When Brent McGlashen was just a primary school boy, every day after school during the hop harvest, he would race his three siblings home – the quickest one to throw down their bicycle and run into the hop shed nabbing the pick of the afternoon jobs.
“Dad paid us fifty cents an hour and, being kids, we thought that was pretty big money,” Brent remembers. “We’d work until about six o’clock, then it was home for dinner and homework before bed. But, as we got older, Mum had to lay down some rules about what time we came home - otherwise, we would’ve worked in the hop shed all night.”
Over the weekends, the four McGlashen children would pair up and take it in turns to stay up most of the night with their Dad, Kim, as he carefully managed the drying of the hops. Then, they’d snuggle down in sleeping bags on creaky old stretchers; the air warmed by the old coal-fired kiln.
“Every Friday afternoon during harvest was ‘beer o’clock.’ My Grandad would come around with four flagons and the workers would sit down – 20 to 25 of them, the machines were switched off and he would give each worker a tiny little glass. Everyone probably thought those glasses weren’t very big, but Grand Dad would walk around, topping up everyone’s glasses.
“We were only about seven or eight, but we used to get a wee swish of beer in a glass. Granddad would say: ‘Here you go – you get a drop, too,’ and that was our reward for working so hard after school.”
Thirty-plus years later, there has rarely been a harvest when Brent hasn’t slept beside a hop kiln.
“The maximum sleep I get during harvest is two hours each night,” he says. “The hop drying process is one of the most critical stages of harvest. Fifteen to 20 minutes either side of ‘just right’ can ruin them – they can be too dry or not dry enough. My whole focus is on trying to get these hops to the highest quality and yield we can possibly get to, without losing any of their oils.
Brent’s brother-in-law, Owen Johnstone, is ‘the machinery man,’ ensuring the equipment runs smoothly throughout the day and maintaining it late into the night. Brent credits Owen with ensuring everything runs to peak capacity.
“Owen has one of the smartest machinery brains in the world of hop growing.”
The McGlashen family was one of the pioneering family businesses in Nelson’s relatively small hop growing community. Today, five generations later, they’re the last of the ‘originals.’
“They say hops and everything about them just get into your blood. I think that’s exactly how it is. It’s an addiction,” he laughs. “Even when I went traveling for a few years, I worked three harvests in America and came home to work our harvests, too.
“Like all the growers, I’m continually striving to work around climatic changes. Several years ago, we were dealing with too much rain and now we’re dealing with the dry weather and hoping for rain.”
The Mac Hops team’s 2020 harvest will be the most intense they’ve ever completed. The business purchased around 85 hectares of blackcurrant fields in the Upper Moutere in 2017. Next month, three years of developing and cultivating the new hop gardens will culminate in the property’s first full harvest. As well, there’s the McGlashen family’s original Motueka property of 30 hectares to harvest, along with 23 hectares of hops nearby, grown in a joint venture with Kono. In all, Mac Hops produces 19 commercial varieties.
These days, Brent’s Dad, Kim, has handed over the production reins to Brent and Owen and their wives, Ria McGlashen and Michelle Johnstone. But he can still be found on-site during harvest time, hosting a steady stream of visitors – mainly brewers, curious to see where the raw materials come from.
“We get dozens of international visitors and brewers from throughout New Zealand, all wanting to assess for themselves which hops produce the aromas and flavours they’re looking for to create their next brew.”
Kim says the days when anyone could wander into a hop shed and the workers’ children played in and around the machinery, are long gone – replaced by high-spec mechanisation and the safety measures that must come with it.
“When I was a boy, harvest time was still incredibly busy, but there was always a picnic atmosphere.”
written by Victoria Clark