The 2024 hops harvest is complete, with growers reporting that quality shone through despite adverse weather conditions across Australia and New Zealand.

Harvest conditions

The return of El Niño was expected to result in positive weather patterns, but growers across Australia and New Zealand experienced difficult growing conditions resulting in reduced yields. For Hop Products Australia (HPA), the Tasmanian farm experienced below average rainfall with above average temperatures, whereas heavier rainfall for Victorian farms initially slowed plant growth and caused localised flooding for the second consecutive year.

Conversely, New Zealand experienced difficult dry conditions, as Dean Palmer, New Zealand Hops Master Grower, explained.

“Not only was it dry in the summer, but it was also quite a dry winter. We had below average rainfall for nine months leading into the harvest, but the six months leading up to harvest with at least 50 per cent of average rainfall meant that not only was it dry, but also the aquifers and the water supply levels were down. Some growers had irrigation restrictions coming into harvest, but most of the restrictions came on about halfway through harvest, which didn’t affect our growers as much,” he said.

However, the dry weather had some benefits during harvest time.

“The weather was really settled, and it allowed the harvest to be continuous. If we have rain during the harvest, it causes downtime and puts pressure on the harvest. This year, with a slightly smaller crop and such settled weather, everyone could harvest well within the desired window. All the crops were harvested, dried well, and put into the store in good time,” Palmer said.

Despite a promising start to the growing season, heat was also a challenge in WA, as Karridale Hops’ Trey Gee told Beer & Brewer.

“It was a great spring. One of the things that we had been looking for was a strong, definitive spring jump, and we had it, but almost from the minute that spring sprung, it just got drier and drier. We were chasing moisture most of the year. It was hot and dry for a very prolonged amount of time, and with that came hot, dry winds as well,” he said.

This year’s harvest also benefited from a return to pre-COVID seasonal recruitment levels, with a large number of returning employees with hop harvest experience. For HPA, this year’s harvest was also one of the safest in recent history, with a continued downward trajectory of injury frequency. New Zealand Hops also noted higher labour costs for this harvest, due to a minimum wage increase.

Crop quality

Despite reduced yields, crops across the board displayed high quality, with high levels of flavour-carrying oils and alpha acids.

According to HPA’s Head of Sales and Marketing, Owen Johnston, average oil and alpha content was equal to or above the five-year average for all proprietary hops.

“Galaxy and Enigma were the star performers with both oils and alphas above the five-year average, which should lead to a great year of true-to-type flavours and aromas in beer,” Johnston said.

Gee attributes the high oil levels in his crop to the hot and dry conditions, which have already proven popular in fresh-hopped beers.

“What we noticed was that the hops were speeding through maturation. The oils themselves are fantastic. One benchmark of a hot dry season is good oil development. That’s where a lot of the beers that were made with Western Australian hops benefited. We might not have been able to work with as many breweries that we wanted to or didn’t allocate as many hops to the breweries we did work with, but the quality of the hops and the intensity of the oils really shone through this year. It was apparent in all of the beers that were made with our hops,” he said.

Changing demand

While weather undoubtedly affected the final harvest volumes, both HPA and New Zealand Hops noticed a reduction in global demand for hops and adjusted their farmland usage accordingly.

HPA made the decision to idle 20 per cent of its gardens, resulting in a 177-hectare (21 per cent) decrease and a 480-tonne (26 per cent) year-on-year decrease across six of its proprietary varieties and Cascade. The most significant volume decreases were in Eclipse, with a 56.9 per cent decrease to 69 tonnes, and Topaz, with a 54 per cent decrease to 28 tonnes.

HPA’s Johnston explained the reasoning behind this reduction.

“This production decrease was a necessary step towards rebalancing supply and demand, and an opportunity to get hyper-focused on Aussie hop quality. We had greater flexibility to fine tune our standard operating procedures and harvest each variety at optimal maturity,” he said,

At New Zealand Hops, Palmer said that this reduction came primarily from less popular hops varieties.

“Volumes and yields were down pretty much across the board. Given market conditions, growers were not growing some of the more marginal varieties. However, by not growing some of those varieties, growers can focus a lot more on quality across the board,” Palmer said.

Palmer also noted a change in the way brewers order hops, with an increasing number selecting hops by individual batches.

“There has been a 45 per cent increase of sales that are done via selection, which is a big shift for the operations team. During harvest and immediately post-harvest, we had brewers coming here to select their batch of hops, and just a fortnight ago, we took hops to the Craft Brewers Conference in the US to be selected,” he said.

Unlike New Zealand Hops and HPA, Gee said that smaller growers saw an increase in demand, with craft brewers showing an interest in locally produced hops.

 “We’ve been growing hops for eight years, and at the beginning, there was zero demand for local hops. Eight years on, and thanks to people like King Road brewery and the other hop farmers that we work with in the Western Australian Growers Alliance, we’ve built up to the point where there’s actually a very big demand. This year, more so than any other year, the phone was ringing off the hook around December and January with brewers that were really keen to seek out and secure some local hops,” he said.

Unfortunately, due to the weather, Gee was not able to meet the high level of demand this season.

“This year was so promising because we were going to be able to sell virtually anything we grew. With the low yield, we had to be very careful not to over allocate. Like any natural crop that you’re growing, it really depends on the weather,” he said.

Growers are already implementing lessons learned from this season to ensure consistently high-quality harvests in future years.

HPA’s Managing Director Tim Lord congratulated the efforts of growers and pickers throughout the harvest season.

“We are in awe of the resilience our industry has shown over the past few years. HPA is fully focused on a sustainable future of quality beer, and has continued to invest in technology, infrastructure and process improvements that will ultimately benefit our brewing customers.”

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