A brief history of hops in South Africa

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Hop Plant,  Humulus lupulus,  Hops Farming,  Hops GrowingHops, the vital ingredient to beer, have an interesting history in South Africa.

The South African hops industry is one to be proud of. It’s the only hops industry in the world to be successful at low latitudes, and has been responsible for cultivating some very successful breeds which have changed the industry.

Pioneers in southern hops

Hops are predominantly grown in the northern hemisphere between latitudes of 40 & 45° north. This climate typically comprises freezing winters and very long summer days. In South Africa all our hops are grown in the George area, which lies at 34° south of the equator.

While the climate is not quite the same (indeed George’s summer days are three hours shorter than its northern counterparts) the SAB Hop Farms have successfully grown and bred hops there for over 80 years. The area’s mild temperatures, little frost and reasonable amount of rain suit the plant well. The apparent lack of prolonged summer days has been overcome with the use of bright night lights, which you’ll notice as you drive past these farms in summer.

SA’s first hops

Hops were first introduced to South Africa in the 1650s. Jan van Riebeeck planted the first hop garden at the Cape in 1652 following which the first beer at the Cape was brewed in 1658. Incidentally it was only a year or two later that the first wine, for which the Cape is famous, was produced. Cape Town, as a stopover on the Dutch East India route, soon became known as “The Tavern of the Seas.”

How the hop famine spurred SA brewers

Many years later South Africa’s beer scene was thriving, with the majority of hops being imported. This changed during the First World War. The war’s U-boat Campaign brought with it a hop famine, which then spurred local brewers to become self-sufficient when it came to ingredients. SAB and Ohlsson’s Breweries came together to start hop farming in George in 1935. They began a hop breeding programme the following year.

Hop breeding successes

In the 1970s the SA hop industry got a boost when a locally developed strain, Southern Brewer, was cultivated. This strain was ideally suited to the growing conditions around George, and allowed commercial production to follow.

More hop varieties have been cultivated over the years, and today South Africa’s hop farms are thriving. We’re also proud to say that they are run by some talented hop growers and breeders.

Keep an eye on SAB Stories as we explore more fascinating facts about hops in South Africa over this year’s harvest.

 

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