Welcome to this BreweryPro episode looking at the hop harvest and hop selection.
As southern hemisphere hop growers reach the midpoint of their hop harvest, the discussion often turns to hop selection.
Brewers who have been fortunate to visit US farms are often invited to participate in selection, choosing the lots that they want to purchase. In Australia Hop Products Australia goes a different way, aiming for consistent quality through blending, even though the company itself participates in selection in the US.
BreweryPro wanted to better understand the Australian approach and the reasons for it and so we caught up with HPA’s Sales & Marketing Manager Owen Johnston to understand why the company sees the local market as being different and also learn the business dynamics and agronomics that are unique to their Australian operations that shapes its approach to hop sales.
Owen Johnston, welcome to Brewery Pro.
Owen Johnston: Matt, thanks for having me. Again, I guess.
MK: Funny enough, I’ve just been listening to you on an American podcast.
OJ: It’s a busy time for us because, for a bit of context for the listener, we’re in the middle of March, we’re in the middle of the Australian hop harvest, and we get a lot of attention both from the US and from Europe, and of course from the local brewers interested in what’s happening, what the outlook’s like, and that connection with agriculture that’s important to people.
This year’s been a bit unsettled. We took the decision to not allow non-essential people on the farm, unfortunately. Non-essential in the perspective of delivering a crop.
MK: It was just before this time last year that we were up in the High Country after the fires visiting, and it was only just then that this idea of harvest work forces that are so important to the harvest was starting to be talked about. You’ve had a year of planning, how have you gone managing that in the year of COVID?
OJ: We actually shut the farms on Friday the 13th of March 2020, just over a year ago. I still remember clearly the anxiety around that situation, but we’ve had 12 months to watch the situation evolve and change. Thinking about why people come on the farm and that connection with the agricultural piece into their brewery, trying to come close to us and understand – as we encourage them to do – come close to us and understand our processes and whatnot.
We realised that delivery on our promises, our contractual promises to supply and the future of those beers that our hops are in, is way more important than a bit of industrial tourism and me having a great time talking to my brewing mates. We took the decision to shut the farms. We’ve had very widespread support, of course, no one denies that our primary mission, the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing, and that is deliver this crop and not put that at risk. We’ve had good support in terms of everybody involved there.
In terms of labour force, we start ramping up our labour force for the stringing and training operations on farm, ramping up again toward the end of February, and then the harvest kicks very late Feb or early March. We had to pursue a few different channels to get the work force we needed, especially in Victoria. In Tasmania we travelled a little bit better, both farms, I would say, are just adequately covered. We haven’t got a problem, but we’re certainly not enjoying the depth of willing workers that we normally have. I expect this will change as COVID restrictions ease, and travel might start up again as vaccines are rolled out, so we’re looking forward to that.
MK: I’m speaking to Stan Hieronymus later in the week about hops and northern harvest, and it sounds like the work forces are very different but have both been hit by COVID, so I’ll keep you posted with that.
It’s interesting because you talk about industrial tourism, or the engagement that takes place on a farm, and I still very clearly remember my first experience down at Bushy Park when I was lucky to be taken down there for a Cascade first harvest. I used to worry that I over-romanticised that experience and how transformational it was in regard to my appreciation, and even glorification, of beer as an agricultural product.
The number of brewers I’ve spoken to who wax lyrically about that experience, it really is a foundational, critically important, almost a recharge experience for brewers to be there beyond just seeing hops grow with your mates.
OJ: Yeah, it really is. You are not on your own in that situation where it’s had an impact on your mindscape. I’m in exactly the same situation experientially. I remember my first harvest and I remember my first kiln floor, watching the first kiln floor of the first harvest since joining HPA. It does register, and I don’t think it’s over romanticised. We see it in people who come back to the farm every year, they make a point of it, and it is that connection, it is that recharge, it is a verification that this crop is important, it’s mission critical to the success of some of these beers out there nowadays as hop-forward styles have come to the fore.
