Decoding South African Hops

 

Outeniqua Hop Route Sign, South Africa. Image courtesy Greg Crum, ZA Hops.

The Club will be featuring some South African hops in 2021. I, like many homebrewers, have not had a chance to brew with – or even encounter many hops from the country. Greg Crum, who made the jump from homebrewing to pro-brewing, also made the jump to hop importer, has made it a mission to bring South African hops to U.S. brewers at all levels.

Greg’s company, ZA Hops, imported the XJA2/436 hops that we’ll be including in Club shipments. He was kind enough to answer some questions on the South African hops industry, and to share a little about his journey.

Hop: What originally drew you to homebrewing?

ZA: I was a big fan of “microbrews” – as they were known back then – and the “microbrewery” scene in Northern California.  A couple friends of mine had been homebrewing for a couple years and I was blown away by the idea that I could also create beers in my home.  I had also been given tours around some microbreweries and really became obsessed by the science and art of brewing.  So, in 1993, I bought my first “kit and kilo” from a homebrew shop and that sealed the deal.

Hop: You eventually made the jump from amateur to pro-brewer. How did you make that jump in South Africa?

ZA: While South Africa, particularly in the Western Cape where I lived, is blessed with an abundance of world class wine and deep rooted wine culture, the beer landscape, comprised almost exclusively of pale lagers, left a lot to be desired from my perspective.  It was a dream of mine to open a brewery one day and I figured the only way I was going to get the beer I craved was by brewing it myself.  In this pursuit, I met a brewmaster from Paulaner Munich that ran the former Paulaner Brauhouse in Cape Town.  This was pivotal as I learned German brewing methodology, gained practical brewing experience, and had my beers professionally critiqued.  After a couple iterations of brewery names and partners, and about three years of blood, sweat, and tears, I launched Devil’s Peak Brewing Company in late 2011.

Outeniqua Pass in South Africa

Outeniqua Pass, South Africa. Image courtesy Greg Crum, ZA Hops.

Hop: How did you first get interested in South African hops?

ZA: I really became interested in South African hops when I was introduced to an experimental hop from SAB Hop Farms in 2009 that was reminiscent of some of the new (at the time) US cultivars like Citra and Simcoe.  I started using that hop in a flagship session beer called First Light Golden Ale and subsequently an IPA.  Then I moved back to the US in 2012 and started taking beers that I had made with that hop to some breweries in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  There was quite a bit of interest in it, so I jumped on the opportunity to start importing them and subsequently approached SAB Hop Farms to develop an export market for their unique hops.

 

Hop: Your website mentions that SA Brewers started trying to develop hops suited to South Africa’s growing conditions in 1936. What were they trying to overcome?

ZA: First, they wanted to minimize their reliance on imported hops, but the European cultivars they were trying to grow weren’t working out so well.  This was because those cultivars were used to long day lengths in Europe whereas South Africa has relatively short day lengths during their growing season.  So, SAB Hop Farms bred hops that were agronomically viable for their environment.  And a number of these still require supplemental lighting.

 

Hop: What is the state of hop research in SA? Is it expanding now that we are seeing more SA hops being exported?

ZA: SAB (South African Brewers) Hops Farms are hop breeders, so at any time, they are working on a couple hundred test cultivars to improve either agronomics or brewing performance for lager production.  I can’t say that they are specifically focused on developing new hops for export at this point, but rather I am working with them to look for “new talent” in what is currently in the test program.  African Queen, Southern Passion, Southern Sublime, Southern Tropic, and XJA2/436 are available for export due to me sniffing around in their test crops.  

 SAB Hops Farms, South Africa.

SAB Hop Farms, South Africa. Image courtesy Greg Crum, ZA Hops.

Hop: I’ve not read much about the craft beer scene in South Africa. How is it compared to the US?

ZA: It is very young, but there is a lot of excitement about it.  As with many other new global craft beer hot spots, there often is an eye toward what Yanks are doing, but they all put their own signature on it.  And while there is a lot of excitement, quality issues are common, just as we have seen in the US and other countries over the past few years as the number of craft breweries has grown exponentially, and many often without having Quality Assurance/Quality Control programs in place.  But as time goes on, the quality bar is being raised and consumers are being rewarded. 

 

Worker at SAB Hop Farms, South Africa.
Worker at SAB Hop Farms, South Africa. Image courtesy Greg Crum, ZA Hops

 

Hop: What can you tell us about the lineage of XJA2/436? Are there plans to name it?

ZA: Yes, hopefully soon it will be given a proper name.  I unfortunately cannot tell you about the lineage of XJA2/436 at this point. 

 

Hop: What does the current name signify?

ZA: The name comes from the location on the farm where the hops are planted, which is noted by the intersection of grid lines set out across the fields.  For interest’s sake, Southern Passion used to be called US4/78, which coincidentally had nothing to do with the US!

 Fynbos, a distinctive type of vegetation found only on the southern tip of Africa.

Fynbos, a distinctive type of vegetation found only on the southern tip of Africa. Image courtesy Greg Crum at ZA Hops.

Hop: Can you describe the area of SA where the hop farms are?

ZA: The hops are grown in an area called the Outeniqua Hops agricultural region located near the coastal town of George.  The setting is quite dramatic going from sea level to peaks over 5,000 feet in the Outeniqua Mountains in a span of about 10 miles.  Some of the farms are located on the south, or coastal, side of the Outeniqua Mountains and others are located on the north side of the mountains over Outeniqua Pass.  The environment of this area, as well as most of the near-coastal Cape, comprises biologically diverse plants collectively called “fynbos” and grey sandstone that is part of the geologic Table Mountain Group.  The area typically has wet winters and dry summers.  George is also home to a famous surf break known as “Vic Bay”.

 

Hop: How was the 2020 harvest in South Africa?

ZA: The 2020 harvest yield was considered normal.  New crops are continuing to mature and along with that, yields increase.  This was the first “normal” precipitation growing season after several years of drought. 

 

Hop: I noticed that ZA Hops is set up in Colorado, are you splitting time between the States and South Africa?

ZA: Yes, I’m typically back in South Africa two time per year for business and family.

 

Hop: Are you still involved in Devil's Peak?

ZA: No.

 

Pano Hop Farms, South Africa
Pano Hop Farm. Image courtesy Greg Crum, ZA Hops

 

Hop: Do you still get a chance to homebrew? If so, what do you like to brew for yourself?

ZA: I do, yes, but I certainly don’t get to brew as much as I would like.  When I do brew, I am often brewing pilot batches to assess new hops, so I generally brew IPAs (of course!) with a pilsner malt base, whirlpool hops for about 50-60 IBUs, and dry hopped at 4lbs/bbl.  With that said, I’d love to brew a dry hopped pilsner with African Queen, or a brett-finished Saison dry hopped with loads of XJA2/436 and Southern Passion hops soon!

 

The XJA2/436 hops are planned for the April 2021 shipment. Not a Club member yet? Check out our subscriptions page to lock in your hops!

Find out more at ZA Hops.

 

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