If we’re going to grow hops, we’d better learn how to do it.
What better place to learn than through a real-life hop farmer!
So on our recent trip to Victoria we added a visit to the rural town of Yellingbo, east of Melbourne, to meet one of the most passionate and learned hop enthusiasts in Australia.
I first met Brad on the ever-reliable, Aussie Home Brewer forum when asking about where to source rhizomes. Brad the “Belgrage Brewer”, is one of the more active brewers online with two hop dedicated Facebook pages.
Yellingbo is an area smattered with hobby farms, full of green grass and the occasional field of crops. Mist still hangs in the air as we drive our rented Toyota Yaris across the cattle grid and into the property.
For the second time in two days, my feet are soaked within the first 30 seconds of stepping out of the car as we make our way across the muddy paddock to the house. A few knocks on the door and a few mins wait, Brad emerges and chucks on a pair of gumboots. You can feel the fertility of the soil under your feet as we make our way across to the hop yard.
5 perfectly spaced rows of treated pine poles linked by tight cable, frame a gently sloping field of maybe 2 acres. It’s the middle of winter, so the hops are sleeping. But even in the off season, the love and attention to the yard are clear. There isn’t a single weed visible across the entire field. The irrigation system is in perfect symmetry with the beds and each cable is perfectly parallel and/or perpendicular. I can see the hours that have been invested in this yard as I twang one of the support cables like an enormous double bass, admiring the tension.
The hop yard features 180 perfectly spaced bines across 5 equal rows. Brad used 6m treated pine poles dug 1m into the ground (with the help of a neighbours excavator). Cables are 5mm and 7×7 tread for added flexibility. Each bine then climbs up a 5mm length of coir (looks like twine) sourced from Sri Lanka specifically for hops. He’s used 3.5mm in the past, however a few broke during high winds, so he upgraded to 5mm.
Everything is organic. He’s using horse manure as fertilizer and does all the weeding by hand.
I ask what the likelihood of them growing well up at Bucketty is “They grow like weeds man!” as he shows me how rhizomes have shot out over a metre from their well-made beds.
“They’re also really thirsty.” he says as he shows me his rain storage tanks totalling 44,000 plus an additional dam of approx 100,000. “Even with all that water, I ran out the year before last. You’re gonna need access to a lot through summer”.
I say a few words of admiration and he continues, “You’re getting in at a good time. The hop industry is tiny in Australia, but it’s growing. A couple of years ago when I started I was the 5th largest producer in the entire country”. That’s a hell of a statement considering the size of Australia, most of us love beer, and beer needs hops!
Last season, Brad’s field yielded around 400kg of organic hops at an impressive rate of 2kg per bine, all hand-picked by friends and family across several weekends. An incredible 400 man hours of labour was needed to harvest the entire crop. He’s presently pipe dreaming about getting a piece of equipment known as a “Hopster” from the US that automates the process, however, the $40k price tag is a stumbling block.
The hops are then dried using a similarly styled rack to Red Hill Brewery, vacuum packed and chilled in a custom cool room, ready for sale.
Brad’s life is well and truely immersed in the craft beer industry, having owned and operated Oscar’s Ale House in Belgrave for the past 8 years. An unassuming venue that supports craft beer and live music. My old man and I headed over for a pint of 7 after our tour of the hop yard. It’s was a Wednesday night, yet the place was heaving with local musicians for their weekly open mic night. I spoke to a few of the locals and their appreciation for Brad and Oscar’s was clear. Good beer, good company and good for the community was the overriding feedback.
Having supported the craft beer industry for such a long period, Brad was only a month away from unveiling his own creation.
Gypsy brewed with his own hops I could sense the apprehension in his voice as he told us. Like an artist unsure if his piece was worthy of gallery space, I think he was worried people might not like it. I bet it’s bloody delicious.
And with that, we picked up our 20 delicately packed cascade rhizomes and made our way back over the cattle grid.
Key takeaways from Yellingbo Brewery:
- Use 5mm coir twine. The standard 3.5mm isn’t strong enough
- The hops are robust, provided they have enough water they should grow well
- There’s heaps of demand to purchase hops from independent brewery’s
September 2017 Edit: Brad’s Hop Quaffa is going down a treat with drinkers on Untappd with a rating of 4.1 stars. Check the reviews here.