This time last year I wrote my first article for Hoppiness hoping to give you a taste of some of the things we get up to out here on the farm. Now a year on another hop harvest has been and gone in the blink of an eye. Ok, not quite the blink of an eye. But 27 days of harvesting for all the hard work that led up to this point is a very short time frame.

That surreal moment I spoke about, looking out after harvest at what used to be a sea of green that is now empty fields, was not so surreal this year. For the first time in my six years on the farm it felt normal. I think I have finally got used to that sight. One of the reasons is that this harvest, although hard work, was the easiest and smoothest I have been a part of since I started at Hinetai Hops. We were a well-oiled machine. Quite literally. Our picking machine ran without any problems. A lot of credit goes to our engineer for looking after the equipment throughout the year and during harvest to keep downtime to a minimum.

The status of the hop market meant we grew a slightly smaller crop this year. This included some areas that we had already removed varieties to prepare for new plantings next year. We also harvested Wakatu for the last time this year. This was picked early and then dug out and replaced with a crop of oats and grass to put nutrients back into the ground in preparation for more Superdelic later in the year. Forward sales of some varieties were low which meant we were able to pick hard and fast. We did leave a little bit of the crop unharvested once we had our desired amount.

Our hops are harvested in the field by a vine puller which is attached to a tractor. The vine puller cuts the plants about a metre off the ground and then pulls them until the string snaps off the wire and the hop bines fall backwards into a trailer. Three other tractors travel in a rotation bringing empty trailers to the harvest tractor and taking full trailers back to the shed. Some parts of the farm are 1km away from the shed and along a state highway, meaning this can be a draining day of driving.

Once back at the shed the hops are unloaded in our hooking bay. Our ‘hookers’, and yes, I said hookers again, hook the bines onto a chain which moves through our picking machine to be processed. All the hops go through into the kiln to be dried and all the green waste from the hop plants goes out to be turned into compost to go back on the garden next year.

The cycle repeats daily for around five weeks. But not every day is the same. One thing that does change every so often is the smell. Each variety brings a new experience — in aroma, size and shape. Slight adjustments are made here and there to the equipment due to changing amounts of leaf and stalk to make sure we are running efficiently and producing the cleanest final product.

Before and during harvest we also get out to the field when we can to check the ripeness of our varieties that are waiting to be harvested. We do our own dry matter testing using a food dehydrator on farm and also send samples to Plant and Food Research for more accurate analysis. These results give us a great understanding of when we will be able to harvest our next varieties at their optimal condition.

hop harvest season
Josh inspecting the bine before harvest.

Two days before harvest we were hit with Covid in two of our staff from Vanuatu. Then a third tested positive after our first day of harvest. Luckily for the early days of harvesting Motueka we were not under a lot of pressure, so we made it through the first few days without them. Just another reminder that this pandemic is still hitting hard.

Here’s a rundown of the harvest:

Day 1: Pacifica up first, a smaller than usual yield as we grew around half of our full crop. We were easily able to harvest this variety in one day. The Pacifica is fast picking due to less stalk on the plant which meant the trailers were chock full of bines. This gave the tractor drivers a good day to ease into harvest. But not so for our ‘hookers’. The smaller nature of the bines means the main picking shed is running at close to full speed. Our Vanuatu team were straight into the hard work hooking the bines onto the chain as quickly as possible.

Days 2-7: After a few days off to let the hops ripen and to give the rest of our crew a few days away to keep an eye on Covid, we began harvesting Motueka. Six drama-free days harvesting what I think, is a very underrated hop.

Day 8: Around lunchtime we finished off the last Motueka and moved onto our last ever crop of Wakatu. This was a small amount due to already replacing some the year before with Superdelic (pictured).

hop harvest season

Day 9: This was one of the more interesting days of harvest this season. Our first crop of Riwaka. As these were babies and a notoriously hard variety to grow, the yield was not extraordinary. Some of the plants were quite small and required extra work to harvest. Our Riwaka are small and delicate, so to save these from being pulled and potentially lifted out of the ground by our vine puller, we cut these by hand. The vine puller could then collect the hanging bine and leave the plant in the ground unaffected. Although hard work, this was only a small block and by lunchtime we had finished.

