Why Are New Zealand Hops So Coveted?

Fruity, citrusy and highly aromatic, New Zealand hops are some of the hottest varieties on the market right now. They’re also nearly impossible to get. Justin Kennedy on what makes these hops so special, and the domestic Kiwi-hopped beers to try now.

New Zealand Beer Brewing Hops

Behind Germany, the U.S. is the second-largest hop-producing country in the world. So why are American brewers so eager to use rare New Zealand hops from halfway around the world when there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other citrusy, aromatic varieties grown right here at home?

“There is no hop grown anywhere else in the world that even comes close to the alpha acid and essential oils inherent in the New Zealand hop pantheon,” says Anthony Canecchia of Arizona’s SanTan Brewing, one of the earliest production-scale users of Kiwi hops. Canecchia particularly likes Nelson Sauvin, which makes up 80 percent of the total hops in his flagship HopShock IPA. He’s also fond of Motueka, Green Bullet and Riwaka, but says they’re extremely hard to source.

“Back in 2008, there were no American hop brokers that even knew about New Zealand hops, much less had them available for sale,” he says. “I had to FedEx boxes directly from New Zealand and paid more per pound in shipping than for the hops.”

While Canecchia no longer has to self-import to the States, since the early 2010s overall demand has increased due to a number of factors. First, New Zealand harvests a relatively small volume of hops, just less than 800 metric tons per year. (Globally, the two largest producers are Germany at 34,000 metric tons and the U.S. at 27,000.) Second, New Zealand hops are coveted for their citrusy and floral notes and persistent fresh tropical fruit flavors, which span most of the varieties. This profile fits squarely within the new style of juicy, citrus-forward American IPAs. Third, with the number of breweries flourishing worldwide and particularly in the States, hop contracts have become hard to come by, and brewers often look to unexpected places to secure their raw materials.

But the popularity of New Zealand hops also has to do with something much more human: the relentless pursuit of the new. And for brewers like Connor Casey of San Francisco’s Cellarmaker Brewing, New Zealand hops represent just that—novel flavors not available from any other region in the world.

“We love seeing the interaction of familiar hops with new hops, whether they’re New Zealand-grown or not,” says Casey, who also experiments with obscure varieties from South Africa and Australia. “Think about a painter’s palette. If you only had five colors to work with, sure, you could make some beautiful paintings, using different ratios of various colors in conjunction with one another. But ultimately everything would come from those five colors, and it could only deviate so much.”

The sentiment of New Zealand as an experimental, esoteric hop producer is echoed by Doug Donelan, CEO of New Zealand Hops Ltd., a grower-owned cooperative based in the town of Richmond. “We’re represented in the American craft market as a niche product,” says Donelan, “and predominantly as a producer of highly valued specialty hops.”

Donelan says the New Zealand varieties are all triploid (three-component) clones “developed specifically to be grown in our region and under our conditions.” Many of the clones were developed by the Plant & Food Research hop breeding program, and most have beguiling Māori names, like Motueka, Riwaka and Waimea.

New Zealand also grows American and European varieties like Cascade, Chinook and Fuggle. But Donelan says that, due to environmental factors and dissimilar growing conditions, the hops reflect a terroir divergent from those same varieties grown elsewhere. “The Cascade we grow in New Zealand has become so distinctly different that we renamed it ‘Taiheke’ so that people who are buying it aren’t expecting to get Cascade, because they’re not,” he says.

Beer drinkers wanting to experience these hops in their fullest potential will have to seek out small-batch beers like those made at Casey’s Cellarmaker, as well as other forward-thinking breweries like Other Half in Brooklyn and Tired Hands outside of Philadelphia. Such breweries tend to sell almost all of their liquid locally and often make one-off batches of New Zealand-hopped beers that sell out quickly, usually within a few weeks.

Commercial examples do exist, though. Other than SanTan, the largest production brewery to use New Zealand hops is San Diego’s Green Flash and their partner brewery, Alpine Beer Company. Sierra Nevada also brews with significant volumes of New Zealand hops—namely in their Southern Hemisphere Harvest Fresh Hop IPA—and Louisville’s Against the Grain has nationally distributed several New Zealand-hopped beers like Rico Sauvin, The Green Dragon and Wakatube. Other breweries blend small percentages of Kiwi hops into their beers, like Stone, which incorporates Nelson Sauvin and Motueka as a small fraction of the overall hops in their recent Enjoy By series of IPAs. Qtherwise, hit your local brewery to see if they happen to be experimenting with any of New Zealand’s expanding roster of home-grown hops.

Six New Zealand Hops to Know

New Zealand’s hop growing region is located smack in the middle of the country, near the Cook Strait, which separates the North Island from the South Island. Its heart is the city of Nelson, at the very northern tip of the South Island near the Tasman Bay. Of the 16 distinct varieties grown in this area, here are six that you’re likely to encounter in American beer.

New Zealand Beer Brewing Hops

Nelson Sauvin (a.)
By far the most popular and widely used variety of Kiwi hop, Nelson Sauvin is named for the town of Nelson, the epicenter of New Zealand’s hop growing region, and the sauvignon blanc grape, the primary wine variety grown there. It’s aromatic and fruity, imparting a distinctive cool-climate white wine character, with notes of peach, honeydew, gooseberry and apricot.

Try it in: SanTan HopShock IPA, Cellarmaker Mt. Nelson, Against The Grain Rico Sauvin Double IPA, Alpine Nelson IPA, Toppling Goliath ZeeLander IPA, Funkwerks Nelson Sauvin Saison

Rakau (b.)
This is a dual-purpose hop, meaning it’s suitable for both bittering (a process that provides the beer with bitterness and preservative qualities) and flavor (added later in the brewing process). It shows heady aromas of candied fruit, stone fruit and tropical fruit.

Try it in: Grimm Magnetic Compass IPA, Garage Project Pernicious Weed Imperial IPA, Summit Sága IPA

Motueka (c.)
Originally called B Saaz, Motueka is New Zealand’s second most popular hop variety and a hybrid of the Czech-native Saaz hop. It’s an aromatic hop with intense lime, lemon zest and tropical fruit notes.

Try it in: Sierra Nevada Southern Hemisphere Harvest IPA, Other Half All Green Everything Imperial IPA, Prairie Standard Saison, Hill Farmstead Walden Blonde Ale

New Zealand Beer Brewing Hops

Wakatu (d.)
This versatile hop is a hybrid of the German Hallertauer Mittlefrüh variety used for both bittering and flavoring. It has broad, heady aromas of citrus and fresh-cut flowers.

Try it in: Almanac Wakatu Sour Ale, Jopen Life’s a Beach Session IPA

Pacific Jade (e.)
A relatively new variety, Pacific Jade is a cross of New Zealand First Choice and Czech Saaz hops. It has citrusy aromas and a complex, spicy bitterness.

Try it in: Bell’s The Oracle Double IPA, 8 Wired Mighty Imperial Ale

Southern Cross (f.)
This hop is a three-way blend of New Zealand Smoothcone, American Cali and English Fuggle. More notes of citrus and tropical fruits with some pine and spice bitterness typical of Northern Hemisphere varieties.

Try it in: Coronado Stingray Imperial IPA, Grimm Vacay Sour Ale