If you want to know what the next big thing in hops will taste like there’s a group of New Zealand breweries you need to keep an eye on.

Earlier this year NZ Hops Ltd started its Bract Brewing programme, whereby selected breweries here and overseas get advanced samples of trial hops to brew with. Feedback helps determine which will go into commercial production.

Already one trial hop, NZH-103 has been culled after brewers reported back that it didn’t offer anything they couldn’t get from other hops.

That leaves NZH-101, 102, 104 and 105 jostling to be the next Nectaron, with NZH-102 in the box seat.

Breweries using trial hops include Sawmill, 8 Wired, Fortune Favours, Three Boys, Renaissance, Sprig + Fern, Parrotdog, McLeod’s, Lakeman, Liberty and Good George.

Sawmill have just released a single-hopped Hazy IPA with NZH-102 and brewer Mike Sutherland is rapt with how it performed. “We get a quite intense stonefruit vibe out of it.”

To even get to the brewers, these select hops are almost one in a million, says Brent McGlashan of Mac Hops, the farm that grows all the advanced trial varieties.

To get planted at Mac Hops, the varieties have to come through various breeding stages, to small plantings at the Plant & Food Research facility in Motueka and then into the real world.

The process takes a decade at least — with Nectaron it was 17 years.

At Mac Hops, the kid gloves come off and plants are thrown in with the big kids. They are tested for when they ripen, as growers don’t want all their hops ready at the same time, yield and susceptibility to things like mites.

And then it goes into beer where it has to be distinctive.

“If brewers don’t find an advantage in using a trial hop over another hop we don’t bring it through,” McGlashan says.

“With the Bract Brewing programme, we get different profiles from all around the world, with brewers exploring the edges of what each hop can do and they go into IPAs, pilsners, stouts … everyone assumes we’ll just jam it into a hazy.”

McGlashan has just come back from an overseas trip where he looked at the best hops from America, Germany and Slovenia.

“The most unique thing New Zealand hops have compared to others from around the world is they give you a unique flavour characteristic at the front of the palate. Others start from the middle of your mouth and go back, New Zealand hops hit you right at the front.”

This characteristic means Kiwi hops often work well with American or German varieties to create a wholistic taste experience.

McGlashan loves what NZH-102 brings, using the metaphor of a plate of food. “102 is the plate that holds all the other flavours. And it’s got a very balanced oil profile.”

NZH-105 could prove popular with growers because it’s a late harvester, while 101 and 104 and intensely aromatic.

The feedback from the Bract Brewing programme also helps the team at Plant & Food Research refine what they do, says leading hop scientist Kerry Templeton.

“And if brewers come back with the same flavour notes as we get, it validates our sensory training.”

Templeton expects NZH-102 to be a star, comparing the aroma to Fruit Burst lollies. “I came home one day and my daughter had bag of Fruit Burst lollies and I went ‘hang on … that’s the same flavour as 102’.”