We continued to our Nectaron babies in the afternoon. This is early in the season for Nectaron to be harvested, but first year hops, or ‘babies’, mature much sooner. The Nectaron babies were by far one of our best first year crops. The aroma of this hop during harvest, for me, is by far the strongest. The tropical smell lingers in the air while we harvest.

Day 10: We finished Nectaron and managed to squeeze in a little bit of Dr Rudi to finish off the day. Our Wai-iti was up next but testing had shown we needed a little longer for the hops to ripen so we took advantage of a rest day.

Days 11-12: We picked our remaining Dr Rudi in the morning before moving onto Wai-iti. Known to be quite a small hop, we were surprised by the large cones coming into the shed. I had not seen Wai-iti this size in any of my previous harvests and this led to a great crop over the next two days.

Day 13: We welcomed George Tunstall from NZ Hops Ltd and the legendary Dr Ron Beatson to the farm. Dr Ron was here to lend a hand as we picked around a tonne of fresh Nectaron to be quickly freighted around the country to awaiting breweries. Dr Ron agreed the aromas were amazing and the hops picked were a great showing of this wonderful hop. After a thorough clean of our shed we moved onto our organic Nelson Sauvin.

Day 14: We continued our Nelson Sauvin organic block. What was looking like a small crop through the season had matured into a surprisingly high yield. Through spring a lot of the bines struggled to get going but made a great comeback by harvest. We were already seeing a trend that our later varieties were yielding a lot better than our earlier varieties.

Days 15-17: Our first harvest of the newest variety to NZ Hops and one that is quickly picking up traction around the world, Superdelic. One of the prettiest hops I have ever seen. Such great greens on the cone. A thick fog in the morning made the farm picturesque and made the Superdelic hop stand out even more. We only had one hectare this season so we finished harvesting by lunch and moved onto our Nelson Sauvin for two  days.

Days 18-20:  We returned to Nectaron and to a bumper crop. Big plants and big ripe hops. It was the perfect variety to be harvesting as we hosted two busloads of visitors here for the annual NZ Hops Harfest festival. Brewers, growers and writers from New Zealand and around the world paid us a visit to get a taste of a New Zealand harvest.

During some downtime I managed to get away to Eddyline to taste an early fresh hop release and have a catch up with Peter Kiley, Brewmaster at Monday Night Brewing in Atlanta, USA, who was experiencing the New Zealand hop harvest for the first time. We discussed all things beer, brewing and hop farming. Peter told me how he has loved his time in the country and was really enjoying our sought-after hops. He was especially fond of Nelson Sauvin and couldn’t wait to brew with the 2023 harvest.

Days 21-24: A non-stop blur of Nelson Sauvin continued as we started to see the end of harvest coming into view. The first snow on Mt Arthur meant cold mornings and beautiful views.

Days 25-27: With three days to go we had made it to our final two varieties, Rakau and Green Bullet. The end was in sight. Tiredness was beginning to kick in and the last few days were slightly shorter than normal due to our first rain disruption and then a -2C start to our final day. But by early afternoon on day 27 we were done, and after a clean down of the whole shed it was time for a cold beer. A well-deserved reward.

After bailing was complete a few days later our final total came to 105 tonnes. Average yields on early varieties made way to great results through our highly sought-after varieties like Wai-iti, Superdelic, Nectaron and Nelson Sauvin.  Our results coming through from NZ Hops also made for great viewing. The quality in colour and aroma were high, and our hops were already being selected by breweries from the USA. Great news to finish a great harvest.

Next on the agenda, a good rest and more fresh hop beer.