Make mine a pint of sauv bitter

By Geoff Cumming

New varieties of hops are behind an increase in beer brands. Photo / Paul Estcourt
New varieties of hops are behind an increase in beer brands. Photo / Paul Estcourt

The marketing bursts with the pretentiousness associated with fine wine snobbery.

"A heady mix of lemon peel and pine needles layered between the clean spiciness";

"Lifted lime and lemon followed by a background of tropical fruit";

"... a pleasing soft bitterness matched to desirable aroma characteristics";

"Literally sighs with pleasure".

Yet the foaming prose applies to an ingredient in beer, the alcoholic drink most of us quaff as a thirst-quencher with little attention to nose, balance or raised notes. We might appreciate the lingering finish enough to reach for another, though.

The vital ingredient is hops, which gives beer its bitterness and aroma. A little goes a long way - some brewers compare hops to the herbs in a sauce while malts (just as diverse) provide the "bricks and mortar" of beer. Throw in varieties of yeast and water sourced for purity, and the brewer's art is arguably more creative, and error-prone, than the winemaker's.

With mainstream beer producers tending towards lighter, innocuous flavours in recent decades - partly in an attempt to woo women off wine - hops have taken a back seat in mass consumption brands. But the explosion of boutique breweries - and "premium" beers as major players fight to retain market share - has sparked fresh interest in the science of cultivating hops with different qualities. That's where New Zealand's small hops industry, centred on Motueka in Nelson province, is gaining an international foothold.

New strains developed at Plant & Food Research's Motueka research centre are lending distinction to craft beers in the United States, Europe and emerging Asian markets, as well as boutique and premium brews launched in New Zealand in recent years.

A change in focus from developing alpha hop strains (which give beer bitterness) to aromatic varieties and dual-purpose hops (which do both) is helping New Zealand build a niche in global beer production. It happily coincides with growing consumer demand for tastier beers and for quality over quantity.

Take Nelson sauvin, a hop whose aroma of freshly crushed gooseberries (hence the nod to sauvignon blanc) imparts "a distinctive, cool climate white wine fruitiness", according to brewers' notes put out by growers' co-operative NZ Hops. Released in 2000, it's used here in Steinlager Pure (along with another new breed, Pacific jade) and by several micro-brewers.

Craft beers, if you include big brewery-owned Mac's and Monteith's, have about 9 per cent of the New Zealand market and the share is growing steadily.

But it's overseas demand which has local growers struggling to keep pace. Developed for pilsners but also finding favour in pale ales, sauvin is being used by US craft brewers such as Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada and Widmer; by Baird Brewing in Japan and Hite Brewery in Korea, while in Denmark it is the star of Mikkeller's single-hop pale ale.

Other hops acclaimed for their citrus and floral notes include riwaka, Motueka, pacifica and NZ hallertauer.

Some have dual purpose qualities meaning they can be used early in the brewing process to impart bitterness or added late for aroma.

One flagbearer for the "new world" hops is Rotorua-based Croucher Brewing Co, whose pilsner laced with Motueka and riwaka hops was crowned champion international lager at the BrewNZ 2010 awards.

Founder Paul Croucher sees potential for New Zealand hops to have a similar effect on the beer industry as sauvignon blanc has had on wine. "It wasn't considered an elite grape but the world's gone crazy for it."

International brewing awards for Nelson's pioneering Mac's Brewery (now Lion Nathan-owned) and Dunedin-based Emerson's have helped to increase overseas interest. New Zealand hops are also finding favour because they are largely free of the pests and diseases which prompt heavy pesticide usage in Europe and America.

Dr Ron Beatson has guided Plant & Foods' hop breeding programme since the mid-1980s, working closely with brewers and growers through the NZ Hop Research Committee. When he started, the industry was in decline due to low world prices and the trend towards lighter tasting lagers. But a run of poor harvests overseas sparked an export revival.

Beatson says his old boss, Tony Frost, saw a niche for New Zealand to develop fine aroma hops distinct from traditional German and Czech varieties. One of the first releases was Pacific gem in 1988, distinguished by its blackberry aroma.

"The vision was 'hops with a difference' and Nelson sauvin, riwaka and Motueka are certainly different," says Beatson.

"People don't want lolly water anymore. Most blokes want something that's got some hops in it, whereas the international trend has been towards less hops and efficiency gains in the brewing process."

Major players Lion Nathan and DB have input, seeking new flavours based on consumer research and trialling new varieties.

"A lot of people chuck rocks at those guys but they have really helped us - they really know about hops and beer," says Beatson.

"If New Zealand wants to export hops the first people who do it are Lion and DB."

Successful new hybrids take years of development in the lab, field trials and brewing tests. It's not just about taste - new varieties must be good producers and disease resistant to succeed commercially, Beatson says.

"We have 5000 seedlings in the field this year and from that we may select 50 that look pretty good. If we end up with a couple of new cultivars in 10 years' time we'll be doing well." (Though Benson has high hopes for at least one of two new breeds about to enter brewing trials).

Doug Donelan, a former brewer who heads producer co-operative NZ Hops, says more than 60 brewers and brewing pubs are making a vast array of beers in New Zealand.

At independent pubs such as Brew on Quay in downtown Auckland, drinkers can work their way through an endless menu of little-known labels, from Invercargill Brewery's Wasp Honey Pilsner to Hopwired IPA by Blenheim firm 8Wired Brewing.

"It's something a lot of consumers don't think about - beer is beer," says Donelan. "But there's a big difference between an American pale ale and a German pilsner. All these styles are being made here using local ingredients - it's a local interpretation of the style."

Donelan says 90 per cent of hops grown in Motueka are now exported, fetching about $14 million in 2009. Production has quadrupled since the 1980s to about 830 tonnes and he sees potential for it to double again, with a taste for beer growing among women and in emerging markets such as China and Korea.

But brewing is a conservative industry and many brewers remain faithful to traditional recipes, sourcing hops, barley and yeast from Europe and the US.

There are other barriers. Poor yields of the organically-grown riwaka hop, savoured for its passionfruit and citrusy notes, have forced Dunedin brewer Emerson's to switch to non-organic suppliers for its popular pilsner. Growers similarly struggle to meet demand for the Nelson sauvin and Motueka strains.

The hop is a somewhat enigmatic plant; more needs to be understood about its DNA. Only the Motueka area is considered to have the perfect micro-climate for growing but lifestyle block conversions and soaring prices mean space is at a premium.

Meanwhile, overseas competitors are developing strains with "new world" characteristics - American producers are touting a hop which they say emulates Nelson sauvin's fruity wine character but is even more intense.

But Donelan believes the potential is huge if New Zealand can continue to diversify and target specialised markets.

Could hops come to dominate the Nelson landscape in the way grapevines have spread in neighbouring Marlborough?

That is not Donelan's vision. He says mass production would bring a loss of control and quality.

"I don't think many growers want to see the industry turn into the next sauvignon blanc."

He believes the future is linked more to boutique than mass market producers, whose beers tend to be less distinctive.

"Smaller brewers are going in completely the opposite direction, either with traditional or new styles with lots of aromas and a story to tell."

Donelan admits his brewers' notes are "a little tongue in cheek".

But they are part of a deliberate strategy to position our hop varieties as fresh and different. New Zealand currently produces about 1 per cent of the world's crop.

"If we can get a reasonable sized craft brewer in the US to use a New Zealand hop variety, then that gives us real momentum.

"I think the potential really is limitless."

- NZ Herald

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