What’s up, brew?

Dr Ron ‘Mr Hops’ Beatson at Plant & Food Research is mid-clean up after Cyclone Gita swept through the region.

“We got very badly flooded here, at our site we got quite badly smashed,” he tells bluenotes.

Thankfully, he says, the damage was mainly to infrastructure. The research hops were a bit battered by the wind and rain but the property suffered very little loss of plants due to flooding.

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Principal Scientist Dr Beatson is the project leader for hop research at Plant & Food Research’s Motueka Research Centre and really is a true legend of the hop, having spent over 30 years developing specialty varietals.

"You don’t become a rock star over-night.” - Beatson

Many of the cultivars now dubbed ‘rock stars’ - ‘Riwaka’, ‘Motueka’ and ‘Nelson Sauvin’ - earned their celebrity status under his careful development.

“The rock stars of today were crossed and raised in the 1980s and they were released 1990s and early 2000s, you don’t become a rock star over-night,” Dr Beatson says.

Which brings us back to the cyclone – and if a legend in the making was potentially wiped out by Gita. Dr Beatson thinks that’s unlikely.

“We have got a lot of stages through the process of developing and harvesting,” he says. “If you can visualise a pipeline; you have crosses at one end being created, then thousands of seedlings raised each year, with the best ones kept for propagation for more extensive trialling in subsequent years, and finally at the other end of the pipeline what trickles out is the odd cultivar.”

“Basically you have a cast of thousands at the early part of the programme, and every now and again one pops out that the brewers and the growers like. On average we produce a new cultivar every two years. Or put another way, one in every 5,000 seedlings raised.”


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Pic: Cam Ealam harvesting hops on his Nelson farm Source: Provided

The process – identifying something special, brewing trials, getting a sufficient supply for brewers to brew and identify as a hop with potential, which can then be pushed out to growers, who in turn supply enough to create quality beer with a certain ‘hoppy’ quality beer drinkers take a shine to, turning it into a ‘rock star’ – can take anywhere between 10 and 15 years.

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Pic: The Ealam family hop processing on their Nelson farm Source: Provided

A lot of Dr Beatson’s work at present is looking at how they close the gap and speed up the process. Currently several selections are showing commercial promise and are being trialled by both the hop growing and brewing industries.

This is good news for the New Zealand hop industry which exports more than 90 per cent of its hops, generating around $A17 million a year.

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Pic: The Ealam family hop processing on their Nelson farm Source: Provided

There is a global demand for new beers with novel flavours and international craft brewers are focussed on identifying new cultivars of hops which can deliver the flavour and aroma consumers want.

The global beer market is worth $US500 billion a year, with around 5 per cent captured by the fast-growing craft and specialty brewing sector.

The New Zealand industry is working hard to meet that, aiming to double its global contribution by 2025, largely through the introduction of hops with new flavours which demand a premium on the global market.

Figures released in ANZ’s 2017 annual craft beer report showed six new hop growers signed up for the 2018 harvest. 

One of those was Cam Ealam, who converted 35 hectares of their Nelson family farm from dairy to hops. 

The combination of two tropical cyclones and a drought made this year a challenge but as the harvest came to an end he was confident they’d had a good crop.

“The harvest was good, but it was steep learning curve,” Ealam says. “We had to learn how to operate the harvesting machines and the kilns.  There were some big hours; I think the first night I got home about five in the morning.”

“The first couple of weeks were pretty stressful but once we got the hang of it and it went really well.”

The Ealam farm supports three generations - Cam and his partner, his parents and grandparents.  The hop harvest was very much a family activity.

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Pic: The Ealam family hop processing on their Nelson farm Source: Provided

“Everyone was involved right through harvest; my grandad got stuck in as well helping load the machines with hop bines,” Ealam says. “So that was pretty cool.”

Over 20 days they harvested 17 tonnes of hops off 14.5 hectares and are now focussed on developing another 20 hectares for the 2019 season. 

“Once we get the stage-two development completed we will focus on doing a good job of growing a good crop,” he says. “Once we’ve got a few years under our belt we’ll reassess and look at whether to grow.”


While Cam Ealam is sticking with established hop cultivars at this stage he and other growers keenly follow developments over at Plant & Food Research where Dr Beatson and his team continue their work developing the next rock star hop.

“As a plant breeder you want to see your plant cultivars grown as widely as you can,” Dr Beatson says.

While he’s confident the new cultivar showing promise will come through, there’s a sense his time developing rock stars might be almost up. So after decades of work, what keeps him awake at night?

“The fact that I am not young anymore so I can see that my role as the Principal Scientist in hops is coming to an end,” Dr Beatson says. “I’m fortunate that I’ve got an excellent lieutenant in fellow hop scientist, Kerry Templeton, who has been appointed to our program in the past year. Kerry has excellent knowledge of brewing science, which is now considered an important part of our selection program.

“He’s been trained in the molecular DNA side of things so we’ll be implementing some of those techniques into our breeding programme as time goes on.”

And as for Ealam – is there any chance of him heading back to dairy farming?

“No, not heading back to milking cows,” he laughs.  “This has its different challenges and there were a lot of learnings but on the whole it’s much more enjoyable than milking cows.”


ANZ will release an update into the craft beer market later in August. Banker and keen craft beer enthusiast Sam Bree says to expect talk of growth.

“We’re very interested to see how the craft beer market is moving and growing,” he says. “We expect to see a market that is continuing to grow from a volume perspective. Revenues will grow as a result but competitive pressures are squeezing margins making for a mixed bag for brewers.”

ANZ research over the past few years has shown growth for the majority is tough in a market where competition continues to flood in. Those with robust, well capitalised business structures and a clear strategy will succeed, Bree says.

“This year we expect to see a small number of craft breweries are leading the way and the rest are trying really hard to make it feasible,” he says. “The hardest part for this industry is finding the right mix of mad scientist and astute business person.”

As for the harvest and the extreme weather events?

“Anecdotally, we’ve heard the hop volumes might be down this year but the quality of hops is right up there,” he says.

International craft beer drinkers can relax knowing the only sour note will be intentional.

Briar McCormack is bluenotes NZ editor

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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