I never cease to be amazed at how passionate people get on farm, it’s definitely my favourite time of year. And, of course, that always spills over to having a few beers afterwards and talking about beer as well as just hops.
MK: And that’s the thing. Last night I hosted a group of Queensland brewers at Parliament House for a Parliamentary Friends of craft brewing event that we’ve been long trying to organise, and I spent most of the night thinking, “Geez I wish I could get you guys out to a hop farm. Drinking it here is one thing, but to really change your perception of beer…”
I don’t know how we’d do that experience because, as you say, it’s a busy time on a farm and you don’t want it to just be tourism, but it is certainly something I wish we could bottle.
OJ: Because it is just such a powerful experience, I completely agree. I don’t have the solution to how to add a tourism business to the hop farm, I wouldn’t be very popular with farmers, I’ll give you the tip.
MK: Maybe we can call it ‘HoppyLand’ or something like that and have a couple of waterslides.
One of the things that we wanted to talk about today, the US experience – which I’ve also been lucky enough to do – is they often talk about this idea of selection, whereas the hop harvest in Australia is very much about engagement. I was interested in learning the difference between the HPA, or the Australian approach to that harvest and brewer engagement, and also the way that hops are blended and packaged.
OJ: Fabulous, and it’s a pertinent time for us. We have breweries around the world connecting with us and asking these sorts of questions all the time. I think it is because HPA is in a unique situation, and we currently do have a standpoint where we don’t offer selections. You’re right, we focus on engagement and talking to brewers about why we make the decisions we make and how we manage quality.
It’s really important to note that we acknowledge the role that hop selection plays, particularly in the US growing environment where… it plays a role in aligning the brewer expectations of consistency and quality with the agricultural outcomes of that given growing season. In my opinion, the rationale behind offering hop selections is driven by the diverse outcomes in quality when there are a large number of independent farmers spread across diverse geography. And in the States, it’s more diverse than it’s been in 50 years. There’s something like 13 states growing hops now, obviously the three main ones and a lot of really small guys.
Case in point, if you’re talking about a really widespread variety, whether that’s Cascade, Centennial, or Citra – the biggest hop in America nowadays – there is going to be a diversity of outcomes due to diversity in farming practices, due to a really diverse spread across geographies, all contributing to a spread for that given variety in that given season.
The difference with HPA is that we’re an independent, vertically integrated business. We span breeding and cultivation right through all our farming operations, control of decision-making on farm and as it relates to harvest, post-harvest processing, and, of course, selling and messaging and working with brewers to get the most out of those crops we grow.
In contrast to that diversity that you might see in a huge growing region like the US, we’re a tiny vertically integrated operation with, admittedly, two quite spread growing regions between Tasmania and northeast Victoria, but overall, we represent less than 1% of the world’s hop crop.
MK: Something I know I forget, when you’re talking about a hop that has created a presence on the global stage in Galaxy, it’s a fraction of your output. It’s a significant fraction of your output, but it’s a fraction of your output that is only 1%. Where would all of HPA’s properties in Victoria and Tasmania place you in, for example, the Yakima Valley in scale?
OJ: We’ll be 650 hectares, approximately, this year under trellis and harvested. It’s my gut feel that we’d be somewhere in the middle of the pack in the farming scales in the Yakima Valley. Even picking up HPA’s operation and dropping it into the Yakima Valley, I think we’re middle of the pack in terms of scale and scope.
I find this is a really powerful thing for us because our farming can take a sensible approach to managing our situation, no different to any other individual farm in the US, I would have thought. It’s only when you get this spread of farmers growing the same variety that you’re really going to drive diversity.
Let’s not forget the context of HPA’s operation and what I said at the top. We bred our own variety, we grow only our own proprietary varieties, plus Cascade. We only have two sites. We are a very modest operation in the scheme of things. All of these things work, for me, to give us an advantage in taking that really practical approach to achieving what we believe is the best crop outcome.
