Once it seemed like nothing could persuade hops to grow here, but take a drive through the Outeniqua foothills and you’ll find them at their bitter better best…
Words: Marianne Heron
Pictures: David Morgan
Take the N12 from Oudtshoorn to George and the landscape in the Outeniqua foothills suddenly changes from arid Klein Karoo to verdant Alpine-like scenery. In summer, field upon field is filled with tall rows of giant bead curtains.
Actually they’re hops, once believed to be impossible to grow here. For them ideal growing conditions are between 40°-54°N, yet here they are flourishing at 34°S.
What’s more, the hops grown in this small area of Waboomskraal Valley, Herold and Blanco in the southern Cape, supply South African Breweries with 70 per cent of that vital ingredient needed to give beer its bitter flavour. The remaining 30 per cent is imported and thereby hangs a tale.
During WW1, imported hops were hard to get here and, for SAB, necessity became the mother of invention. The company gave farmers around the country cuttings to see if they could grow hops, and the George area won hands down. SAB began growing its own hops in the area in the 1920s and, as demand grew, contracted local farmers to grow hops, and began breeding new varieties to suit the climate.
For the Barnard family, who farm hops at Waboomskraal Valley, the story began about a hundred years ago. “My great-grandfather started out as a trekboer cattle farmer,” says Deon Barnard. “He saved to buy the land that I, and my two brothers and their sons, farm today, for a mere 1 275 pounds. That was in the days before the Outeniqua Pass was built and, back then, great-grandpa Barnard had to haul his maize to the watermill by ox wagon, to be ground and then sold in Outdshoorn.”
Deon began growing hops at the beginning of the 80s, and he and his two brothers and their sons are among the eight private farmers growing hops under contract for SAB today.
What is it like to farm hops?
“All farming is intensive but hops are particularly intensive when the hop vines are being trained, and at harvest time,” explains Deon.
Growing the crop under contract also involves checks on everything from equipment to fertilisers, and meticulous record keeping. “And that’s a good thing,” says Deon’s son Dean. But the family doesn’t rely solely on hop farming, given its seasonal nature.
Among the enterprises in his industrious family’s basket is a superb wedding and conference venue (motto ‘it’s all about the view’) overlooking the heart-stoppingly beautiful Waboomskraal Valley. The venue is run by Dean and his wife Carla, while Deon’s wife Mariana produces a staggering 14 000 jars of fruit preserves a year in her kitchen and, across the valley, her sister-in-law Annamarie has a farm stall where she sells her own preserves and popular home-made soft drinks, hops among them (they say it has a soporofic effect).
“You have to diversify,” says Zelda Barnard, Annamarie’s daughter-in-law. “It’s on and off work. In December we start training the hops up the string. There’s also always work in the fields, and fertilising. It doesn’t stop until harvest ends.”
It’s the beginning of the six-week harvest period when we visit the area in mid-February, and join Beverley-Anne Joseph, SAB hop breeder, in the hop fields of Herold, off the R62. Five metres above us the female hop vines wind clockwise, (not anti-clockwise like bathwater down a plughole in the Southern Hemisphere) around string supported by a framework of wires and poles. The vines of the herbaceous perennial hops or Humulus lupulus are festooned in lime-green cones. Alpha acid in the little yellow lupulin glands at the base of the cone bracts is used for flavouring and bittering beer.
“This variety is Southern Passion. It smells just like passion fruit and red berries,” says Beverley-Anne, listening to a cone as she rolls it between her fingers, before breaking it open to release the aroma. This is the ‘crisp test’ – a whispered crackle made by the cone demonstrates ripeness, although lab tests have the final say on when hops are ready for harvesting.
Breeding hops is quite a lengthy process, taking 9-12 years, and generally the productive life of hop plants is about 13 years. Beverley-Anne explains that different hops are categorised for their different properties, for instance Southern Star is a bittering hop and Southern Promise is for bittering and flavour. “Then there are the aroma hops and that’s the exciting part that we are looking at now.”
Those little green hop cones boast some impressive statistics, creating a revenue of R65 million from the farms here, and employing 1 000 people. Three main varieties of hops are used – Southern Star, Southern Promise and Southern Dawn, and the yields achieved, although not quite up to the German’s Hercules hops at 2.5 tons per hectare, are up to 2.2 tons per hectare.
Over at Rob Roy Farm in Blanco, just outside George, general manager of SAB Hop Farms, Lauren Steytler walks us through the rows of experimental hop varieties, and gives us an insight into growing, harvesting and processing.
“People don’t even know that hops grow here,” says Lauren. Cultivated hops apparently don’t have much of a sex life. Male plants are kept under lock and key in greenhouses, their only role to provide pollen for fertilising female plants for the development of new varieties. Hops remain dormant in winter but, once the growing season starts, they are trained by skilled seasonal workers to twirl up their support strings, growing as much as a startling 10cm a day.
At certain times of the year, the hop fields lit by bright night lights are a sight to behold. Days in South Africa are three hours short of the hops’ growing needs so artificial light is used from 9pm to midnight for some varieties.
Between the three corporate farms and one research farm growing about a third of the hops, and the eight private growers, there are about 400 hectares under hops around Blanco.
We watch as workers walk between the rows of vines, slashing with pangas through stems and strings a couple of feet above the base of the plants. Tractors with elevated platforms follow so workers can reach to slash through the top strings, and the hops tumble down into trailers like shorn locks, before they are taken to be devoured by ‘The Wolf’, pet name for the large stripping machine.
By the time the cones emerge after being fed through The Wolf’s teeth, less than two per cent of their vegetation remains on them. The cones are then brought to vast kilns where they are dried at about 65°C for between 8-12 hours, then conditioned and stored before being milled into pellets.
A tiny amount of hops is needed in the brewing process – about the size of a pinhead for a 750ml bottle. But no doubt about it, there’s a quite a story behind that tiny bit of bitter in your pint.
On the Hop
- Craft beer uses 2 per cent of the hops grown in South Africa.
- J17 African Queen is one of the new hop varieties being developed in Blanco for the craft-brewing industry. It is high in alpha acids and has superb aromas.
- South African-grown hops are now being sold around Africa and in Ireland, USA and England.
Outeniqua Hop Route
- Hops, the ‘national’ crop of this area, inspired the name of this route that invites you to hop over the Outeniqua Mountains and explore the area, from the hop-growing farms of Herold and Waboomskraal to the Garden Route and Indian Ocean coastline between Mossel Bay and Wilderness.
- The scenery on the Outeniqua Hop Route is spectacular and there is plenty to do – golf, hiking, strawberry picking, horse riding, cycling, canoeing, wine tasting, boating and shark-cage diving. 044 877 1478