In a normal year, right about now the team at Hop Products Australia would be preparing not just for their annual harvest but also to welcome hundreds of guests to their facilities in Tasmania and Victoria. Just as many from the Australian beer industry head to the Northern Hemisphere's growing regions in their autumn, around a hundred of HPA's 300 annual hop harvest visitors come from overseas.
With international borders as good as shut – and state borders opening and closing like a portcullis in a 1980s platform game – things look rather different in 2021, leading the Bushy Park-based operation to take this year's hop harvest online. Such an approach won't give "attendees" the chance to get up close with the bines, to soak in the unique sensory experience of a hop farm at harvest, to take those plump, oily cones and rub them in their palms, but the packed schedule – three streams each week throughout March – is designed to leave viewers better informed.
The full scale of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent in the middle of last year's harvest. HPA closed their farms to all but essential staff on March 13 – ten days before the national lockdown – and, according to sales and marketing manager Owen Johnston, they were immediately discussing contingency plans should the country still be "under a COVID cloud" 12 months on.
Back then, when they weighed up the risk of bringing outsiders in, while the chance of someone infectious visiting the farm was seen as low, the risk was anything but: a forced closure for two weeks of a four-week harvest would be, as OJ puts it: "An absolutely catastrophic outcome."
With the farms off limits for a second harvest, he adds: "It certainly changes the challenges for us... Sensory haven't been able to create Smellavision yet!"
The response to the challenge has been to create 12 online sessions encompassing a focus on newly-named variety Eclipse (which you can read about here), tours of their facilities in Tasmania and Victoria, quality assurance, brewing with green hops, and sustainability – plus showcases of the wider attractions of Tasmania and the Victorian High Country, both of which visitors usually get to experience in person.
"There are certainly things we don't think we can achieve," OJ says, "but we're going to try to recreate a few of these elements with some behind-the-scenes footage."
The virtual sessions are free and anyone can sign up to watch them, although the level of content is being pitched at commercial brewers with a good level of understanding of the topics at hand, rather than a wider, lay audience.
"There's a mix of what we want to talk about, like Eclipse, and what brewers want to see," OJ says, "which is the behind-the-scenes of harvest, the breeding program, how you maximise hop flavour in beer."
Thus far, they're on track for a good harvest too, with the cooler, wetter weather not impacting the crop negatively, and they see positive signs within the Australia brewing industry too. In what he believes is a good news story in these turbulent times, OJ says: "We have more Australian hops going to more Australian brewers than ever before."
You can check out the full schedule for HPA's Virtual Harvest 2021 here.