We understand our own varieties. We bred them, we grow them, we’re a single point of origin in the supply chain for HPA’s varieties all across the globe. We are in control of this, and that’s a really strong and important difference, compared to all other growing regions.
MK: This is where, as a journalist, it can be a little bit challenging, because I don’t operate farms. I don’t know the difference between one brewer’s approach to growing and another’s. Is there a variety of approaches and techniques and handling on farm between different controlled farms?
OJ: Yes, I would absolutely say so. Fundamental differences in the way hops are farmed across the globe. Let me give you some simple examples: attitudes to weed control and winter cropping and soil compaction, and whether hop rows are hilled up or they’re flat, or whether hops are dressed or whether they’re not dressed. There’s a myriad of practical farming decisions that are made. Very similar to, “Making beer is easy, it’s only got four ingredients, right? People can do it in their basements.” Matt, in my simple perspective of beer.
The point remains that there are a thousand things that you can do differently to your neighbour in making that beer on that day, and hop farming is, I feel, very similar in that way. On a farm, decision making can lead to a very diverse way in which that given farm grows hops, certainly between growing regions and styles of cultivation around the world.
Being in that position where we’re a relatively small operation and we own and control our own processes, and let’s just talk about that. You can hear more about this on hops.com.au/virtual-harvest, and we have a presentation – thanks for the opportunity to give that a big plug – go there and we’ve got a pretty comprehensive hour-long presentation on our quality systems where you can take a deep dive.
We’re ISO 9001 Certified, we have this strong procedural governance of our hop farms. I’m not going to tell you that we don’t have variance in crop outcomes, even inside one crop, but I say to you that we are in control of the whole crop perspective, of how we handle material immediately post-harvest through into pellets.
There are two things I’d like to mention here in this difference. One is that we have a whole crop perspective, right? It’s not like Citra or something like that where we’re just a farmer growing some Citra and we understand our outcomes but have no idea what the rest of the variety looks like in the whole Pacific Northwest. We know, and we can make great decisions on handling that material and blending for our purpose, which is highest possible quality, lowest possible variance across the variables that we can measure.
MK: That’s an interesting element for me. On one hand you can understand a brewer wanting to go in and choose the hops that he wants, but I’m actually thinking of the equity of access view, which would be the counter to that. If I’m the last dog to the bowl, what chance have I got of getting the good ingredients if the big dogs have already been in?
OJ: I can only assume you’d get the crumbs.
That is the difference, right?
Let’s talk about Cascade across the growing base in the Pacific Northwest. You would never be presented brewer’s cuts at the selection table that represent the entire crop. You as a brewer have to acknowledge that you are still at the mercy of what is presented to you on the selection table on that day. We take that pretty seriously in the way we handle our own selection of US material because, work with my contradictory stance here, HPA works very hard on US selections to guarantee our Australian customers great quality material.
This is not contradictory because we acknowledge that diversity in America demands that we verify and select material. It’s completely different to the HPA perspective, where we own the full crop outcome and we’re in charge of blending and processing and pelleting. To our objective, as you say, a little egalitarian perhaps, and I know some brewers with their own self-interest right at the fore of their mind, will not agree with this ever, but we are in a position where we are managing Galaxy for the best, long run outcomes, multiyear outcomes, where brewers can trust performance. And being the best of the crop isn’t actually important as long as it delivers on the impact in beer, you don’t have to have the best little sliver of that entire crop.
MK: As you’re explaining that I’m actually thinking of the debate that takes place in the brewing industry itself of batch blending versus batch-to-batch variation being embraced, and what the outcome is across both of those. Is there a parallel?
OJ: I would think so. I think the vase majority of brewers would admit that they are under a lot of commercial pressure to make consistent product. There is a consumer confidence piece to selling beer, no matter how much we celebrate diversity and choice in our craft space. In our industry it’s almost like that’s a choice and diversity question between you and the producer down the road. When someone loves your American-style pale ale on the shelf in a bottle shop, or on the tap in the pub down the road, when they come back next week to have another pint, they have an expectation that that beer is pretty consistent.
