A Southern man goes for gold in Garston growing hops

by Mike White / 24 September, 2018
Photography by Mike White.

A flowering hop plant in Garston, where James McNamee (right) is growing what he believes is the world’s southernmost crop of hops, for supply to a Queenstown brewery.

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A Southlander makes the most of Garston's hardy winters to grow hops.

Like a lot of good ideas, it began with a chat over a couple of beers. James McNamee and friend Fletcher Pilditch were enjoying a drink a few years ago when discussion turned to hops, the plant that makes beer bitter.

McNamee was an IT manager who’d been raised on a sheep farm near Garston, in Southland, which he still part-owned and had a holiday home on. Pilditch was a top lawyer who’d married one of McNamee’s Garston neighbours. Together, they began wondering if the farm would be any good for growing hops.

Hops in New Zealand have always been associated with the benign climate around Nelson and Motueka. But, as the pair discovered while investigating the idea, one of the main United States hop-growing regions, Oregon, sits on the 45th parallel, the same latitude as Garston, which is an hour south of Queenstown. Not only do hops tolerate hard winters but Garston has the benefit of getting over half an hour more sunshine each day than Nelson/Motueka in mid-summer, when the hops (the flowers of the hop plant) are growing apace.

“And my cousin Matt down the road has grown a hop plant for over 20 years in his backyard,” says McNamee, “and brews his own beer off them. His homebrew is a bit different to craft beer, though; the taste isn’t as appealing. And it’s more powerful. You definitely know when you’ve walked out of there.”

Hops being plucked after harvesting.

McNamee’s best man lived next to Motueka’s hop farms, so McNamee went for a visit to learn as much as he could. In 2016, he hired a digger, built 5m-high frames for the hops to grow over, and planted what McNamee believes are the world’s southernmost hops.

Queenstown’s Altitude Brewery has just turned this year’s harvest into a fresh-hopped golden ale – called Me & Jimmy McNamee, after the Janis Joplin classic “Me and Bobby McGee”, which was playing as they plucked the hops at Easter. McNamee says next year, when they get a full yield for the first time, they’ll know if the hops will be commercially viable that far south, but all the signs are promising.

There are spare paddocks for more hops on the Garston farm, and given they also grow excellent barley and have a fantastic, mountain-fed water supply, McNamee hopes they can produce on the farm all the elements required for beer. He loves this style of intensely hopped beers, but realises they’re nothing like the brews most people in the area are used to. “I mean, my brother, you’ll never convince him to spend more than $3 on a beer or buy a craft beer because he’s drunk DB all his life and singlehandedly kept them in business.”

Dried hops.

Given that, McNamee admits some will query growing hops in the deep south, where sheep and Speight’s have traditionally dominated. “But the first farmer who pulled a farm out in Gibbston Valley and planted pinot noir – people probably thought he was bloody stupid. Then the second farmer did it, and it snowballed from there.”

Altitude Brewing’s owner, Eliott Menzies, says the Garston hops he used this year were fantastic and, just like grapes, each variety will have a different flavour when grown in different places around the country. “It’s a plus for all of us to have locally grown hops. And I told James we’ll pretty much guarantee to buy his crop out for the foreseeable future. So at least he knows if he grows it, he can sell it.”

This article was first published in the August 2018 issue of North & South.

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