A hop back in time

IN many ways, the red waterwheel on the old kiln at Bushy Park speaks volumes about the surrounding hop fields and the last 170 years. It doesn’t move now, but that is also part of the story. Back in the 1880s, that rotating element was a work of engineering prowess, one of the innovations of the Shoobridge family who had first planted hops along the alluvial flats of the Derwent River.

Even now, there’s nothing like it in Australia, and maybe only a handful across the world. From 1883, the wheel was driven by water from the nearby Styx River, directed via a hand-cut channel that skirted the nascent settlement of Bushy Park to provide a water supply to homes and farms. The channeled water then dropped into a wooden race and from there, on to the waterwheel itself. Through a series of gears and shafts, the driven wheel revolved the iron-framed drying floor of the adjacent hop kiln. It lasted more than 50 years. The purpose? To spread heat and dry the freshly picked crop evenly, a task previously done by a team of men with pitchforks in hot, dangerous conditions.

The workings of the Revolving Kiln at Bushy Park added a grid of curved teeth in a giant rake that turned over the hops as the floor moved below them. There was more. The water, having moved the wheel and the apparatus it drove, ducked under the nearby road to a large pond, and went on to irrigate 80ha of hops. It was a work of 19th century smarts, combining an industrial need for motion power with supplying domestic and crop water. At a later date, a small sawmill and electricity generation were added. Not bad for a hand-cut channel carrying water off a hillside. These buildings, the Revolving Kiln among them, are among a cluster of nine on Glenora Road that form the core of the community that became Bushy Park.

The fields that surround them are today owned by Hop Products Australia. There’s not much left of the inner workings in the brick kiln building now: some storage below, pieces of timber on the drying floor, a few strands of hessian, hops were disgorged on to a large floor, where they were bagged in hessian, tied with string. But outside, the business of growing hops is much the same as it always was.

The cycle is simple. From July, the fields are prepared, posts replaced, and wires – six metres off the ground – tensioned. Coir strings, close to 1.7 million of them – are tied to the wire. These strings, made of coconut fibres, are prepared in Sri Lanka and strung over these 260ha so the plants get the assistance they need for their clockwise climb in pursuit of the sun. The work is done by September, when the perennial hop plant emerges from the dirt, joined by new starters, some already as tall as 800mm. By Christmas, they’re reaching maturity and almost ready for a harvest that begins in March. Then, the hop flowers, known as cones, go into a nearby processing facility to be dried and pressed into pellets, the finished hop product, sealed into oxygen-barrier foil and shipped.

Some 40 per cent of these fields’ output will go to domestic brewers and about 60 per cent will be sent to international brewers. The remaining stems, leaf and string are taken in by picking machines, separated from the cones and mulched into compost which goes back into the soil to assist soil health, moisture retention and weed control in preparation for the year ahead. The hops grown at Bushy Park Estates have fruit-forward profiles to suit the trending beer style of the world. Galaxy is the predominant variety, but others prefer Enigma, Ella and Cascade – no relation to the local brewery.

This is an industrial process, driven by the immutable timing of seasons, the inputs of soil and water, the commercial imperatives of profit and contracts around the world, and crucially, an unending global appetite for the amber fluid. As Henry Lawson, at his prolific peak back in the 1880s, pointed out: “Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer.”

Today, long past the era of the Shoobridge family business, these fields employ 26 fulltime staff and another 150 casuals at harvest time. Those numbers are about a tenth of those involved in hop picking until the 1960s. Pitchforks have been replaced with machines, the work of processing hops done in two massive steel sheds on the property. The constant threat of fire, through burning wood to dry the hops (which could overheat and burst into flames) is no more. Heat comes from gas-powered burners. And the truth is, these brick and wooden buildings – handsome as they are – aren’t much use to a modern farming operation.

While a recently completed refurbishment has secured these buildings’ framework and protected windows with a plastic overlay, they were built for, and with, the materials of another time. They are relics, nowhere close to complying with current building regulations, fire codes or much else. But these nine old buildings stand, with Tasmania’s grandly titled Historic Cultural Heritage Act of 1995 at their backs.

And Hop Products Australia’s long-term plan is to maintain them. Yet they still have work to do, even now. They are the stewards of this place, their job to tell the rich and diverse stories that are embedded, like books, in the fabric of the buildings themselves. 170 years holds a lot of stories.