Jade McManus is a co-owner of Ryefield Hops, a family-owned hop farm in Bemboka, in the South Coast region of NSW. Since the first crop harvest three seasons ago, Ryefield’s popularity has rapidly increased with brewers and drinkers alike thanks to its status as NSW’s only mid-sized commercial hop farm, as well as its focus on organic growing practices and quality hops.
The land on which the farm sits is the property of her brother-in-law Morgans’ family and his wife – Jade’s sister – Karen. The idea to turn the disused dairy farm in to a hop farm came several years ago, when Jade was at home recovering from a knee injury.
“I was doing some home brewing here in Sydney and had begun investigating ingredients a bit more, because I have always had a love of permaculture and farming,” explains Jade. “I had a lightbulb moment after reading a lot about hops and realised the conditions down [at the farm] are what hops need.”
“Morgan and Karen had just moved back home and Morgan was driving me to Canberra for medical check-ups, and we would talk about it on the drive. I had the idea and he had the land and was keen to get back onto the farm.”
In the beginning, the trio didn’t have much to go on in terms of how exactly to start a mid-size commercial hop farm.
“We did a lot of reading and a small trial plot for our first season, just to see if they would grow, because no one had grown in that area before. We wanted to see if they grew and what the uptake would be from the market. We didn’t want to make it too big because we didn’t know if it was going to grow, or sell.”
For the early harvests, Ryefield found overwhelming support, particularly from brewers such as Topher Boehm from Wildflower Brewing & Blending, who brewed all-NSW beer Waratah, and Chris Sidwa from Batch Brewing Company, whose brewery had already partnered with Voyager Craft Malt in using locally sourced ingredients. That support inspired Ryefield to grow hops for further seasons, all the while learning by reading and trialling practices on the farm.
“We only visited our first hop farm in July last year, after two seasons of growing,” Jade laughs. “As we learnt each season, we refined our process each time. Now we feel confident to go to a larger scale with our production and processing.”
Another thing that instilled confidence was getting feedback from brewers about the hops while they grew.
“This year it was great to have head brewers visit the farm during harvest who were smelling the cones directly off the bine,” says Jade. “What was really cool was that individually, two head brewers from two different breweries both described the hops as being very clean and bright. We pride ourselves on freshness, organic growing and quality and it was a nice and positive descriptor for what we’re trying to do.”
For Jade personally, the experience has been rewarding in that it’s allowed her to bring the skills and qualifications she’s achieved, which include an Environmental Science degree and an Advanced Permaculture Design Certificate, in to an agricultural hobby that allows her to grow ingredients for beer.
However, one thing that Jade would like to see being discussed is specialty labelling on beers that have sourced ingredients from independent companies, akin to the ‘Certified Independent’ logo.
“I’m very passionate about independent and locally owned products. The whole reason for this is so that it stays locally within the economy and drives growth where people can reap the rewards of their effort. However, with current independent beer labelling, it stops with the independent brewery, the labelling doesn’t focus on the supply chain,” she explains.
“It’s really great that breweries can now label themselves as independent but currently there’s no requirement or focus to source from independent suppliers, the ingredients that go in to the beer can come from any supplier. On the flip side, breweries like 4 Pines have supported us the past two seasons by making wet-hop beers. They can be criticised for now being internationally owned but they are passionate about fostering smaller independent growers like us.
“If more breweries sourced local and independent, that would generate a local supply economy. It’s going to create more local hop growers and more maltsters. Having that connection with the end product is really important. It’s something that works well in the wine industry – there’s the vine, that’s the grape, here’s the wine. Now breweries can say, here’s the farm, that’s the hop.”
“It’s a great motivator,” Jade admits. “It’s great for us as a grower to have our hops in beers. That’s a celebration of a lot of hard work.”