Colin Oldham wasn’t particularly surprised when America’s Budweiser Beer magnate managed to find his relatively small hop farm, tucked away in a pretty valley south of Nelson. When it comes to big business world-wide, the hop-growing industry is very small, he says, and at the time, Colin Oldham’s ‘New Hoplands’ property was the only place in the world where one could find substantial gardens of organically-grown hops. The multi-billionaire beer baron, August Busch III, now aged 82, and his son August Busch IV, (yes, the family’s generations are numbered like royalty), took a guided tour of Colin’s farm, flanked by several body guards.
“They’d been holidaying in the Pacific and flew into Nelson in their own private jet, then organised a helicopter to get out here,” Colin remembers. “They were really interested in seeing the methods involved in producing organic hops.”
‘Mr Budweiser,’ as Colin calls him, listened intently, fascinated by the Nelson hop industry’s relative freedom from the disease and pests that can hamper growers on the other side of the world.
“He kept talking into his Dictaphone, describing everything he saw. He was particularly intrigued with the hot-steam weed control method we use to keep the weeds down around the bottoms of the bines. To him, using chemicals for pest and fungus control was the norm.”
Though the Anheuser-Busch empire, most famous for its Budweiser and Bud-Light beers, did not put in an order for organically-grown hops, Colin says the father-and-son visit in 2001 is the highlight of his career.
“I was already supplying other beer-makers and there was no way I could have met the needs of Mr Budweiser’s production,” he grins. “Not long after they returned to America, he sent me two silver tankards.” (The Busch family beer empire, which was founded in the 1800s, was sold in 2008, reportedly for $52 billion).
Over 15 seasons, Colin’s hop gardens were the biggest producer of organic hops in the world. Ninety-nine per cent of New Hoplands produce goes to beer-makers in Europe and America; the remaining one per cent to New Zealand craft brewers. Several growers in Belgium and Germany turned to organics about five years after Colin first began applying the chemical-free growing method to hops. Since then, more than half-a-dozen organic hop gardens have been established in America.
Wandering through Colin Oldham’s hop garden, miles from the coastline, there’s a distinct odour of the ocean. It’s a liquid fish fertiliser, he says, which doubles as a deterrent for any pesky mites attempting to make their presence felt among the bines.
“Keeping the hops as healthy as possible is a good thing - more than just for producing great hops, but for deterring mites, because mites will always infest stressed, less-healthy hops first.”
In summer, Mondays are ‘Smartbug Day’ – when the bug-detectors come from their predator breeding nursery in Motueka to inspect the crops for two-spotted mites. They then decide whether Colin should purchase the predator mite ‘persimilis’ to eradicate the pest.
Nowadays, Colin Oldham and his sons Hayden and Thomas farm ‘New Hoplands’ which Colin took over from his father, David, in the mid-1990s.
“I’m one of five brothers and I was the only one interested in hop farming – though my brother Kerry has since started his own hop farm.
“It’s difficult to put into words, but I’ve always been passionate about hops. I love the way they grow so fast. One minute they’re shooting out of the ground and the next minute they’re at the top. I probably think about hops too much – well, so my wife tells me,” he laughs.
“About five years before he retired, Dad visited America and couldn’t believe the pests and funguses growers contend with there. He realised, if there’s one place in the world to grow hops organically, it’s Nelson because we don’t have to use fungacides and mitacides.”
“He came home and said, “Let’s try going organic!” – so, in 1990 we converted half-ahectare to organics, planting a total of 1250 plants.”
Almost 20 years later, the “pure goodness” of Colin’s organic hops were not only going into craft brewers’ recipes, but onto people’s faces. Having researched the benefits of the hops’ oils, Colin’s wife, Alana, included them in the skincare range, ‘Oxygen’ which she founded with their daughter Olivia in 2009.
New Hoplands’ organic gardens now sprawl over 10 hectares, producing five varieties, quite separate from the farm’s 14 conventionally-grown varieties. The only grower in New Zealand of the Fuggle hop, the Oldhams are developing other new varieties - including one which is yet to be officially named.
“We’ve been working on this hop variety for 12 years. It’s nick-named ‘Wow’ and there’s now 2000 plants growing here.”
- written by Victoria Clark