“New Zealand pilsner will be the next big thing for US Brewers” – that’s the prediction from a leading US beer commentator.
Last month the New Zealand Home-Brewers Conference invited Gordon Strong to New Zealand. Gordon is a big deal in US brewing, president and top judge for the highly respected Beer Judge Certification Program.
Gordon closed the Conference, and the last question of the day asked him to predict the next trend for US craft and home brewers. He predicted New Zealand pilsners, loaded with our distinctive hops.
So what’s all this got to do with Hop Federation’s Simon Nicholas?
After the Conference many of us headed to Nelson’s Free House for ongoing research. Hop Federation’s distinctly New Zealand pilsner was on tap tasting fresh and good. When I left, Gordon was singing its praises.
Simon Nicholas inherited his interest in brewing from his father Wayne. “He had a fancy kit and he loved tinkering with equipment. Whenever he upgraded I’d grab the leftovers, and I made a nice and fancy 50L setup and got stuck into it.”
Simon worked in liquor retailing and was watching New Zealand’s craft beer expansion. He decided to take the leap into commercial brewing in 2011. He took up at job at Hallertau, “which was my local pub. [Brewer] Steve Plowman has pretty much taught me everything about brewing commercially, how to build a recipe and all that stuff. He taught me that something unexpected will always happen and you have to learn to fix that quickly on the fly.
“I was there for two and half years before I saw Monkey Wizard on Trade Me. On the 28th of December 2012 we came and checked this place out. I thought it was OK, but my wife Nicki could see the potential and had the vision of what could happen if we got tourists coming in on their way to Abel Tasman. It was basically a scaled down Hallertau system and I thought we could make it work with a few tweaks, and we opened our doors in September 2013.”
Hop Federation’s location in Riwaka, 50km north-west of Nelson, puts it squarely in New Zealand’s hop country, and the local Riwaka hop is one of Simon’s favourites. But his brewery’s name is a coincidence – it was Simon’s personal Twitter handle before he ever found the Riwaka site.
“Steve told me to put as much money as you can into your branding and make that work as much as you do with the beer, because they both have to sell each other. I was in liquor retailing for 12 years with Glengarry Wines and over in the UK with Oddbins. We understood what labels look like on the shelf and what people pick up on, and that’s why we wanted something a little different with our white background and a really clean simple label. I worked with the team at Lucid to come up with a name, and in the end we just decided to with the Twitter handle.”
Simon says the brew kit he bought from Monkey Wizard can produce 1000L, and most brew days are spent making double batches. Hop Federation’s kegs are brewed at Riwaka, and all of its bottled beer is produced at Renaissance in Blenheim.
Hop Federation has a regular range of nine, and that pilsner is starting to attract attention.
“We produced a single hop pilsner with Riwaka hop. We tried it after a month and it was really dieselly, petrolly, which is typical of the Riwaka hop but no one’s going to love it. It took about three months to settle down, but once it had it was bloody fantastic! Matt Dainty (ex-Renaissance, now Boneface) helped me come up with the combination with Nelson Sauvin and Motueka, which gives us a four-week conditioning time. We’re still using about 75% Riwaka hop but in the finish there’s Nelson Sauvin and Motueka, and that’s given it that beautiful flavour.”