It wasn't that long ago that there weren't many Australian hops to get too excited about. Yet the revolution kickstarted by the release of Galaxy by Hop Products Australia (HPA) has changed the local landscape, with newly developed hop varieties exciting brewers all over the planet.
These days, lupulin lovers wanting to get to know more about the little green flowers are spoilt – and not just because a growing number of brewers across Australia will be in the process of preparing for and brewing fresh hop beers right now. A pair of festivals in the states with the country's biggest hop farms offer the chance to try such beers, get up close and personal with hops themselves and learn all about their impact on beer too.
Next month sees High Country Hops return to Beechworth for a third year, while, in April, the Fresh Hop Festival hosted by Saint John Craft Beer in Launceston will see fresh hop beers from 26 Australian breweries showcased over three days. The majority of breweries creating beers for the festival are Tasmanian, but several mainland brewers are getting involved too, including Stone & Wood, Modus Operandi, Hargreaves Hill and Dainton Family Brewery.
The former was launched by Ben Kraus of Bridge Road Brewers, a man who has done more than any local brewer to popularise the new wave of Australian hop varieties. Not only has he showcased them in his Single Hop IPA Series and a pair of annual harvest ales, he's played a role in some of their first uses overseas, such as when he brewed an India Saison in collaboration with Nøgne Ø, back when Kjetil Jikiun was still at the helm.
Each year, he's a regular visitor at nearby Rostrevor Farm, working with the Monshing family to select new varieties from their research block with which to experiment; certainly, it's a far cry from the early days of the brewery.
"When we started out, we used Pride of Ringwood [an older variety developed mainly for bitterness and still the feature hop in Coopers Pale] in our Aussie Ale and some European and American hops grown here, but we didn't have the Australian hops like we have now," says Ben.
Since then, the change led by HPA has seen the likes of Ella (initially called Stella), Vic Secret and Enigma follow – as well as new varieties Melba and Astra from fourth generation Victorian hop farmers Ellerslie Hop. Brewers have been increasingly keen to get their hands on unreleased trial varieties too and, in doing so, help the growers understand which varieties have a future and which will never move beyond the research areas of their fields.
At High Country Hops this year, Bridge Road will be showcasing a fresh hop beer made solely with Galaxy; this year's local harvest is a late one so the varieties required for his Harvest Ale won't be ready in time. Ben will also be hosting small tastings of the beers they brewed with trial varieties when making this year's harvest ale hop selection. Joining him for the family friendly festival will be six fellow High Country Brewery Trail brewers: Bright Brewery, Black Dog, Social Bandit, Blizzard Brewing, Sweetwater and Rutherglen.
All face competitive disadvantages by virtue of being regional brewers, not least transportation costs, but, says Ben: "One of our advantages is being within 'Cooee!' of the hop gardens, so we developed a close relationship and strive to use more Aussie hops."
Ben will also be among the brewers appearing at the Fresh Hop Festival in Launceston. What started out as the staff at Saint John tapping a couple of locally brewed fresh hop beers in 2014 has grown up fast. This year, breweries from across Australia are creating one-off beers for the event, which now stretches over three days, has taken over a couple of private car parks behind heritage listed buildings at the rear of the craft beer venue, is jetting in bands from interstate and features a series of masterclasses and a Brewer's Brunch with local outfit Ocho at the city's Sebel hotel.
Like High Country Hops, there will be live entertainment but, in many ways, Fresh Hop stands out from the vast majority of beer festivals in the increasingly cluttered calendar. The festival beers are all poured from bars staffed by the organisers, leaving brewers – with name tags identifying them – free to mingle with attendees.
"We tap the beers side by side and they are all sold at the same price," says festival organiser Emma Lenck. "We really want people to make their decisions on what to drink based on what they think will be a good beer, not on price."
She says this, and the brewers' freedom to roam, "really promotes the brewing community and the industry as a whole; it's not each brewer behind a stall competing in a way."
That said, there is a people's choice vote, one that was won last year by Bruny Island Brewing Co with a beer featuring pepperberries – something highlighting that the lineup isn't merely 26 pale ale hop showcases.
"We had a really great range last year," says Emma. "There was a sour IPA, a couple of brown ales – Hobart Brewing Co took second spot with a hoppy saison."
One aim both festivals share in common is to entice people to their part of the world – and to celebrate the surrounding farming communities too. Ben says he was inspired by visits to the annual Birra del Borgo festival in a small town about 45 minutes from Rome, which draws visitors from the Italian capital while also offering the brewery an opportunity to invite customers and industry friends to their home. For Emma, Fresh Hop is an opportunity to try and draw some attention away from Hobart to Launceston.
"Our vision is just to ramp up and present Tasmania, the hop industry and the brewers that are here," says Emma. "To create something really cool for community of Launceston too.
"[The local beer industry] is headed the way of the wine industry in terms of hops being viewed a bit like grapes. We can educate people about what it means to have different hops in your beers.
"It's just fascinating because ten years ago the hop industry was on its knees, but craft beer has helped bring it back."