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Freestyle going swimmingly

Last updated on May 1, 2020

You know a person has a connection with a place when their surname is the same as the road they live on.

So it is with Annette Eggers – the marketing and exports manager for Freestyle Hops, located at 32 Eggers Rd, Upper Moutere.

“This farm that Freestyle Hops owns now used to belong to my family – it was my father who sold to FS investors.

“Whole valley used to be filled with Eggers – and Hyatts are up here too.”

Upper Moutere was famously settled by Germans in the 1850s – when it was called Sarau. There’s a certain irony to the fact that German immigrants were targeted by the New Zealand Company to come to the area because they were seen as “industrious … and sober”. Upon settling in the area, they promptly planted grapes and hops.

There’s also an irony in the fact Annette’s father, Bruce Eggers, was one of the founders of New Zealand Hops, the co-operative set up to sell our country’s hops on behalf of the growers, particularly for export. Bruce Eggers was also a one-time director of New Zealand Hops, but he when he sold his farm to an American venture capitalists FS Investors in 2017, the renamed Freestyle Farms became the first hop farm in the area to go it alone outside the umbrella of the co-operative. Others have followed suit since, although the vast majority of hop growers remain in the collective.

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Hop harvest at Freestyle Farms

For a long time, it was considered too difficult for a small hop farm to go solo.

First, it was just too hard for a small farm to negotiate contracts with large brewers who require huge volumes that can only be provided by the collective.

Second, the strong relationship between New Zealand Hops and Plant & Food Research seemed unbreakable. The government body that did the research and development that made New Zealand hops so famous, worked hand-in-hand with New Zealand Hops Ltd., making it seem impossible for an independent to get access to licenced varieties of hops such as Motueka, Riwaka and Nelson Sauvin.

That changed with the start of Hāpi Research Ltd, the joint venture between Wellington brewery Garage Project and Freestyle Farms, with support from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) programme. Other partners have since come on board including famed American breweries Hill Farmstead and Sierra Nevada, as well Otago and Lincoln universities.

Plant & Food still has a strong relationship with New Zealand Hops Ltd., but as stand-alone entity does work with other hop farms.

“We do have a lot of help from Plant & Food, we do work with them still them,” says Annette Eggers.

 “We send samples to them but we’re developing as well and we’re trying to utilise our own resources because we want more freedom and structure about how we go forward. It does seem like a natural progression to do it all in-house.”

Was it difficult to go independent of New Zealand Hops Ltd.?

“We feel like we’re all good – there’s no animosity. It was something that was going to happen at some stage and we’ve all got to try and move on. That’s how we see it.

“We wanted to create a farm to glass kind of thing – we wanted the brewer to come to our farm and see exactly which block their hops are coming from – and that’s exactly what Garage Project have done with their Block Party releases.

“That, for us, was huge – that’s where we wanted to be. We wanted that relationship with the brewers.”

Bruce Eggers

For Eggers, the recently-completed hop harvest was by a rough guess, her 30th.

“Even as kids, mum used to bring me and my brother to every harvest – even when I did work away from the farm, I often took the month off to come back and work on the farm.”

Eggers spent many years in the film industry – “directing commercials, working on documentaries, music videos”.

She was working in Auckland when her father called her to say he was going to sell the farm.

“At that stage, I did have plans to come back to the area and run a wilderness retreat. I wanted to get out of Auckland and do something completely different and then these guys at Freestyle Hops rang up to see I’d help them – and it’s now my second year with them.”

Coming back to work on the old family farm for a new owner wasn’t an immediate drawcard for Eggers.

“I was really focused on building this wilderness experience for people – I love conservation and that’s where I thought I was going to be and nothing was going to stop me, so they did have to call me a couple of times, the last one being ‘we really need you here’.

“So I said, `alright, I’ll come up for three months’ – and here I am two years later.”

Eggers focuses on export and marketing to customers, but around hop harvest she’s also involved in quality training for seasonal workers.

As a boutique farm with such strong connections to breweries such as Garage Project and Hill Farmstead, it’s no surprise Freestyle works with only the best breweries in the world.

“RateBeer recently released their top-100 breweries – of the top 10, six of those are our customers. And all our customers are within the top-100.

“We don’t have the capabilities to provide for everybody. We still don’t have enough hops – we’ve planted out every bit of flat land we can find.”

The bulk of Freestyle’s hops are contracted, but there are some varieties that go on the market at nzhopmarket.com – where each hop variety is listed under the farm it comes from.

Contract customers who have ordered 400kg or more of a variety come to the farm and take their pick of the crop.

If someone has contracted to buy 500kg of Nelson Sauvin, for example, they will inspect the different lots and inspect the one that smells the best for what they want to achieve in the brewery.

“So even though Motueka and Nelson are picked over a period of 10 days, the first lot picked will have a different aroma to the ones picked at the end. The brewers pick on the different characteristics and say ‘I want that one’.”

If you pick Nelson too late, it’s too garlicky, too early and it’s too leafy. If we’ve grown them properly and picked them at the right time, they’ll have that well-known Nelson Sauvin aroma and the brewers will then select on the intensity.”

Despite the sale, Eggers’ parents, Bruce and Betty, are still actively involved in the farm.

“They’ve got a house up on the hill and they look down on us – he’s here all the time. At harvest time you’ll spot him out in the fields checking the hops – rubbing them in his hands. He knows when they’re ready to harvest – that old experience is still needed.

“Both mum and dad love that they don’t have the stress anymore, but they love the smell and the hype of harvest time.”

And Freestyle have created a hop blend that honours Bruce Eggers. It’s called, simply: The Bruce.

“He’s very chuffed … and when he found American brewers were using it he was happy to be an international star.”

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