In the first of a new series, hop farmer Josh Lewis takes us through the life cycle on a hop farm.

Even though I have seen it before, looking out over the farm after harvest still seems surreal. In 4 or 5 weeks everything we worked so hard on the last year has gone in what seems like a blink of the eye. It gets me every year.

Hop Farmer

Josh Lewis

Before I go on here’s a quick introduction about me. My name is Josh and I have been working at Hinetai Hops in Tapawera for about five years now. I have been a lover of hoppy beer for many more years than that. I do like to try my hand at home-brewing too when I can, and try to only use hop varieties we grow on the farm. In the summer months the area is just a sea of green with new hop farms seemingly popping up every year. On our doorstep is the Kahurangi National Park and less than 45 minutes away is the ‘craft brewing capital of New Zealand’ but I won’t start the craft capital debates here. I am hoping to indulge my fellow Hoppiness readers in the day-to-day running of a hop farm and share information about the projects we undertake. It’s not all the glitz and glamour that it seems for those few weeks in late summer when we harvest the hops. There is lots of hard work that goes into the whole year leading up to that.

I am writing this only days since hop harvest came to a close, but thoughts are already with next season. The ever-changing hop market requires us to try and be two steps ahead of future demand. It helps that my boss Dean Palmer is deeply involved in the industry and a director at New Zealand Hops Ltd.

We are quickly onto work removing older “heritage” varieties like Wakatu and preparing to venture into the unknown — planting trial hops like NZH-102, while also staying current with popular varieties like Nectaron and Riwaka, two of NZ Hops’ biggest sellers. Funnily enough I have just done a homebrew with Wakatu. Go figure.

The work to replant new varieties is long and arduous and requires a labour of love to give these new “babies” (our cute little name for new hop plants) the best start in life. We will plant later in the year as spring arrives but for now, lots of work must be done to prepare the ground from which these new hops will reach out. Bone-shattering bouncing around in heavy machinery over previous seasons has compacted the soil and we must now cultivate this ground to be ready for the coming plantings. Seems like the glitz and glamour of the days smelling the sweet aromas of fresh hops at harvest were a long time ago now.

Bare hop bines

After the harvest: what’s left after the hops are picked. / Photo: Josh Lewis

Once the ground is clear we plant re-generation crops of several different species to put nutrients back into the soil, promote biodiversity and put down some deep roots to enhance soil structure. This will help give us the best chance of success for the new plantings in spring.

Shortly after harvest we are also quickly into maintenance of the harvest machinery. Five weeks of fresh resinous hops leaves quite the sticky residue on all the conveyor belts. This smell lingers on throughout the shed for quite some time after harvest. A scratch and sniff of the conveyor belts immediately gives you the aromas of a dank hoppy IPA. These will take over a month to waterblast to have them sparkly clean for next year’s harvest. Nobody wants dirty hops! As you can imagine, the smell is quite something.

nectaron hops

Lovely Nectaron hops ready for plucking / Photo: Josh Lewis

Luckily for us this is also the time of year we get to sample the fresh fruits of our labours. Fresh Hop season — the one time a year brewers get to brew with fresh hops. It is even more exciting and rewarding to know that a lot of the beers released are using our fresh Nectaron™ hops. NZ Hops came out to the farm for an early morning visit to pick up our hops and get them as quickly as possible out to the brewers. For the second time we also had a visit from the team at The Workshop pub in Nelson who came to pick up some fresh Motueka for their pale ale. I will savour that first sip and feel immense joy to know we have contributed to these beers. To everyone out there enjoying a taste, you’re welcome!

In my post-harvest downtime, I ventured into Nelson and I was lucky enough to have the time for a visit to the iconic Free House. There I found three fresh hop beers already on tap. My lucky day. Sprig + Fern, Hop Federation and Eddyline were all representing the freshest of beers, and all local which is great. I had a sample of them all, but I was easily drawn to Eddyline’s ‘Hoptimus Prime’. Brewed in my favourite style, West Coast IPA, the fresh hops and bitterness is right up my alley. 

Autumn will very quickly turn to winter out here in the country and I see -6C mornings on the horizon. So look out for a winter update in the next instalment.