A recent trip through the Nelson/Tasman region had me licking my lips at the prospect of drinking beers from the heart of hop country. After all, the area is the sole growing area for New Zealand’s commercial hops. I expected the pale ales to be pungent, the IPAs to be lean and full of classic New Zealand hop character.
But I was shocked to find only a handful of beers that fit the bill. By and large, many of the hoppier styles from breweries in the area fit into the English-style: balanced, sessionable, comfortable. I wanted brash, bold, an Ali-like one-two to the nostrils and tastebuds.
Luckily, Hop Federation was one of few breweries standing apart from the crowd, its pale ale and IIPA tasting especially good.
It makes sense that Hop Federation’s beers should showcase New Zealand hops so strongly, considering the brewery is based in Riwaka. Climb the highest tree in town and you should be able to see hop farms in every direction. It was the lifestyle that saw Simon and Nicki Nicholas move themselves and their daughter there from Auckland in 2013 and bought the old Monkey Wizard brewery.
“We had never been here before we checked this place out,” Simon says. “We thought we would be closer to Queenstown and Wanaka, because we thought it would be quite nice to live in that area. But when we checked [the brewery] out we thought ‘yeah, let’s do something completely different’.”
The town is starting to attract people from larger cities. Simon says one resident flies to Auckland for work from Tuesday to Thursday, then spends the rest of his time in Riwaka. “It’s a brilliant spot for its lifestyle, and when it’s sunny it is a great spot with a great group of people.”
Simon and Nicki’s adventure with Hop Federation started with Simon homebrewing, then picking up a job at Hallertau Brewery in Auckland. Simon says his time under Hallertau owner Steve Plowman’s wing was invaluable. “I didn’t want to be a home brewer who was thinking ‘this is nice, I can do it fulltime’. He pretty much taught me everything about brewing. He’s my mentor.”
Working on Hallertau’s old brewery gave Simon a good grounding for the kit he would inherit when he and Nicki purchased Monkey Wizard, but it was some advice Steve gave which has really pushed Hop Federation along faster than expected. “Steve said to put as much money as we possibly could into branding. It’s all good making good beer, but you have to sell it.”
And sell it they have, with new clients inquiring most weeks. They managed to sell all their fresh hop IPA to bars in 90 minutes this year, while a partnership with Nelson restaurant Burger Culture will see up to seven of Hop Federation’s beers on at any time.
The brewery’s tasting room, on State Highway 60 between Nelson and Golden Bay, is also a busy place. Simon says most of their sales are in the Nelson-Tasman region, with the area’s tourists being especially keen. “Most people are keen to try new things, but at the same time they do want to drink local.”