There was an upside to the Omicron wave of Covid-19 for Matt Smith — the chance to brew a fresh hop beer for only the second time.

Smith, the brewer-founder of Hastings’ Brave Brewing, is usually flat out during the March-April harvest window and never before had the time to dive fully into the fresh hop experience.

A few years ago, he did a small-batch fresh hop beer with some easily-sourced locally-grown hops but this is the first time he’s secured a commercial batch from NZ Hops Ltd.

“I decided it was about time I did it,” he says, recovering from his own battle with Covid-19. “I always wanted to do a fresh hop beer, but it’s always been difficult to find time to get the hops. We always seemed to be at full noise and full capacity.

“With the red-light settings making it quieter in the taproom, I thought it was a cool opportunity to get some fresh hops.”

Smith booked a cheap flight to Wellington the night before he was due to pick up the hops, hired a car at the airport and drove to Kereru Brewing in Upper Hutt, one of NZ Hops’ consolidated drop-off, pick-up points.

He loaded up the rental car and spent the next few hours enjoying the pungent aroma of Nectaron hops on the drive home.

At one stage he had to stop for some food and after a break in the fresh air, he was overwhelmed by the aroma when he jumped back into the car: “I opened the door and was met by this wall of sweaty, pungent hop aroma.”

One of the reasons Smith was able to pick up the hops and get them back to the brewery so quickly is thanks to changes NZ Hops have made to their systems. Until recently, brewers had to get the hops on the same day they were picked, leading to a mad rush and tight timing schedules. The hops Smith picked up were three days old by the time they got to his brewery, but still super-fresh.

“NZ Hops have made lot of improvements over years. They pick them and they go straight into cool rooms to pre-cool them before they start their journey. They go into the refrigerated truck cold and stay cold.”

Having centralised drop-off points at key breweries also helps streamline the process and gives more breweries a chance to access fresh cones. A few years ago, you could count fresh hop offerings on one hand — this year NZ Hops supplied 35 breweries. Other breweries also sourced hops directly from individual farms within the collective, or from the independent operators Freestyle and Hop Revolution.

The other joy for Smith is that he’s using Nectaron, a hop he struggled to get in its first couple of years of commercial release. “I used it in few beers when it was Hort4337 and loved it. I was slow off the mark getting a contract on it and wasn’t able to get it for the first couple of years. But I randomly spotted them on NZ Hops website and nabbed some.”

Smith says he stuck to what he knows for his first fresh hop beer,  Helping Hands IPA, using a light, clean malt base similar to what he uses his Kid Dynamite IPA.

“Because it’s the first time doing it with commercial hops, I want to allow them to shine.”

The beer will be available in the Beer Hug Fresh Hop Box that’s created in conjunction with NZ Hops, and it will be on tap at Goldings Free Dive as part of Hopstock.

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