The Australian hop harvest is underway, bringing with it many joys, from hop-picking days at small breweries and fresh hop beers to events celebrating them, such as The High Country Hop is Beechworth.
Each year, the harvest also sees brewers from across the globe invited to visit Australia’s hop fields to explore where those flavours are grown and learn more about future plans up close. And, after the pandemic forced hop growers to conduct such tours online, Hop Products Australia (HPA) has once again been walking international brewers through their fields in Victoria’s High Country and Tasmania’s Bushy Park region.
HPA is responsible for well-known varieties including Galaxy, Enigma, Vic Secret, Ella and their most recent propriety hop, Eclipse. They’re hops craft beer drinkers here know well – they've even featured in showcase mixed packs – but Australian brewers aren’t alone in showcasing them in their beers, or indeed coming up with suitably space-inspired names for them.
To get a glimpse of how our hops are perceived overseas – and some travel advice for anyone heading to Eastern Europe or Portland anytime soon – we asked brewers from two very different beer communities what they make of Aussie hops.
When you think of Belgrade, your first thought might not be of craft beer yet Serbia’s capital is home to many breweries, as too are other parts of the country. The largest of them is Dogma Brewery, which was launched in 2016 by childhood mates, Vladimir Stojkovi and Mladjen Merdovic.
Vladimir (pictured at top of the article with his favourite dancing hop, Vic Secret) says his first use of an Australian hop was also a historic moment for them – it was the first time a brewery in his country had collaborated with one from America.
“Flying Dog from the States came to Belgrade,” he recalls. “And because we created the beer named Flying Dogma, we needed something to get us into the galaxy.”
Although that first use of Galaxy was driven by the hop’s name, Vladimir says it found favour among drinkers, including when used in a S.M.A.S.H. IPA (single malt and single hop).
“That was a really big success because we would send that beer to the UK during the pandemic to Beer 52 who really helped us during that time,” he says.
Vladimir adds they’ve played with plenty of Enigma and Ella too, whether in combination with other varieties or in their ongoing S.M.A.S.H. IPA series. But it’s when talking about Vic Secret that Vladimir’s eyes light up as he starts waxing lyrical about its big yet nuanced flavour profile.
“It’s a dancing hop,” he says. “It depends on the recipe of course, but it has power and has some parts of its soul that give you a lot of freshness.”
As for what appealed to Vladimir about the trip to Australia, he says he’s keen to better understand how Australia’s geography and climate impact the hops that are grown here, as well as getting close to newer varieties.
“I’m really happy to be here and to see what is new,” he says. “I’m curious to see these new Australian hops and to put them in our S.M.A.S.H. series. At Dogma, we use them to educate people – here is 100 percent pilsner malt and 100 percent one hop.”
As a brewery, Dogma’s approach is all about combining interesting flavours with drinkability while using beer to tell a story.
“My philosophy with brewing is identity with drinkability,” he says.
Furthermore, if you want to get a grasp of what craft beer looks like in Serbia, Vladimir is a good place to start. Before Dogma, he ran one of the first craft beer-focused bars in the country and launched the first craft beer festival featuring breweries from the countries that once formed Yugoslavia. Dogma itself made around 600,000 litres of beer last year, making it the largest craft brewery in the country and one of the few that export.
Craft beer started to bloom in Serbia around 2013 and 2014; before that he says: “All beer was pale, red or black and they were all lagers.”
Before the pandemic, there were around 60 registered breweries in a country of approximately 8.5 million people, with most of them centred around the cities. Of those, most are quite small, with fewer than ten having brewhouses larger than 20 hectolitres.
“All the breweries are locally oriented really,” he says, adding that more regional areas have slowly been embracing craft beer too.
“I always get a warm heart when I hear of places in other, less built-up parts of Serbia with a new bar. My response is always: give them all the support because they’re developing the scene.”
As a rule, he says Serbians are passionate people and, while craft beer is newer to them, they’ve always loved good food; hop forward beers have helped steer Dogma's success, led by their flagship 6.5 percent ABV West Coast, Hoptopod IPA.
But there is one aspect of craft brewing seen elsewhere that he says hasn’t made a mark on brewing in Serbia: artificial adjuncts.
