of its lineage. The varieties produced (Green Bullet, Harley's Fullbright, Sticklebract and Super Alpha) became the world's first commercially produced triploid hops (ones having three chromosomes).

Further developments saw New Zealand carry out extensive research into aroma cultivars that were adapted to the country's growing conditions. Out of that program came New Zealand Hallertau, currently the most-produced hop in the country at 42% of the total acreage.

Hop production trebled through the eighties and nineties, and today over 80 percent of the crop is exported. But it's still responsible for less than one percent of the world hop trade. Perhaps the true value of its contribution can be found in two unique offerings.

Less than four percent of New Zealand hop production is of the varietal Nelson Sauvin. But, what a hop it is. Released in 2000, it offers an unmistakable aroma of gooseberries that's almost identical to that of the Sauvignon Blanc grape (hence the varietal's name). It's used by British brewers such as Brewdog to enhance the complexity of pale hoppy beers such as Punk IPA. Thornbridge showcase the hop to incredible effect in their South Pacific Pale Ale, Kipling. It's a hop whose impact can only widen as more drinkers experience it and fall in love with it.

There's also major potential for the production of organic hops. With typical viral and fungal hop diseases not an issue and the only significant pest (the two-spotted mite) controlled by a predator, no pesticide use is needed. Nor are herbicides - instead there's a well-engineered solution that both clears foliage around the hop bines whilst depositing natural organic fertiliser at the same time. It's called sheep grazing.

Unique varieties and organic credentials ought to make New Zealand an expanding player in the world hop market. The cost of freighting the end product out internationally may be the major obstacle to rapid returns on export. But when it results in beer that offers a real 'wow!' factor, perhaps it's a price well worth paying.