"If it wasn't for this hop variety," Ben Kraus, of Bridge Road Brewers in Beechworth, says, "we might not have a hop industry in Australia."
It's early morning in the Ovens Valley and Kraus is surrounded by hop vines. They climb on strings some five metres above his head and have dark green sticky tendrils. Kraus takes one of the golden-green cones dangling from the vines. It exudes a heady aroma of resin and flowers.
This is the Galaxy hop. It was bred at the Rostrevor Hops Gardens by Hops Products Australia (HPA) in the mid-1990s and is now exported around the world to craft brewers who appreciate the overt floral nature and clean bitter character it brings to beer. Kraus will be taking 200 kilograms of this and other locally bred hops and using them to make wet hopped beer for the High Country Hops Festival being held on Saturday, March 19.
Hops were first grown in the region in the mid-1800s. In the 1890s Chinese brothers who had been working on the goldfields, Messrs Panlook, planted hop vines on the Rostrevor site on the banks of the Ovens River in north-east Victoria. At the time this was just one of many gardens in the region. Hops became a global commodity and the industry in Australia was decimated.
Today there are many deserted hops gardens in the region, their high trellises are slowly rotting and rusting away. In the 1990s Hops Products Australia (HPA) successfully bred and propagated a new type of aromatic and pleasantly bitter hop. It takes almost a decade for a new variety to become commercially viable. About 2005 Galaxy gained popularity with craft brewers in Australia and around the world. Prior to that Australian craft brewers, wanting to give their beers different flavours to the big brewers such as Lion and CUB, had to import their hops.
HPA has since developed other hops such as Vic Secret, Topaz, Ella and Enigma. "They are so different. Enigma for example has these lovely aromas of white grape and fusil," Kraus says, referring to the smell of freshly spent fireworks or a discharged firearm, "while Galaxy has aromas of tropical fruit and citrus."
Hops are normally dried in large kilns and used as a dry product in beer making. Many brewers use hops that have been compressed into pellets. Recently, Kraus took 200 kilograms of freshly picked hops straight from the Rostrevor gardens back to his brewery.
There in two separate batches he poured hot wort (unfermented beer) in great kettles straight onto the green hops. "The aroma was so intense it gives you a headache," Kraus says. He has been working with new experimental hop varieties produced by HPA for almost a decade, quietly brewing with them and giving the company feedback.
"Something that is unique to us brewers in the High Country is that close relationship with the hop gardens," he explained.
Working with fresh hops is a skill and produces a beer with sharp green notes of chlorophyll and a striking bitterness that is quite powerful for some. "What you do get is a very intense hop aroma that tends to last a very long time, even after bottling," Kraus says.
In the past this has enabled him to export his Harvest Fresh Hop IPA and Mikkeller Dark beer, both made with fresh hops, to the US, Singapore and Hong Kong. The Mikkeller was originally made in collaboration with Danish brewing wunderkind Mikkel Borg Bjergsø.
This weekend Kraus is hosting a festival at his Bridge Road Brewery in Beechworth along with four other High Country brewers to celebrate the 2016 hop harvest and the diversity of Australian-bred hops.
Joining him are: Black Dog Brewery, of Taminick; Bright Brewery, Bright; Rutherglen Brewery, Rutherglen, and Sweetwater Brewing Company of Tawonga South. They will be joined by Gamze Smokehouse, makers of smallgoods, Gundowring Ice-Cream and HPA with samples of their hops.
High Country Hops Festival, 11am-5pm, Saturday, March 19, Bridge Road Brewery, Old Coach House Brewers Lane, 50 Ford Street, Beechworth, bridgeroadbrewers.com.au