“We’re pretty hardcore on that in Serbia because we are famous for Serbian brandy,” he says. “That’s fruit brandy from real plums, apricot and pears and it needs to be through distillation, not added aroma.”
Belgrade might not be considered a beer destination but Portland, Oregon, certainly is; we even ran a travel guide back in 2017 and it's evolved plenty since then. The city’s crafty credentials stretch back to the 1980s when the likes of the now-closed BridgePort opened their doors and where Australia’s Phil Sexton brewed one of the earliest examples of a modern American IPA.
Von Ebert joined the local beer scene in 2018, which means much of their short history has been marked by COVID's impact on their two Portland taprooms. But they’ve also enjoyed an impressive showing at American beer awards. In 2021, they received a gold medal for their flagship IPA Volatile Substance, while also being named Medium Brewery of the Year, and they took out gold for the same IPA in the ultra-competitive category at the Great American Beer Festival.
Founder Tom Cook says that, while they like making IPAs and doing them well, they’ve also put a lot of effort into their lagers. It’s a side of brewing that Tom sees as being at the forefront of much innovation in craft brewing; with their modern pilsner series, for example, they keep things pretty traditional but include modern hops in the mix.
“It’s a little counterintuitive because, at least for me, when I think of lager I think of no innovation,” he says. “You do what you’re told by the Germans.
“But whether it’s process or ingredients, we’ve found a number of different ways to kind of expand what people think lager is.”
Head brewer Sam Pecoraro says he’s brewed with a variety of Australian hops in both lagers and IPAs.
“We’ve used Enigma a lot in IPLs,” Sam says. “They play really well with a huge, deep berry character that I think is a bit unique for Southern Hemisphere hops. Most of them come across a little brighter.”
Unsurprisingly, however, Sam says there’s one hop above all other Aussies that has drawn interest from American brewers.
“It’s been mostly Galaxy, like probably everyone else in the US,” he says.
“I think it has a few things going for it. The name is fantastic; that’s not the only reason people like it but I do think it goes a long way. The fact it’s from the Southern Hemisphere too, consumers love to look at things that are not available locally.
“But then there’s the unique characters. I think Galaxy can create certain characters in a beer that just aren’t replaceable with other combinations or varieties.”
“And we’ve tried,” adds Tom without missing a beat.
Although they’re yet to get their hands on Eclipse hops, both Tom and Sam say it’s part of what makes it exciting to be in Australia for hop harvest: the chance to get close to it and witness how other varieties are grown and processed.
As for what Portland's beer drinkers think of Aussie hops, Sam says their home city is a little different from other craft communities in America.
“I think Portland is unique,” he says. “They want to know if something is coming from the Pacific Northwest and, if not, they’re probably not paying all that much attention. But maybe I’m talking out of turn here; I think in a lot of areas around the country, people are really interested in the hot new hop and where that is from.”
When it comes to visiting Portland, the pair are quick to offer a back-and-forth conversation about the breweries they don’t think visiting drinkers should miss.
“I think you’ve got to go to Breakside,” Tom says. "That's a staple and I think they do pretty much everything really well. If you want barrel-aged beer, lager, pilsner, West Coast IPA, hazy IPA, it's all there.
“Upright is another for me. Especially on the pilsner and mixed culture side, which are two sides of the spectrum and really hard to get right to in one brewery.”
Sam adds: “I think Wayfinder: they’ve made a lot of great beers over the years and my great friend Natalie Baldwin just took over as head brewer, so I’m really excited to see what they do next.
“I’m also going to cheat a bit and say drive out to Hood River and check out pFriem. It’s about a 45-minute drive, but we kind of consider them a Portland brewery and they do a lot of things really really well.”
And, while the city has changed in recent years – not least due to some notable closures and sales – there remains a lot of beer to get through.
“If you look at the overall number of breweries in Portland, it hasn’t shifted all that much, but there has been a lot of turnover,” Sam says.
What's more, says Tom: “What’s exciting about Portland is everybody has to keep making better and better beer because the competition level is so high. You may have had a beer a year or two ago and then you have it again and it’s like, ‘Wow that’s really good and much improved.’
“It’s a good beer town.”
If you'd like to learn more about Australian hops, The High Country Hop's Technical Symposium includes a presentation by HPA among many other hoppy topics.