I have been brewing for a while now and I still love it as much today as the first time I picked up a hydrometer. I am sure I’m not the only person to wonder when choosing a profession if I have answered some an innate calling. Beyond my love of a good cold beer I was curious; could there be a tangible reason for my gravitation toward brewing?
As it turns out, there was a link to brewing in my past. One of my most exciting beer adventures was actually looking back through my family history and discovering that my forbears had a significant stake in Australia’s early brewing history. They grew hops, lots of hops!
It all started with a book that my parents had given me for Christmas detailing the early settlement of my family, in Southern Tasmania. In 1854 my great, great, great grandfather James Clark was granted a sizeable parcel of land in the upper reaches of the Derwent Valley, some 50 kilometres North West of Hobart, for farming purposes. Aided by a cricket team-sized family, 10 children in all, James set about the monumental task of clearing the land to raise live stock and grow crops, chiefly fruit and grain. The nature of the fledgling colony is reflected by reports that James often carried a gun while tending the fields, to defend himself against possible attacks from bushrangers on the run from authorities. James was the founding father of the area now known as Ellendale and it was James’ youngest son Edward who planted the first hop fields in the Ellendale area.
The first successful hop crops to be grown in Tasmania were planted by William Shoobridge in what is now North Hobart. Shoobridge was originally from Kent in England, an area well known for growing hops in particular the East Kent Golding variety of hop. The Shoobridge family was involved in the hop industry and when William came out to the colony he brought with him hops from the motherland. It was apparent very quickly that the English hops enjoyed the Tasmanian conditions, within two years Shoobridge had produced a crop large enough for commercial sale.
Edward Clark saw the huge potential for a local crop and seized the opportunity to start growing hops for himself. Edward established his first crop at “Kingsholme”, a sizable property still within the boundaries of the original family plot of land. This area is blessed with all of the geographical features that make it so ideally suited to growing hops; the valley walls largely protect against the prevailing winds, a fresh supply of running water, straight from the mountains close by and some of the best soil on the planet. The other critical factor is that the valley is situated so far south the days through the summer months stretch out to 14 hours, which is the real key, as hops really thrive with the extra hours of sunlight.
The Derwent Valley was soon established as the premier hop growing region and hop farms exploded in the area, at its peak there were 71 hop farmers along the banks of the Derwent River stretching from New Norfolk to Ellendale. Tasmania quickly became the largest producer of hops in the Southern Hemisphere and the annual crop formed an important part of the Tasmanian economy as it was shipped to export markets.
Tragically for Edward, the Oast House (hop kiln) that he had built on his property burned down in 1908 and with it he lost half of that years’ crop in the flames. Unperturbed he resolved to would rebuild on a much grander scale. With business booming he began constructing the largest Oast House in the Southern Hemisphere at Kingsholme. The Oast House boasted four operational furnaces, fuelled by oil as opposed to coal which had been common practice. The hot air was fanned up through the turrets, at around 50°c, to the waiting hops. The green hops were placed four feet deep on wooden slat floors, as the heat rose up through the turret it would pass through the hops and dry them out, this process would take around 10 hours to complete.
Once they had been dried the hops were pressed into bales to be transported to Hobart by rail or truck, these bales were all loaded by hand, presumably by real men. One of these bales would weigh the equivalent of 113 kilograms in modern measurements! Edward achieved his aim and his Oast house was certainly the busiest in the district, the bulk of growers were delivering to Kingsholme to have their hops dried and baled. In the 1940’s the Henry Jones Company (IXL) took over the property, they were already the major distributor; this acquisition gave them control over a lot of supply. The year 1962 saw peak of production at Kingsholme, the record crop that year produced 500 bales of hops or 170 cubic tons of dried hops.
Sadly for the region hop growing began to dramatically decline in the coming years, the main reason for this is attributed to the introduction of the Pride of Ringwood hop. The planting of high alpha acid varieties meant it was no longer necessary to grow such vast quantities of hops to achieve the equivalent bittering qualities. This with a growing trend toward less bitter lager styles sealed the fate of the hop industry in the Derwent valley.
The up-shot to all of this, largely due to the fact that progress expands on a scale of “Tassie time”, is the Derwent Valley remains one big living breathing museum. Taking a drive through the valley is almost like traveling back in time as old Oast houses dot the landscape; some have been converted to accommodation, some are used by the farmers as barns and then there are others that look as though the lights got turned out one night and no one came back. Fruit orchards still abound and the rail tracks used to transport produce from the valley are still evident though they are no longer in use and nature is slowly reclaiming them. The months from Summer to Autumn are spectacular, literally kilometres of mature hops dominate the landscape at Bushy Park, forests of 15 foot high hop vines line the sides of the road.
The epic Oast House that Edward Clark embarked on at Kingsholme still stands, it serves as a monument to a more illustrious past. The hop farms at Bushy Park continue to operate and there is a fantastic culmination between the old and the new. The new processing shed has been built over an existing site and there are relics from days gone by with picnic tables and fire places from where the pickers would camp. The recent boom of craft breweries has begun to reinvigorate the hop industry and Bushy Park has been steadily increasing production of “new world varieties” to accommodate. This seems to have ignited the passion and imagination of brewers around the country. Every year a growing number of dedicated brewers migrate to the annual harvest keen to check out the latest crop and no doubt admire the amazing beauty of the valley.