We recently had a chance to visit Riwaka’s hop research farm, run by Plant and Food Research. It was an open day at the facility, just shy of full harvest getting underway. Brewers came in from all over New Zealand, sniffing the cones, and hoping to get an inside look at up and coming varietals.
There was a requisite slideshow with a summary of the breeding program, a walk through the labs, brewery and paddock, and a blind tasting of some new varieties in what turned out to be Garage Project beers.
Fun facts include the 14 or more years it takes to get a new varietal to market as 1000s of trial hops are evaluated for yield, harvest ability, seasonality, and flavour – probably in that order. This means that current near market hops were likely selected based on market factors that are frankly stale. In order to better catch the trends, Plant and Food is brewing small batches of beer on site, with smaller volume’s of hops earlier in the development cycle. They are also utilizing craft producers like Garage Project to trial hops. Still, very few varietals will make it to the market in less than 10 years.
The holy grail is a distinctive, pleasant aroma and flavour, with high levels of smooth bitterness, packed into an easy harvesting, high yielding, late ripening plant. So far most of the popular new varieties have one flaw or another, such as Nelson Sauvin being difficult to harvest. (High levels of clingy side branches make it a hassle for machinery.)