After three years lost to Covid, Garage Project’s Hāpi Symposium is back in Wellington on March 24 at Te Papa. Unlike the inaugural event in 2019, there will be no festival running in parallel, but the symposium will coincide with the capital’s CupaDupa festival, with Garage Project’s Wild Workshop providing one of the stages.

And for punters, yes, there will be a new set of Hāpi Sessions collaboration beers with visiting American brewers in New Zealand for hop harvest and the symposium. They include Other Half, Green Cheek, Cloudburst, Stone and Sapwood.

The symposium itself is designed for industry players, but Garage Project co-founder Jos Ruffell says hard-core homebrewers might get something out of it.

“It’s about getting New Zealand brewers in the room with top international talent,” Ruffell says. “You’d need to be a very keen homebrewer to attend — it’s for brewers, scientists, hop farmers — it’s designed to be educational content around beer and hop-forward beers in particular.”

And these days you can’t talk hops without talking about yeast — whether it’s thiolising yeast or hop biotransformation during fermentation — and two yeast specialists will present.

While Hāpi is the Maori word for hops, and hops are at the forefront of the work, including a breeding programme, it’s not all about hops. “The Hapi umbrella includes precision farming, agriculture, drying, processing — like, how do we get the most out of the hops we have — and taking that a step further how do we maximise and unlock the flavour compounds in those hops, and that’s fermentation.”

The most effective thiolising yeasts are banned in New Zealand (and Australia) because they are genetically modified but Ruffell hopes that may change with yeast companies such as Omega talking to Food Safety Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) about allowing them in.

“There will be some thiol-focused talks because it’s a hot topic in the industry, as is biotransformation — unlocking aroma through fermentation and how hops interact with that is such a crucial part of the puzzle.”

The yeast-related speakers are Laura Burns from Omega Yeast and Peter Bircham, Garage Project’s in-house yeast scientist, who joined them last year after post-doctoral study in Germany and then working in Belgium.

Laura Burns of Omega Yeast

“We’re very lucky to have Peter. He’s working across a range of research and development projects — and capturing and identifying unique native New Zealand yeasts is right at the top for us. He’s set up a lab in partnership with Victoria University and we have some cool things in the pipeline.”

As Ruffell points out, one of the new strains from Omega is a yeast that could be created from breeding but scientists have fast-forwarded the process by taking the IR7 gene from Chico and inserting it into London 3. That strain, Cosmic Punch, is finding its way onto more non-GMO countries — Canada recently approved it.

Hāpi Research Ltd is a partnership between Garage Project and Freestyle Hops, but Garage Project also has interests in new farming regions, including Nelson Lakes and Southland, where they are helping Garston Hops with their fledgling farm.

“One of our mandates or goals of Hāpi was to expand the hop growing regions. We don’t have a financial stake in Garston, but we’ve been heavily supporting them since they started, providing initial varieties for them to do trial growing. Freestyle has been incredibly involved in advice and guidance and we have created a mobile picker that we’ve made available to them. And we’re advising with trial brewing and market advice. We’re stoked to see what’s happening down there.”

Ruffell says any region or grower can be involved.

“Hop growing is hard and expensive, but for any region or grower who wants to have a crack at it, we’ve been building resources to support and encourage them. And Hāpi is completely agnostic around the business model they choose — if they wanted to sell hops through NZ Hops Ltd, Hop Revolution or Freestyle … or form a relationship with someone overseas, we’re encouraging all of it.”

He says the hops grown in Southland are noticeably different thanks to the climate and soil.

“There’s a difference, and some varieties will perform better than others. In the same way Central Otago is sealed into Pinot Noir or dry Riesling it’s going to the same with hops, certain varieties will perform better than others. It’s too early to say for sure as this is the first proper harvest, with baling and drying, so we’ll get a proper snapshot this year.”

Garage Project does have a financial stake in a “huge project” — a new farm in Nelson Lakes. It’s a converted dairy farm that sits on up to 400 hectares in the Tutaki Valley near Murchison. It’s further south and at a higher altitude than the traditional Nelson growing region — so it’s hotter in summer, colder in winter.

“It’s a 40-minute drive up a gravel road, and it’s surrounded by National Park and has river running through it but it’s flat pasture fields. They’ve got 80 hectares out and ready for picking and by next season they’ll be up to 200 hectares.”

The big project for Hāpi Research is hop breeding and Ruffell says that five years into the project, with the help of Lincoln and Otago Universities and backing from MPI, a new hop variety is still a couple of seasons away.

“We do have one we’re pretty excited about and we’re hoping from this harvest to get a decent quantity for trial brewing and then to expand the acreage … we’re doing everything we can to short-circuit the process.”