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Mac Hops: Hops with a difference

Ever since Brent McGlashen was little he was enamoured with hops. Growing up, you would find him and his three siblings spending countless nights in the hop shed helping their father during harvest. It was a huge part of Brent’s upbringing and that passion for hops continues. Brent is a fifth- generation hop farmer and director of Mac Hops situated across two properties – their home farm in the heart of Motueka and the other based in the Moutere Valley.

The McGlashen family have been growing hops in Motueka since the 1900s. Originally the Motueka area was a popular spot for growing tobacco and hops, however it saw a massive decline in tobacco which led to the rise of fruit production coinciding with hop farms. The family had been through the ebbs and flows of hop production and, as Brent mentioned, they certainly saw some tough times. However, it wasn’t until the craft beer boom in 2010 onward that they reaped the real benefits of their harvest.

Born and bred in Motueka, Brent was constantly surrounded by hops and carried with him that interest when he attended Lincoln University to study agricultural commerce. After five years of travelling overseas, he would come home to the family farm to help with harvest for two to three months at a time.

Each time he made the journey home, the length of time spent amongst the vines increased, until one day he decided to stay and be more involved with the family’s hop farm. Brent’s brother-in-law, Owen, also came back to the farm a couple of years prior and the pair decided to implement some pretty big changes. Little did they know that it would set them up for the future and provide for their growing families.

“Mac Hops came about because we wanted to differentiate ourselves in the industry; because the surnames were very similar, we made sure we asked the McCashin family who own McCashin’s Brewery and founded Mac’s Beer. We’ve had the name Mac Hops for around 20 years now; before that, it was my grandad’s 
name and so on," Brent said.

"I guess it gets into your blood. They say hops gets sort of stuck in there and you can't shake it. It just took me a while to realise that this is what I do love doing."

Their two farms span 115 hectares dedicated to hops, with a small amount of dryland farming, where they own a small flock of sheep and grow hay. It’s a family-led operation with Brent’s father, Kim McGlashen, passing the reins onto Brent and Owen, and their wives Ria McGlashen and Michelle Johnstone. He still helps out in the background, hosting visitors to site and managing accounts.

Ria works in HR and Michelle works in payroll. Brent's older brother helps out with the technological side of things, whilst his twin brother lives in Richmond and owns a pharmacy, checking in on a regular basis. Each of the siblings still have a part to play in the family business and pride themselves on continuing the family legacy.

When we visited, Mac Hops had been harvesting a couple of their later harvested varieties. Green Bullet was one of them and is typically used in Steinlager beers. “It's always exciting to see the new varieties coming along in the system to see where they fit; if they match it with the best in the world, then they get a good chance. If not, then we look for another new variety. Our varieties are bred by Plant and Food Research and they're only about five kilometres from our home farm, so we’re growing in a similar environment to the breeders. Plant and Food Research is very well-known in the world of hop production and is one of the best breeding organisations for world hops.

So we're very, very lucky to have some great scientists and great people behind producing some of the best hops in the world,” Brent said. “The breeding process is quite a rigorous programme; the new varieties are trying to prove themselves up against the good varieties. It's kind of like the Olympics, you go through to the preliminary rounds and then you go to the quarterfinals and the semi- finals, and it's the gold-winning match that really puts hops on a platform. If they get to that level, that means they're ready to be released to the world of brewing.”

Hops generally grow throughout spring, and around October they train the bines. Mac Hops train the hop shoots up with strings and over the last few years they’ve managed to use a company from Whangārei who are making compostable hop twine. “We use 100% compostable twine now which is fantastic. The bines will wind their way up the string, but we give them a bit of a helping hand, winding three shoots up the string. Within six to eight weeks, they'll climb five metres to get to the top of the structure – that’s when they'll bend over and as they grow out, the hops are grown on the branches.”

“It's a very vigorous growing plant; you don't want it to grow too fast but you don't want it to grow too slow, so it’s about finding a middle ground. They take a lot of feeding when they grow fast, so we do use a reasonable amount of fertiliser to keep them growing and keep them healthy,” Brent added.

During the summertime, the cones start to fill out and the busy period starts at the end of February through the whole of March, when harvesting is in full force. Mac Hops grow 15 out of the 20 commercial varieties, with Brent mentioning that there’s a natural flow between the different varieties – once one plant is at full maturity, another will begin the maturing process. At Mac Hops, the harvesting process involves bine pulling devices that go through and pull out the bines, that then get placed into a machine for the hops to be picked off.

“The rest of the process is just a big cleaning process to separate the hop cone from the leaf and stalk – the leaves and stalks all go into compost. Eventually, the hop cones go into the kilns and we kiln dry anywhere from five hours to nine hours depending on the variety. They are left to settle for a day, then they'll get bailed into oversized wool bales at about 120 kilograms. They then get transported to New Zealand Hops, a grower-owned co-operative of about 27 growers, and get processed into a pellet and shipped across New Zealand, Asia-Pacific and the rest of the world – 80% gets exported and 20% stays in New Zealand borders.

”Hops aren't just for brewing, there's a property in them called Xanthohumol, which has so far been one of the highest plant forms of cancer fighting compound. There's more and more things that we're learning about the hop plant as we go along and it's got a lot of medicinal type properties that's been marketed, particularly in America; there’s a dietary pill that you can put into your stomach and it retards your need to eat,” Brent added.

There are so many varieties of hops with different tasting notes that are being released frequently. With New Zealand’s ideal climate and fertile soils, there is a huge opportunity to showcase our differences.

“We're just trying to be hops with a difference; that they’re different to what anyone else can get in the world, and that's what the brewers are finding worldwide as well as locally. The hops that are produced in New Zealand, when you're sampling beer, you get a front of mouth sort of feel. Typically hops that are produced in America and some in Germany, you get towards the back of the mouth feel. So we're the zesty part at the front of the tongue and that’s a great place to be.”

Mac Hops is making a conscious effort to invest in sustainability, cutting back on the amount of fertiliser they use due to their nicely balanced soils. The compostable twine they created with a company called Extrutec in Northland is used to train their bines and is also now being trialled overseas.

“We've now got wood pellet and wood chip boilers that sees us as being one of the most carbon efficient hop farms in the world. So yeah, that's something we're very proud of,” Brent highlighted.

Brent phrased the hop community as “a neat industry” to be part of. Mac Hops is happy with their size and it keeps them busy all year round. They will continue to improve on their innovation and upgrade their machinery where needed.

“The hop industry is quite fast paced at times. At the peak, we'll be employing about 60 staff; you become anywhere from an irrigation specialist to an accountant to a consultant to everything all in one day. So, you've also got to manage the things going on in your head. To balance that out, you’ve just got to be able to talk things out, don't take it all on your shoulders and try and spread the load. When there's good things going on, celebrate the good things and celebrate them well. When there's bad things going on, just try and brush them aside as best you can. Tomorrow is another day,” he said.

“We’re becoming farmers of the world, we’re not just farmers of New Zealand. I'm very passionate about farming, especially the family farms. I like to see the family farms really succeed in business; it's not an easy game farming. We aren't out there trying to harm the environment, we’re actually there trying to work with it. We just get dealt with a lot of the problems that come with the environment and unfortunately the blame is often focused on our farms, but it's not us who's always doing it. It’d just be nice to have farming promoted in a positive light to get more young people into our game who are actually passionate about it and love doing what they do,” Brent concluded.