You’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet

May 26


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A sailor in the hop gardens of Nelson Tasman.

THE SCENT LURED ME CLOSER TO THE BRICK WALL IN THE GREENHOUSE. LIME GREEN BINES CREPT UP THROUGH THE GRAVEL AND CLIMBED FIVE METRES TO THE GLASS ROOF. I REACHED OUT TO PRESS A DELICATE, FLUFFY CONE AND YELLOW POWDER COVERED MY FINGERTIPS.

I brought the crushed flower clusters to my nose and inhaled. Zesty, tropical, stirring. My mind raced. What is this plant? How can I find more and roll in it like a kitten in catnip?

“I wanted to envelop myself in that euphoric smell”

My farm mentor told me these were hops and she was growing them for medicinal use, but most folks grow them for beer brewing. That first encounter with hops — at a riverside farm in the occupied Lenape territory that is upstate New York — left an impression. Two years later, I hitchhike-sailed across the Pacific Ocean for adventure, of course, but also to work with hops in Aotearoa. I wanted to envelop myself in that euphoric smell. A friend connected me with a hop garden in the Nelson Tasman district, so, after a year at sea, I set off for the top of Te Waipounamu.

“hops are known as the gambler’s crop”

English and German colonists first brought hops to Nelson in 1842. The region offers favourable growing conditions for the perennial plant — long days, water, protection from the wind and a proper winter chill. They carried their beloved crop across oceans because hops are a key ingredient in beer making, and have been for more than 1000 years, though the now-feted bitter taste wasn’t the initial goal. Hops serve as a preservative, and India Pale Ales, or IPAs, were developed when English colonists wanted to ensure their beer would survive the long passage to India in the 1800s. Seems the officers of the British Raj enjoyed imported beer as a social lubricant and tonic throughout their brutal Imperial rule.

“I felt kind of high, and indeed hops’ distant plant cousin is cannabis”

Over time, drinkers began to enjoy not only the bitter flavour, but also the other nuances that hops give to beer: blackcurrant, muscat, resinous, floral, citrus, pineapple, cheesy, grape, tobacco, black tea, cedarwood, onion and garlic, to name a few. Beyond contributing aromas and flavours, hops also have sedative properties, and can be used both as a sleep aid and to treat stress. For folks like me who don’t drink beer, yet desire relief from anxiety, this is happy news. Plus, it explains why I was so drawn to the enchanting plant in the far corner of that greenhouse.

My co-workers at the hop garden were a mix of folks — some weren’t old enough to drive, and one wasn’t allowed due to a recent conviction. There were backpackers from France, old-timers from the village, and skilled migrant workers from Vanuatu. Our bosses were mostly men.

When I joined the crew in early December 2019, my previous agricultural experience steered me to the nursery full of unplanted hops. This is a prestigious post, as it involves less walking. Hop gardens grow only female hops because they produce the luscious cones full of lupulin — that perfumed waxy yellow dust. Female plants are propagated vegetatively instead of from seed, so our job in the nursery was to sort and ready the different baby plants for their new perennial soil-bound home.

After what felt like years, but was only a few weeks, I requested a transfer to the fields so I could be out of the monotony of shuffling bagged plants. I wanted to be among the bines.

A bine is like a vine, but without suckers. When my wish was granted, I began walking, and training, the long aisles of hop bines that climbed up strings about five metres high and a few paces apart. The strings were hand- tied to thick metal cables strung atop wood poles and anchored in the ground at the end of each aisle. You could tell it was expensive infrastructure. In 2015, Stuff reported that it costs growers “between $35 – 40,000 a hectare for posts, wires and plants.” Plus you need, among other things, a hop shed with a mechanical picker, a drying kiln, tractors and irrigation. Oh, and land.

Hops are known as the gambler’s crop, with prices at times fetching $100 per kilogram. Each plant produces 300 to 1000 grams of dried hop flowers per season. If you estimate 0.52 tonnes per hectare (napkin calculations based on the Stuff article), at $50 per kilo (from online seller prices), 116 hectares of hop canopy at $50 x 520kg x 116ha equals more than $3 million. My napkin reckons the farmers I was working for could pay back the cost of posts, wires and plants in a harvest and a half.

NZ Hops is a cooperative of 27 growers who collaborate on innovation and information about all things hops. The garden I was working for is not part of their collective, so they control, among other things, their own marketing, distribution and sale price. Once a season, investors would arrive in flash utes, don high vis vests, and look down on the crew from a bluff as we picked rocks and weeded. When harvest time came, management said we’d be working six to seven days a week, sunup to sundown with no increase in hourly pay and no bonus. We were supposed to be satisfied with the free onsite meals. I wasn’t.

A fellow worker connected me with Foxhill Hops, a NZ Hops grower, in the neighbouring valley; they had a last-minute cancellation and needed a hooker. A hops hooker that is. I called their farm manager, Nigel Clarke, who asked if I was tall enough and fit enough for the strenuous job. He explained that I would be standing in the trailer full of freshly cut hop bines, and that I needed to pick up each one and hang it onto hooks passing overhead on a conveyor. I assured him that I’d worked in 38C heat in California deserts harvesting tomatoes, so I could handle it. Once I came to the farm for an informal interview, Nigel seemed more assured that I would be more help than hindrance. He shook my hand, and I happily resigned my post at the other garden.