I still think that’s a very relevant point, even if our mandate in craft is choice and variety and diversity, you still have a consumer confidence issue you need to address.
And how that dovetails into our perspective on selections is that we’re in control of our data and primarily these are HSI, total oils, alpha, beta. We’re in control of our data for the whole crop of one variety. I don’t know another situation where that happens in the world. We can make processing and production run decisions to help the brewer trust in our product as an input to achieve that consistent flavour impact.
We know, and this is the second point I was going to make a little earlier, we know that our hop varieties are mid-range in stability once they’re in the bale, so we’re very conscious of timeliness and getting our production of pellets through in a timely manner. We’re on track for about 8 weeks, possibly 9 weeks this year, from the end of harvest to the completion of pelleting. That is a clear acknowledgement of the adverse impact of storage in bale. It’s always been, I found out recently that even Pride of Ringwood crossed in the ‘60s was not a particularly stable hop in the bale, and that we’ve always enjoyed high throughput capacity in pelleting here in Australia for those reasons. It’s almost a little idiosyncrasy of the Australian breeding context, as well as hop selections in the Australian context.
We acknowledge this, and we are driven by this highest-quality, lowest-variant outcome, and timeliness into the final package, is a key quality control step in that.
MK: When you talk about the highest-quality, lowest-variance, that’s very much the approach that brewers look for in barley malt, for example. Does hops sometimes suffer from its rock star persona that there are different expectations for the approach to them?
OJ: The barley motives, from the brewer’s perspective, and not forgetting that there’s a converter in the middle of that barley process, the maltster has a pretty important role to play in presenting consistent quality. In fact, they’re under a massive challenge because you’ve got agricultural variation and then you’ve got the process control of the modifier in there, the maltster, then you’ve got a brewing operation and you’re trying to get a consistent outcome in a beer at the end of the day. It’s a really tough challenge.
Is it in hop growers’ advantage, perhaps, not to have a converter in the middle between hop grower and use in beer? Yes, I think it is. But you have to address it appropriately, and that is the two ways in which to address it is either selections to guarantee yourself a level of satisfaction that the material you’re going to put in your beer from the farm is of an adequate quality. Or, in the HPA context, you can come on farm, come closer to us, understand why we make these decisions, how we approach this holy grail of highest possible average quality with the lowest possible variance in quality, and effectively you build up confidence and trust us to deliver on that promise.
People need to sometimes take a deep breath when you’re telling them no on selections. When I can refocus the conversation on our mandate is actually to deliver impact in beer, people start to get it. We’re aligned in our motives here, the end goal here is the same. We’re using a second management tool, technique, to ensure that our hops stack up at the end of the day.
MK: I know you’ve got a harvest to take care of both in reality and in virtuality, so I’ll let you go. I’m very keen to do our annual post-harvest roundup as well to find out how it all went. How is it looking? Are things coming on at the right times in the right place?
OJ: Yes, I do think so. I think we, and people are probably going to have a laugh when I say, some varieties are up and some are down, that’s pretty much the same story every year. That’s the old how-to-say-something-while-saying-nothing, sitting on the fence, but that’s the reality of it. We do have a diversity of genetics out on the farms nowadays, rather than when were just growing Pride and Super Pride, for instance. And inherently there’s less variation there because you don’t have the different variety of responding to a seasonal condition.
We do see some ups and downs in any given season. I look forward to going deep on those with you, maybe middle of April when we’ve got our arms around the full results, and I’m really confident that we’re going to see great Aussie hops bursting with Aussie hop flavour in beers through 2021.
MK: Owen Johnston, thank you so much for joining us on this Brewery Pro chat about hop selection and blending.
OJ: Thanks, Matt. Thanks for your support, thanks for having me.