It's usually around harvest time that stories focusing on the hop industry start to appear. But there's plenty that goes on year round to have the crops ready for picking in the autumn.
Philip Goslin took a trip to Rostrevor Hop Gardens months out from harvest to learn about the farm's history, its ups and downs, the invigorating effect of craft beer and more in the company of the third generation family now running it for Hop Products Australia.
In March, third generation hop farmer Allan Monshing will celebrate his 45th harvest at Rostrevor Hop Gardens in Victoriaâ€™s picturesque Ovens Valley. A lot has changed since his grandfather Gordon was the farm blacksmith in the late 1800s but one thing hasnâ€™t — an inherent passion for hops.
â€śThereâ€™s always a lot of rubbing and sniffing of cones at harvest time,â€ť Allan says with a grin, describing the old-fashioned method of checking if the hops are ready. â€śYou see a lot of yellow noses!â€ť
You get the impression he canâ€™t wait for harvest.
The 62-year-old farm manager started working on the now 185 hectare property as a farmhand fresh out of high school, continuing a family tradition that extended to four generations when his son Dean worked on the farm briefly before taking a position in the US hop industry.
Nestled in the hamlet of Eurobin, Rostrevor Hop Gardens was established in the 1890s by William and Ernest Panlook, the sons of a Chinese immigrant. In the early years, a dedicated "harvest train" would transport 1,000 workers from Melbourne to handpick cones from plants covering some 28 hectares. The workers lived on the property in a mini-village that had its own stores and police lock-up — there was even a special Rostrevor currency.
In the late 1980s Rostrevor was purchased by Hop Products Australia (HPA) along with Bushy Park Estates in Tasmania, where hops were first planted in 1867. HPA is part of the privately-owned Barth-Haas Group, the worldâ€™s largest hop trader, founded in Germany in 1794, with the company now accounting for 90 percent of Australiaâ€™s hop production.
For all the recent growth, itâ€™s still very much a family affair at Rostrevor however, with Allanâ€™s wife Gail overseeing the propagation program under the guidance of HPA hop breeder Simon Whittock. Prior to the current generation of Monshings taking over, Allanâ€™s father Reg also worked on the farm from an early age, rising to the position of manager.
When harvest is completed at the end of March, there is little time for rest — preparation for the next crop begins almost immediately. First there is the infrastructure to establish with a team of up to 70 workers putting up 1.6 million individual strings for the hops to climb; thatâ€™s more than 10,000 kilometres of coconut fibre twine — or one very, very large ball of string.
Each string is attached to a wire six metres above ground level and a knot at the base is dug into the earth to secure it. The strings head skywards in a V-shape with a pair known as a nest.
When The Crafty Pint visited in November 2017 at the start of growing season, dedicated workers were carefully training hop bines (runners) up the coir strings, selecting the best from each plant and winding them clockwise (the only way apparently).
Itâ€™s hot work in the field with little respite from the alpine sun and no shade in sight apart from a thin slither created by the poles supporting the overhead wires. One imagines the team would really appreciate a nice cold beer at the end of the day â€“ if theyâ€™re not all hopped out.
By early January, the bines have reached the wire and the first cones will start to appear late in the month.
The outlook for the 2018 harvest is good — although it is still early days and there were a few tense moments with the threat of a storm nearing biblical proportions in early December. The area received 140 millimetres of rain in a couple days but the hops came through unscathed.
It's easy to understand why such weather events cause tension; a 15 minute hailstorm in December 2015 wiped out about 40 percent of the crop.
Allan has seen the hop industry go through hard times so naturally is upbeat about the positive changes that have coincided with the growth of the global craft beer industry. He describes the period throughout the 1980s and 90s as particularly tough.
â€śBig brewers wanted more efficient use of bittering hops and there was a move to breed hops with higher alpha acids,â€ť he says. â€śSo the crop shrunk and it became harder to go into that market. The farm was becoming unviable.
â€śThings started to change in 2006 when there was a considerable shortage of alpha hops on the world market and we were able to tap into that … and then came the emergence of craft beer.
â€śIn 2008, HPA changed the focus of the farm to producing hops more in line with craft requirements, which was aroma and flavour rather than bittering.â€ť
Prior to that, Rostrevorâ€™s annual harvest would comprise 90 percent bittering hops with 10 percent flavour and aroma hops. Today, that is reversed.
â€śBasically every field on the farm has been replanted since 2008 as well as a new area of 120 hectares in the Buffalo River valley,â€ť says Allan.
â€śWe were very fortunate that we had bred Galaxy back in 1994. It was just sitting in the wings and, as the craft beer market moved, Galaxy moved with it. That was probably our saviour.
â€śIt really was a game-changer for our business. We had our own hop variety and that led to our business being more focused on craft beer. Then we started to look more closely at our breeding program to bring more varieties online.â€ť
When it comes to hop lineage, few know more than Gail Monshing. On a tour of the property she points to a row of plants and says â€śthe mother of Galaxy is over thereâ€ť. The mother of Galaxy! Itâ€™s like being in the presence of Australian hop royalty.
Officially known as J78 (not the most regal name), Galaxyâ€™s mother hooked up with a bloke with a German background (Perle) and the rest is history. The seedlings from J78 were grown and evaluated for nine years before HPA executives felt Galaxy was ready for debut and a sample could be provided to brewers for assessment.
The first commercial crop was grown in 2009 — 15 years after being bred — with a yield of just 6,500 kilograms. Eight years later, HPA harvested 617,569 kilograms of Galaxy (about 52 percent of its total yield from all varieties). The result was significantly lower than expected however due to difficult growing conditions at Rostrevor. This year, they hope Galaxy will pass the 700,000 kilogram mark.
In just a few years, the percentage of HPAâ€™s total hop production dedicated to Galaxy has grown to more than 50 percent across its Rostrevor and Bushy Park properties. Internationally, Galaxy has become the most recognised Australian flavour hop due to its distinctive passionfruit and citrus characteristics. Such is the demand that HPA could export its entire crop each year. Instead, it keeps approximately 40 percent for Australian customers.
Supporting Allanâ€™s positive outlook for the future is the $15 million investment HPA has made in its operations over the past three years. The majority has gone into infrastructure and expansion at Rostrevor, including land purchases, new trellises in established fields, picking machines, a new kiln drying process and conditioning/bailing sheds.
While there has been plenty of production changes, the focus has been on consolidation in terms of varieties grown at Rostrevor with the farm producing Super Pride, Ella, Vic Secret and Galaxy over the last few years. At the sister farm in Bushy Park, Summer and Helga were removed following the last harvest and replaced primarily with more Galaxy and Enigma.
Behind the scenes, HPA executives must decide what varieties will be planted in future while developing new experimental varieties that just might make it to market in ten years. There's a lot to consider in terms of agronomics, harvest windows and how many new varieties are viable within the scope of the business. And, of course, brewers are always asking about the release of new hop varieties.
HPAâ€™s recent investment will increase annual production from 1,000 tonnes to 1,500 tonnes — signalling its faith in the future demand for its proprietary hops from global craft brewers. For Allan, Gail and the team on the farm at Rostrevor, itâ€™s great to be riding that wave of optimism.
You can read other features in The Collaborators series here. It focuses on businesses operating in and around the craft beer industry.
About the author: Philip Goslin is a Melbourne-based writer who likes watching football, playing guitar and fly-fishing — the common thread in these passions is always beer.