I went into judging at the annual Smith’s NZ IPA Challenge in Queenstown with an idea of what a New Zealand-hopped IPA should taste like.
Afterwards, with the taste of diesel, wine gums and passionfruit still fresh on my tongue, everything I thought I knew was in a state of disarray.
The 12 beers (of 36 in total) that came across our table covered such a range of flavours, textures, haze levels and ABVs it was almost impossible to deny the fact that New Zealand-hopped IPAs are more than just tropical and stonefruit incarnations.
Those aromas and flavours — as brought to us by the likes of Nectaron and Nelson Sauvin — are unique for sure. But so is the diesel character of Riwaka, the lime zest of Motueka, the mint-pine of Southern Cross, the brambly spice of Pacific Gem and the simply peachy Wai-iti.
Finding the X-factor for New Zealand hops is like trying to find the word for a flavour that’s just on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite grasp it.
When the Brewers Association in the US added the NZ IPA style to its competitions, the guidelines focused as much on the malt structure as the hops.
For instance, the BA guidelines state hop haze is allowed in these beers and the inference there is that full-on hazies in the New England-style might be going a step too far (they have their own category, right?). However, given the huge popularity of the hazy style, these were embraced for the Smith’s Challenge.
One aspect the BA is firm about is that the body of these beers should be light to light-medium. That lean malt character allows the hops to shine.
Specifically, the BA is looking for hop notes as varied as “ﬂoral, fruity (tropical, stone fruit and other), sulfur/diesel-like, citrusy and grassy” and the beer should be “crisp, dry rather than malt-accentuated”.
Within the New Zealand hop flavour spectrum, much depends on the choice of hops. There’s the super juicy fruitiness of Nectaron, the wine-like (or sometimes cat-pee) character of Nelson Sauvin, the diesel and passionfruit of Riwaka, the lime zest of Motueka.
However, the BA is simply looking for those aromas and flavours and acknowledges that you can get them using hops that are not from New Zealand.
That may be so, but there’s plenty of people who firmly believe that Kiwi hops have a real X-factor that cannot be fully substituted.
Kerry Templeton, a hop scientist with NZ Plant & Food, not only breeds these hops, but he does heaps of sensory analysis on them and was part of the judging team at the Smith’s Challenge.
“It’s a really hard thing to define, but there’s this New Zealand-ness to these hops that no-one else gets,” Templeton says.
He doesn’t believe in “terroir” when it comes to hops. He doesn’t rule it out but says there are too many other factors going into hop production apart from the nature of the soil.
Harvesting windows and temperatures that hop pellets are dried at are more critical.
He cites a recent article in a scientific journal talking about the “terroir” of Italian hops. “But they had no information about the drying. Did they dry at 65 degrees, 68 degrees? Were they harvested on the right day?
“It might be the case that New Zealand growers are do something completely unique when they are harvesting and drying.”
There is one aspect of New Zealand hops that could have a massive impact on flavour. For decades, our breeders have been creating what are known as triploid hops.
“This gets real sciency,” Templeton forewarns, before explaining quite clearly. “Hops are like people – they have two sets of chromosomes, they are diploid. In the 1950s scientists did some work and doubled the number of chromosomes to create a tetraploid hop – that’s four sets of chromosomes.
“If you cross a tetraploid with a diploid you get a triploid. Triploids are sterile – they don’t have seeds – and that was one of the reasons they did it, to get seedless hops.”
This is something New Zealand breeders have perfected and while the Australians, for instance, are dabbling with triploid hops, most other countries don’t breed triploids.
“Hops from New Zealand have three sets of chromosomes and hops from the rest of the world have two sets.”
One of the “side effects” of creating a seedless hop is that when you cross a female tetraploid with a male diploid, the sterile offspring inherits two-third of the genetic material from the female.
“It adds complication in the breeding process – but we’ve done it for so long we’ve now got the knowledge and expertise and that could be the unseen, unknown factor right there – genetically they are quite different.”
Whatever the reasons for the unique flavour and aroma of New Zealand hops, the proof is in the beer.
The top two beers at the Smith’s NZ IPA Challenge exhibited quite stark differences, but both were delicious. The winner – Good George Chance of Haze – was lush, creamy and super-fruity, while Hallertau’s runner-up – simply called NZ IPA – was pilsner-clear and had a Riesling-like austerity and lean minerality to it.
The Good George entry was hopped equally with the holy trinity of Nectaron, Riwaka and Nelson Sauvin, while Hallertau’s super-lean and tightly-structured beer was made with Nelson Sauvin, Riwaka and Southern Cross.
Good George also took out the “hop grower” award, decided by Templeton, which suggests they pretty much nailed the brief.
Deep Creek took out the People’s Choice Award with their South Side Hazy IPA featuring Taiheke, Motueka, Kohatu and Nelson Sauvin.
Main picture: Brian Watson of Good George, Scott Taylor of Deep Creek, Chris Dickson of Smith’s Craft Beer House, George Tunstall of NZ Hops and Kerry Templeton of NZ Plant and Food.