Brew Bold, Brew Fearless

Around this time every year we celebrate John the Fearless’s birthday – this year he’s 648, so we think old can be good! More importantly, it’s an opportunity for us to take stock and give thanks for the loyalty of our customers, which is ultimately what keeps us part of the thriving craft beer community in the USA. John himself may be venerable, but we as a company are continually striving to provide our craft brewer clients with the most innovative new products to help them stay ahead in a fast-moving, ever-changing industry.

On that note, this year we are especially grateful for the ability to continue offering our most intriguing asset: South African hops. Brewers across the USA have been steadily falling in love with these unique aromatic or dual-purpose hops from the Western Cape – whether it be African Queen (gooseberry and chili notes), Southern Aroma (sunny hayfield and flowers), Southern Passion (passionfruit and spice), or Southern Star (tropical, berry and caramel). In addition, we are keeping an eye on the development of two exciting brand-new varietals – Southern Tropic (tropical fruit, guava, butterscotch) and Southern Sublime (pineapple, citrus, melon) – and aim to be at the forefront of their distribution into the USA when the time comes. Watch this space.

The tropical and fruity characteristics these South African hops impart are second to none, and especially play well in the beer styles driving craft beer growth such as hazy or New England-style IPAs. But don’t just take our word for it. The hops have made quite an impact among those important taste-testers for the craft beer industry, the homebrewer clubs. The Coachella Valley Homebrew Club recently took a beer featuring African Queen to the finals of the Melvin Cup, and it will be produced by Melvin for national distribution.

Many other brewers have been releasing beers with South African hops like Southern Passion, Southern Star, African Queen and Southern Aroma, including Stone Brewing, Lagunitas, Societe, Fieldwork, Thorn Brewing, Armistace, Bay City, FiftyFifty, Gravity Heights, Hardywood Park, Lucky Envelope, Octopi, Stellwagon, The Bronx, Unsung and Uproar to name just a few.

What causes these South African hop aromas to be so distinctive? Well, for starters the hops are grown down by the ocean along the Western Cape’s verdant and beautiful Garden Route, near the city of George. While most of the world’s hops production occurs in Europe and the US where ideal growing conditions are between latitudes 40°-54°N, in South Africa, the local varietals are flourishing at 34°S, literally only a few miles from the Southern Cape coastline.

This exposure to the marine influence is unique in the hop-growing world. In fact, their very position, on the southernmost edge of Africa, has pushed the boundaries of hop cultivation, for at 34° they are situated at a lower latitude than any other commercial hop-growing area and must cope with fewer daylight hours as a result. That is why a unique feature of Western Cape hop gardens is the common presence of floodlights! However, these landmarks are becoming redundant as the old bittering hop bines get replaced by the new aromatic hops that have been bred to be daylight neutral.

During WW1, it was extremely difficult to get imported hops into South Africa and necessity became the mother of invention. In 1924 the Cape Town Brewery (later Ohlsson’s Cape Brewery) organized a competition to see which South African region would be the first to supply 100 lbs of locally cultivated and dried hops. Hop cuttings were sent to a number of locations in South Africa, but it was the area around George in the Southern Cape that was the final winner. The first hop farm “Afgunst” was bought in 1935 by the Union Hop Growers, a company formed by Ohlsson’s Cape Brewery and SA Breweries Limited. Hop growing in South Africa developed slowly over the next few decades into the 1970s, when a locally-developed bittering varietal named ‘Southern Brewer’ was cultivated, which was ideally suited to the growing conditions around George. As the local industry developed, specialist varietals were cultivated that flourish with the warmer winter climate and shorter summer days, producing yields almost comparable to the rest of the world. Originally these growers even used vast numbers of floodlights to compensate for the shorter summer days, but this is phasing out as newer varietals cope better with local conditions and the cost of electricity makes it less economically viable to do so.

Since the 1970s introduction of ‘Southern Brewer’, the South African Breweries Hops Farm (SABHF) R&D team, in co-operation with growers, introduced the new varietals Southern Star, Southern Promise and Southern Dawn, known as the three ‘Power Hops’ varietals, during the 1980s and 1990s. Southern Aroma, African Queen and Southern Passion followed these, and were released during the last seven years since 2012. And just in the last 12 months the latest two varietals – Southern Tropic and Southern Sublime – were introduced. Their R&D program continues to develop new experimental strains, which take 7-11 years to develop into a final new varietal. This is achieved by naturally cross-cultivating different varietals and no GMOs are used in the process.

Such adaptation, carried out by South Africa’s sophisticated hop R&D, has led to the unique aroma characteristics of the country’s hops, rich in fruity, tropical notes. Furthermore, the hop industry is being incentivized by the country’s government to export and its R&D is led by individuals who are often brewers themselves, so it has a deep knowledge of what hop aromas are in demand around the world, including in the USA. And contrary to the common misperception that hop growing in South Africa is fully monopolized by South African Breweries – now part of Anheuser-Busch InBev – there are dozens of independent and entrepreneurial hop growers now operating, well-supported by the government.

With approximately 430 hectares (1,062 acres) of hops being grown at this stage in the Southern Cape, SABHF contracted private growers still harvest only around 1% of the world’s total hops produced – a maximum of about 855 metric tons (1.9m lbs) annually. Around 710 tons (1.56m lbs) are for SAB’s own local brands, another 20 tons (44,000 lbs) goes to the local craft industry and the rest is exported (approximately 276,000 lbs).

SABHF aims to assist the expansion of current South African hops plantings to around 500 hectares by 2021 and thereby increase production by 150 metric tons to just over 1,000 tons per year, of which approximately 250 tons will be for the export market. As part of their public interest commitments the company undertook to invest ZAR610 million into boosting the South African beer-related agricultural industry through financing of 800 new emerging small-holder farmers and 20 new commercial farmers to produce hops, barley and maize, with the strategic intent to create 2,600 additional jobs in the agricultural supply chain.

An example of this emerging growers expansion and support is that, through a fund and loan from SABHF, a 20-hectare hop farm was purchased and is now being managed by entrepreneur Beverley Joseph, who is a former SABHF employee. Through delivery of key performance indicators and once the loan has been repaid, this farm will be 100% owned by Ms. Joseph.

The supported development of this small and unique South African hops industry and the adaptation from primarily bittering-hops varietals to aromatics and dual-purpose hops varietals, is leading to the unique aroma characteristics of the country’s hops produced especially during the last decade – rich in fruity, tropical notes. This focused drive by SABHF and its growers gives them an expert understanding of which hop aromas are in global demand, especially in the US market.

South Africa’s growers are steadily replacing bittering hop acreage with aroma, and the 2019 harvest was a good one. Consequently, we at John Fearless will be able to meet more requests for our range of South African hops – and all year round, too, so that beers brewed using them can become perennial fixtures in brewers’ ranges. They arrive into our Californian warehouse in pelletized format for onward distribution: we have 2018 hops available now, and 2019 product will be ready soon. So get in touch!

Contact us at;

John Fearless Company

Ph. 1800 288 5056

Email: [email protected]

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