New Zealand growers account for less than 1% of the world’s hops, with the U.S. and Germany producing the majority. Tiny farms like Foxhill, which has 12.5 acres of hop gardens, set themselves apart with excellent quality instead of quantity. Graham Cole’s father bought the farm back in 1953. “Hop gardens back then were smaller, they started off at half an acre. Eight acres would’ve been big,” Graham explains.

Graham started working on the Foxhill farm as a kid, when all of the hops were still picked by hand. Picking was considered a job exclusively for girls and women. For three to four weeks each February or March, 60 pickers took the train from Nelson at 7am, arrived at the Foxhill garden at 8am, then took the train back to town at 5pm.

“Back then, travelling was hard, so having the train tracks next to the farm made us unique,” Graham says. Pickers had their own 40-litre container, and picked the hops from the bines after they’d been cut down by workers called screen cutters. “A good picker could pick 100 bushels per day, but I could only pick 20 per day because I was a kid. I thought I was a millionaire from my earnings,” Graham laughs.

The shed workers loaded the picked hops into the kiln, which dates to the late 1800s. “It took a good 12 hours to load and 12 hours to dry them,” Graham says. Kiln workers had to keep the fire going through the night and drank to pass the time, which once resulted in them nearly burning down the shed.

Soon after Graham’s father bought the hops garden, a soil-borne virus called root rot “started killing the hops like you wouldn’t believe.” The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, together with support from the hops industry, created a root rot resistant hop at their research station in Riwaka, outside Motueka. Plant scientist Dr Rudi Roborgh spearheaded the effort, which saved the local industry. In 2012, the SuperAlpha hops variety was renamed as Dr Rudi in his honour.

Nowadays, NZ Hops continues to work with the government to create new varieties. Scientists and growers are on a quest to surprise taste buds and devise varieties that can thrive in diverse microclimates. Lauren Yap is NZ Hops Growers Field Support & Quality Assurance Manager. She connects the scientists at the Crown institute Plant & Food Research with the co-op growers so they can test new varieties and figure out which ones deserve to be planted out on a larger scale. “At any one time there are five hops in the innovation stream, we have lots of exciting hops coming through,” she says.

It takes 12 years for a new variety to come to market. “It is amazing to see how dedicated generations of people are to putting spice in a beverage,” Lauren, who loves craft beer and is a brewer herself, explains.

Agriculture is tricky. It’s not all plant breeding and investor relations. Neighbours in both the valleys I worked in grumbled about the expanding hop industry’s strain on local water supplies. Wages are low, and lower still for migrant workers whose rent, food costs and other “fees” are deducted from paycheques by middle agents — leaving them with unfair hourly rates. Farm labour is deemed as “unskilled”, but every worker contributes to making your brew delicious, refreshing and euphoria-inducing.

Nectaron, Moutere, Taiheke, Green Bullet, Kohatu, Motueka, Nelson Sauvin, Pacific Gem, Rakau, Southern Cross, Wai-iti. It’s like an incantation over a double-hopped hazy witches’ brew. According to Lauren, New Zealand hop varieties are shifting to appeal to craft beer tastes “with heritage varieties being replaced as the industry evolves from just using a bittering hop.” Hopefully, it is an evolution that also includes the well-being of the hands, bodies, minds and lands that contribute to those misty, heady bubbles.

I faced the gaping mouth of the mechanical picking machine — its conveyor tongue guided picked hops into the dark depths of gears and grease. This creaking behemoth was state of the art technology when it was introduced in the 1960s. The need for those 60 hand pickers evaporated like the morning dew. However, the two-storey machine still requires two hookers to stand shoulder to shoulder on the back of a trailer atop a heap of hops. Well, it was more

like shoulder to hip for me and my co-worker. He was a towering shearer with a face like a young Abe Lincoln and a voice that matched his stature.

Every time the picker broke down, which happened when gnarly varieties clogged up the machine, we lay in the hop cart and rested. That mystical, intoxicating hop aroma engulfed me, especially when we hung the Riwaka variety. I felt kind of high, and indeed hops’ distant plant cousin is cannabis. Home baked treats greeted us on our breaks. Women who’d worked the harvest for decades brought me hazelnuts to crack during lunch for fun. Mike Visser, the farm owner, and Nigel laboured alongside us all. Graham volunteered his expertise. They let me practise reversing the tractor and trailer full of hops into the narrow shed. The vibe was good — and only the bosses worked weekends.

WORDS: ROXANNE DARROW PHOTOS: MIKE WILSON


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1964: mountain culture / aotearoa is a reader-supported magazine that explores Aotearoa New Zealand’s remote places and the people who seek them out. Working with more than thirty artists, photographers, writers, woodworkers and welders, we advocate for and support Aotearoa’s creatives.

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