Southern hop growers find ready local market

James McNamee (left) and Altitude Brewing head brewer and founder Eliott  Menzies inspect hops...
James McNamee (left) and Altitude Brewing head brewer and founder Eliott Menzies inspect hops harvested on the McNamee family's farm at Garston. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
When thinking of hop-growing regions in New Zealand, Garston doesn’t immediately spring to mind.

James  McNamee (8) immerses himself in hops.
James McNamee (8) immerses himself in hops.
But an enterprising Southland farming family believes there is great potential in the area — and a craft brewery up the road in Queenstown reckon they are on to a good thing.

The McNamee family first planted hops on their Garston property in 2016. The family has been on the land for more than 140 years and farms mostly sheep and crops.

While having a beer with a mate one day, James McNamee started thinking about how craft brewers in New Zealand were struggling to get New Zealand-produced hops and he thought it was a shame that beer was being made with imported hops.

He looked at the latitude of where hops were grown around the world, including major hop-growing regions like the Czech Republic and Kent in England, and discovered it "lined up more down here than Nelson", the country’s main hop-growing region.

Hops liked daylight hours and there was another hour to hour and a-half of light in the South than in the Tasman area. So they planted a few varieties and have been slowly expanding.

They had about 800 plants on about half to three-quarters of a hectare and the plan was to increase to 5ha next year and progressively continue to grow.

It had been a huge learning curve and he spent time in the Nelson-Motueka area looking at what hop growers did up there, as they harvested a few weeks before the South.

Mr McNamee has invested in a hop harvester, towing it down from Nelson — "in 23 and a-half hours; not that I was watching", he quipped.

A hop harvester has been bought for  the farm.
A hop harvester has been bought for the farm.
They believed they were the southern-most hop growers in the world, until a neighbour started growing some 400m south of them, he said, laughing.

He was keen to see the industry grow in the South, saying "the more the better".

A close-up of a hop.
A close-up of a hop.
They would have to put in some big infrastructure in a couple of years’ time so the more to help share that, the better.

He likened it to those merino sheep farmers that sold their land in the Gibbston Valley years ago for grape plantings years ago, and were probably considered "crazy" at the time.

Mr McNamee farms in partnership with his brother Terence, who looks after the sheep and the rest of the farm, while he employs people to look after the hops.

The two worked in well together, as sheep were able to be around the hops most of the year. In fact, once the plants got above waist height, it was good for sheep to eat the lower branches. And, like the beer produced from the different terroir, the meat also tasted different because the sheep had eaten hops.

Last month, Altitude Brewing headed south with 30 people to see how it was going and to harvest fresh hops for its three fresh hopped beers.

Altitude Brewing founder and head brewer Eliott Menzies first met Mr McNamee and his family in early 2017, when Mr McNamee phoned him to say they were growing hops.

He was excited about the prospect and that enthusiasm grew as he looked more into it and discovered the suitability of the area for growing hops. He believed the potential was "massive".

It was "a bit of a collaborative thing" in the sense of working together so varieties could be planted that the brewery needed and that customers liked.

Beer drinkers’ palates had changed from old-world lager to modern IPA and planting varieties helped them brew those styles of beers, he said.

While the McNamees’ hops were still in their infancy, Mr Menzies found them "fantastic" to use, with a punchy and aromatic style.

He would love to be able to be shift his entire New Zealand hop purchase to the McNamees to support another local business, while also reducing transport costs.

Growing hops was still dealing with agricultural production; each year was different and it was exciting to see "what you’re going to get" each year.

At the brewery, it was great to be able to do new things. That was what customers wanted, Mr Menzies said.

He started Altitude Brewing in 2013 and while it was initially a Queenstown brand, it was now a bit more of a national brand. A new tap room and brewery was opened in 2018.

Obviously, Covid-19 affected the hospitality sector hard, including the bars and restaurants that Altitude supplied, but it was good to see local support come back to them "now we need it".

Mr Menzies grew up in Queenstown and the community supported him and he now tried to support it back. One percent of the company’s gross revenue was donated to Queenstown charities.

He welcomed the increased competition in the craft brewing space in the area, saying it was helping to draw people to the area "almost on a gastro holiday".

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