Local craft breweries are hopping on board and helping Batlow’s latest agricultural venture become a roaring success.
Batlow’s future as a hop producer seems promising after a recent sell-out harvest.
In its second year growing hops, Batlow Co-Operative has already secured the business of Tumut River Brewery and Capital Brewing, the new venture of Batlow Cider co-owners Rich and Sam Coombes.
Batlow Fruit Co-operative general manager John Power said the operation is not quite at commercial level but it has the potential to become a real economic driver for the apple town.
Mr Power said the stagnancy of the apple industry inspired the co-op to search for non-invasive alternative crops for orchardists to grow alongside their traditional fruit.
“Australia is a flat market at the moment, people aren’t eating more apples and unless exports are opened we don’t need much growth in crop size. We decided to look at alternative products to give producers diversity in income. One year one crop may be high and the other low, it’s a bit of a buffer,’ he said.
“We’ve had a very good response, we sold all the hops produced this year and the businesses would have bought more, we just didn’t have more to sell. The feedback is the hops are performing well during brewing.”
Hops are used as the stabilising agent in beer and to create a bitter tangy flavour, with the flowers especially important in imparting flavour in craft brews.
Batlow’s Orchard manager Andrew Desprez said the operation is still in its youth but seems to be booming alongside the burgeoning craft beer scene.
“It’s going very well, we’re only small at the moment but the business is growing in a number of terms, in variety, selection and finding a market,” Mr Desprez said.
“We’re very much in the trial stage, it’s still in its infancy. We’re still trialing different varieties. We’re in our second year and we know it takes a few years to establish fully. I’ve currently got a local nursery growing hops for me so we can expand next year.”
The introduction of those new hops will see next harvest eclipse this year’s, with twice as many hops to be produced.
Last May the project was bolstered by the co-operative’s successful grant application through the Murray-Darling Basin Regional Economic Diversification Programme.
In full the scheme was worth $100m, but the amount of money received by the co-op has not been released.
The funding influx has allowed the co-op to vary its orchards by expanding their hop growing, taking the famous apple region down a new path.
“There’s a lot of capital outlay in terms of mechanical systems for the next few years. It’s a long road, we’re starting from nothing and trying a lot of varieties, some great some not ideal,’ Mr Desprez said.
The nature of hop growing allows orchardists to utilise many of the same spraying programs and existing trellis infrastructure for their new venture and existing apple growing.
Still in early days, the co-op is learning from each crop and is looking to automate some of the harvesting processes by next year.
“Next year we’re hoping to find automated systems to speed up picking, it was all manual this year which is very expensive. Going forward we’re going to be producing a bigger volume so we need to invest and find an automated solution,” Mr Power said.
The co-op also hopes to upgrade their basic hop dryer system to a more advanced and larger second hand system.
Mr Desprez said the future of the orchardists’ hop program is directly linked to the craft beer movement, and a global move towards conscious eating and drinking.
“The two go hand in hand and being locally produced is a plus. These days people want to know where a product has come from and whether it’s Tumut River Brewing Company or Capital Brewing they know it’s local and want t o support something local so it’s a win win for everybody,” he said.
Since the program’s inception orchard manager Mr Desprez has travelled to New Zealand and the United States to gain a better understand of the different growing techniques and distinctive markets.
“The recent trip to New Zealand hop growers, focused on the growing, production and processing side. The New Zealand industry is about the same size as Australia’s but it’s made up of 18 small growers who supply to a co-op which isn’t too different to us,” he said.
“Ten months ago we were in Washington looking into hop production at the International Hop Symposium, learning about the industry and creating contacts. Right now I’m a big sponge soaking up as much as I can learn.”
Batlow’s Co-op’s dedication seems to be paying off, with the company’s hops being chosen by Canberra-based start up, Capital Brewing.
In the craft beer company’s launch they highlighted their close links and dedication to locally produced Batlow hops.
“The timing for the brewery launch coincides with the development of Batlow’s hop program. Historically being an apple growing region and home to Batlow Cider, the last two years has seen the move into hop farming,” said Mr Coombes.
“This has proved successful having just completed its second hop harvest. Batlow is about 80 kilometres (as the crow flies) from Canberra, so a major goal of Capital Brewing Co is to source and brew with as many hops as possible from the Batlow harvests.”
The move follow’s Tumut River Brewery Company’s decision to make use of the local hops in their craft production.