Craft beer boom means heady days for hops growers

Allan Monshing, farm manager of Rostrevor Hop Gardens in Eurobin, is a third-generation hops farmer. Photo: Peter Merk.

Somewhere in America, probably on the west coast, the epicentre of the global craft beer movement, a beer drinker is peering at a label that reads “brewed from Australian hops”.

What opinions are they forming? What does “Australian beer” taste like? Chances are they’ll note we’re fruity, with citrus aromas and hints of passionfruit or melon. For these are the characteristics of Galaxy, a patented hop variety grown by Hop Products Australia (HPA), which produces the lion’s share  – about 80 per cent – of hops in Australia and exports three quarters of its annual 1000-tonne crop each year.

Thanks to the international boom in craft beers, Victorian hop growers, including HPA, are experiencing a boom of their own. And on the eve of this year’s harvest most growers are, understandably, upbeat about the future of the industry.

Allan Monshing and his wife, Gail.Allan Monshing and his wife, Gail. Photo: Peter Merk

“We’ve been through some pretty rough times,” says Allan Monshing, 61, farm manager at HPA’s Rostrevor Hop Gardens, in Eurobin. Mr Monshing is a third-generation hops farmer with 42 annual harvests under his belt. Retirement, though, isn’t on his radar. “There were times there that we thought we probably wouldn’t make another season. But now we’re in this phase of growth, a phase of everything being positive. So, obviously you want to be part of it.”

Last year, HPA, part of the German privately owned Barth-Haas Group, invested $15 million in expanding its Ovens Valley operations. (The company also has crops in Tasmania.)

It’s part of a five-year plan to move away from so-called commodity hops (used for bitterness in mainstream beers) and develop specialty varieties specifically for the craft beer market, particularly in the US.

The Galaxy Hops.The Galaxy Hops. Photo: Peter Merk

“We’re expecting to see the growth of Australian craft [beer brewing] continue to climb … probably 6 to-10 per cent a year across the next five years,” says managing director Tim Lord. “So that’s really exciting and encouraging and we’ve got a lot of tremendous craft beer brewing operations here in Australia now.”

According to an IBIS World report published last year craft beer brewing is now worth $376.7 million and, says the executive officer of Craft Beer Industry Association of Australia, Chris McNamara, there are now 350 breweries and brewing companies operating here, up from 200 in 2013.

“Craft beer’s all about flavour and traditional beers are fantastically well-made beers but they’re reasonably neutral in flavour,” says Mr McNamara. “Whereas craft beer is about pushing those boundaries, not necessarily stupidly, but putting more flavour in your glass.”

In nearby King Valley, fourth-generation hops producer Greg Croke is already in the thick of harvest, brought on early by the recent warm weather.

His Australian-owned, family-run business, Ellerslie Hop Australia, released its own proprietary variety, Melba, last year. “We’ve seven primary varieties and at least a dozen coming through our breeding program,” he says.

Although he declines to reveal exactly how many tonnes he produces each year, the recent favourable industry conditions mean more expansions to his 500-hectare property are on the cards. “This is an exciting time,” he says. “We’ve weathered a lot of storms but we’ve got a future.”

Read the story originally published on 4 March, 2016 at Fairfax Media here.