Any beer basics book will tell you that Brisbane sits well north of where hops are commercially grown, but one new venture is looking to re-write the book.
The Brisbane suburb of Hemmant is the new and unlikely home for Hilltop Hops Farm, begun when co-founders Steve Mitchell and Andrew Carson decided to experiment with the crop in 2017.
Mitchell, an engineer by trade, and Carson, a government policy adviser, began their venture with a single vine in Mitchell’s Bulimba backyard.
After this first experiment grew successfully, Carson with Mitchell rented a small plot of land where they planted 30 plants in their first year. Having expanded to 200 plants for this year’s harvest, Carson said they plan to add another 200 plants ready for next year’s harvest.
Having established relationships with other tropical hop growers in Florida, USA. Carson will holiday there mid-year, where he hopes to learn from more established growers.
Light is critical for hop growth. When grown in temperate climates, like in the United States’ north-west, hop bines are generally exposed to 17 hours of sunlight per day during the summer months. In Queensland, Carson said his bines only get about 13.5 hours per day in summer.
“It does seem that the plants are genetically aligned to want that really long day length for ideal vegetative growth and when daylight hours decrease that’s their trigger to start growing cones and the flowers,” Carson explained.
“Up here they’re probably a bit confused as to what’s going on.
“So it’s not ideal from that respect.”
Mitchell said that while they are considering lighting, they aren’t sure, and so will keep those plans close to their chests.
“The majority of our plants are first- and second-year plants, mainly first, and they don’t hit full maturity till their third year.
“So, we’re still trying to find out what our yields are going to be.”
“Our success will be measured by how much we end up getting from the plants.”
Hilltop Hops’ best plants in its first year were Chinook vines, which each yielded about 600 grams wet. Mitchell said that a mature plant in the perfect climate can exceed two or three kilos.
“We’re way off at the moment but we’ll see what develops in the next year or so.”
The industry average, depending on the variety, is between 2.2 and 2.8 kilograms per hop plant.
Mitchell said that there are other parameters to work on as well, including fertilising and the different techniques that come with fertilising to get the right balance.
“It is a bit of experimenting, there’s light maybe, there’s fertilising and there’s how we train our vines as well.”
Both Mitchell and Carson agree that Hilltop Hops is a passion project.
Carson told Brews News that they don’t know if they’ll ever make money off the farm but said that both himself and Mitchell are loving being involved.
“At the moment it’s an experiment, it’s a fun hobby,” he said.
Mitchell added that it’s also fun to be part of the brewing industry. With neither grower able to grow a beard, Mitchell said that they had to find an alternative to actually brewing the beer.
“We couldn’t be brewers so we had to be something else so we thought, this is the next best thing,” Carson said.
Hilltop Hops vines were sourced from nurseries in Victoria and Tasmania. Current varieties include Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Columbus, Nugget, Red Earth and Victoria.
Both men enjoyed Archer’s recent QPA release.
“The fact that we were luckily part of that, we just felt so good about it,” Carson said.
Hilltop Hops has also supplied Bacchus Brewing with Chinook hops to brew a single hop Chinook IPA and Semi-Pro Brewing with hops to brew a pale ale and a black IPA.
Carson and Mitchell agree that it’s been a really good first season, saying that it’s been great to be able to supply a few local breweries. Being such a small operation, Carson said that demand will always end up outstripping supply.