In a region of Australia best known for producing Shiraz, a pair of small businesses is working together to persuade drinkers the Heathcote region can be good for more than its bold wines.
Skull Gully Hops and Cornella Real Brewery have been fully operational for less than 12 months and this weekend are formalising their partnership with the launch of an IPA brewed with hops grown in the region.
Skull Gully hop farm is the work of Michelle and Damian Muscovich, who were inspired to start their operation by a combined love for beer and horticulture. For now, Skull Gully is the sole hop grower in the immediate area, with Michelle confident the local climate can make the farm suitable for small-scale hop farming.
“From a sunlight perspective it’s fine,” says Michelle. “They do need a lot of water so that’s one of the things we need to manage and make sure we can get the water up to them.”
The first hops to leave the farm during harvest in early March were American varieties Cascade and Chinook and English stalwart Goldings. Next season they’ll be joined by Saaz, Fuggles and Columbus as the couple trials a wide range early in the farm’s life.
“We want to have a bit of variety so we can get an idea of whether the growing conditions suit one of the varieties better,” says Michelle.
In a part of the country that doesn’t have much of an association with hop growing, knowing which varieties might flourish – as well as predicting their annual yields – is tough to gauge. So, with hops taking some time to establish themselves, Michelle and Damian say they're happy to start small.
“It was a huge learning curve,” says Michelle. “When we first planted, we knew first year hops weren’t going to have a huge harvest so we went in not expecting to have a big harvest but instead went in to learn – and we certainly did that.”
For now, their plan is to stick to selling whole hop flowers, with the region’s small breweries and homebrewers the target market.
Among their early customers is Cornella Real Brewery, located about 20 minutes down the road. It's run by Spencer Page and Matt van Run, old schoolmates that brew out of Spencer’s family vineyard, The Shiraz Republic.
Cornella’s first beer was released in October last year, brewed on a 200 litre brewhouse picked up from Wodonga’s Cheeky Peak Brewery. As Skull Gully’s first harvest was a small one, Cornella nano-sized batches made them well placed to take advantage.
“We were pretty rapt and interested to see that someone was growing hops locally,” says Spencer, who also helped out with the hop harvest.
Since the hop and grape harvests coincided, Cornella didn’t use the hops fresh off the bine but instead decided to brew with them further down the track. The beer into which all three Skull Gully varieties were added is a lightly modified version of their XPA.
“We were keen to have an experiment with it and it was always one of the reasons we wanted to be a small brewery because you can do a lot of play,” says Spencer.
Chinook is one of the brewing duo's favoured hops and features prominently in a lot of their beers, and Spencer feels the profile of the fresh hops had a marked difference to the Chinook pallets he normally uses.
“You get a really interesting piney-citrus flavour from the Chinook and that’s really accentuated by the wet hops," he says, "and you get a grassy sweetness coming in too.”
Like all of Cornella’s beers, the Wet Hop IPA is bottle conditioned and Spencer suggests the hop profile of the beer has developed and improved over time.
“It really opened up, which is something I’m used to saying about wine,” he says. “I think it has benefited from a little bit of maturity and the bottle condition helps a bit with that."
If you'd like get in at the start and watch as this fledgling partnership matures, you can join Cornella Real and Skull Gully Hops for the launch of the Wet Hop IPA at The Shiraz Republic on Sunday (September 24).
About the author: Will Ziebell is a history graduate who finds the greatest use for his degree is telling anecdotes to anyone who will listen. Often they involve beer, especially when hosting Melbourne Brewery Tours. He can be found on Instagram and Twitter.