Hill Farmstead founder endures iso for NZ hop selection

Shaun Hill, brewer and founder of the world-renowned US brewery Hill Farmstead, is considered so crucial to a New Zealand hop development programme that he has been allowed through Aotearoa’s borders for the country’s hop harvest.

Hill, who arrived in New Zealand on 1st February for a seven-week period, entered the country on a Critical Skills Visa and spent a fortnight in a managed isolation facility in Christchurch.

He is in the country to work on the Hāpi – Brewing Success programme, a seven-year Primary Growth Partnership project between the Ministry of Primary Industries, Garage Project brewery and Freestyle Farms hop farm, which aims to develop a thriving international hop industry through a sustainable supply of premium hops, precision farming and processing methods, and direct to market channels.

The Hāpi research programme manager, Matt Crowther, describes Shaun Hill’s role in the project as so vital, that they couldn’t risk the 2021 hop harvest going ahead without him.

“His input last year in selecting hops that have got a higher probability of success helps us accelerate this programme, because you’re working with a cycle of annual harvests. So missing out a year is a year lost, if you like, to bring these hops to market,” Crowther said.

He said Hill helps select novel hop variants, which are then grown in larger quantities and trialled.

“He’s apparently got the best nose in the business, so he can rub the hops and tell you whether they’ve got high potential to be a hit or not, and likewise, the aroma and taste of the trial brews as well.

“Last year he was instrumental in selecting two particular hops that we’ve now put into commercial trials, so the first of those is at a trial brew – he’ll be tasting that as well.

“And he’ll look at our recent hops from this year, to help us determine which ones to take forward into trials again,” Crowther said.

Shaun Hill is a little more modest when asked about what makes him so special, that he has been let through New Zealand’s ironclad borders into a practically COVID-19-free country.

He says he brings an outside brewers viewpoint to the programme, bringing experience from working in the industry in the United States and Germany.

“I’ve been working on gaining a new perspective on what’s happening in the [hop] field and how it carries through in beer,” Hill explained.

“So if you smell a hop in the field, it doesn’t necessarily always translate aromatically or flavour-wise into the beer – there are specific compounds that sort of act as vehicles or indicators of the success of how the hop carries through in the final product.”

Hill won’t disclose details of what exactly he is searching for when he analyses the experimental hop varieties, but says those skills can potentially be taught to others over time.

“What I think seems pretty key at the moment is that, it seems at least…there is no laboratory available in New Zealand to do this full oil analysis in a timeline that is of assistance to the farm. So being able to get feedback [on hops] more quickly is certainly valuable.”

Hill says growing communication channels between brewers who use the hops and the farms which grow them, is also vital to the success of the product – and that’s something which the Hāpi project is working to establish.

“It’s really essential that there’s a very circuitous relationship with brewers and farmers in order to provide feedback,” he said.

“I think we all agree that just looking at the political landscape in general, healthier dialogue, more transparency and a healthy exchange of information in a way that’s not polarising, could be of substantial benefit.”

“I remember writing an email to New Zealand Hops in 2009 and 2010 and then again in 2011, saying that I would prepay for Nelson Sauvin and Motueka and Riwaka in order to be able to guarantee access to them, and I was told that that was not possible.

“I’m fairly certain that information never reached any farmer, for example, I think it just stayed at the corporate processing level,” he said.

Hill points out that brewers have different preferences regarding what they’re looking for in their hops as well – something which the current industry doesn’t cope with well.

“At many large processors, they’re essentially blending multiple lots and just trying to get a homogenous blend, which is like what Galaxy is in Australia; BarthHaas, or Hop Products Australia, doesn’t really allow anyone to do selection, probably because they just want total control over the process because there’s a lot of very inferior hops, especially a lot of inferior Galaxy, being grown,” he said.

“I’ve unfortunately had to brew with some of that Galaxy and destroyed batches of beer that tasted like pencil shavings because of it.

“At the point that something of highest quality is not being produced with transparency and things are being done for the sake of homogeneity, monoculture and, basically, just earning capital, things can get pretty far out of whack pretty quickly.”

Hill says he’s already seeing a change in the relationships between hop farms and brewers in New Zealand after just three years of the Hāpi project, describing that feedback loop as a “disruptive technology”.

“But it’s I think it’s a disruptive technology that has the benefit of farmers in mind.

“I think if you were to talk to New Zealand farmers five years ago, they were still planting Wakatu and Kohatu and these other varieties that really they were only getting $1 to a pound for because they didn’t know if the craft beer boom in America and the demand for Nelson Sauvin was real,” he said.

“Now, to me, that really seems quite apparent that there is not a free exchange of information with farmers who I think would have been very happy to have grown more Nelson Sauvin at a higher dollar value to benefit the interests of the ever-growing beer industry.”

Interested in hearing more about hops and hop selection? Listen to this conversation with Jim Solberg and first employee Matt Sage from Indi Hops recorded during the 2019 hop selection at their office in Portland.

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