Southland eyeing up hops industry as trial comes to end

New Zealand hops are highly sought after by beer brewers around the world.

Now, Southland growers are to cash in after years of research with the first commercial crop in the small town of Garston, south of Queenstown, ripening.

Thousands of hop vines dangling in the sun are a rare sight in the far south as sheep graze nearby.

But for those at Garston Hops, south of Queenstown, it was a no-brainer.

"Like most things, it started with a beer and a yarn with a mate," said James McNamee.

"We had a look up and [found] hops grow at latitude 45, which is where we are here!" he said.

While his operation is the first commercial operation currently, the area does have a history.

"All these hills around us were gold mines; the gold miners didn't go thirsty; they had their own hops to make their beer," he said.

So why has Southland only explored hops on a large scale until now?

"I think probably people didn't know they could grow," said McNamee.

"Or the perception is they always grow up in Nelson; that's a good area to grow stuff, so no one really tried."

Altitude Brewery has been working alongside the supplier's trial from the start.

"It has been a bit of a game changer for us," said craft brewer Eliott Menzies.

"To be able to use local ingredients is huge, and not only that, it is great for the quality of our beer."

It has taken six years of trials to get the hops just right, and now there's talk of expansion and also encouraging other growers to get on board.

James McNamee told 1News, "we're up to 15 hectares now, we want to get to 40 hectares on this farm, and then we want to build a bigger processing shed."

They need more farms to join them to make it a viable industry, with around 150 people attending an open day to hear more this week.

"Some farmers are diversifying into dairy grazing; we didn't think that was such a good fit for our model; it's harder on the land, harder on the farmer."

"We want something better for the environment and better for us."

Mary-Anne Webber from the region's economic development agency, Great South, is confident the industry will take off.

She said, "we love hops because they grow quickly, they get sequestering carbon.. but importantly, they really appeal to consumers."

Invercargill-based 4Mates Brewery is the latest craft beer producer on the scene after turning a homebrew hobby into a business.

Owner Scott Whitaker told 1News, "for us, it makes it really easy being an hour and a half away, especially during fresh hop season, [and] then have the ability to help palletise as well still in New Zealand.

The first draft of a potentially lucrative new chapter for Southland.