Corey Brazendale was still working at a small agricultural supplies store when one of the oldest farmers on the island shuffled in.
Mr Brazendale and his wife Sarah were in the process of building King Island’s first brewery. Despite its remote location, atop a hill out of town on an even more remote island, it hadn’t gone unnoticed.
The 82-year-old farmer, Peter Bowling, had caught wind of their plans and insisted they drive to the southern tip of the island to visit his farm. There was something they needed to see.
“When we got down there I just couldn’t believe it,” Mr Brazendale said.
Down from the old homestead, through a scratchy thicket of inhospitable branches in a sunken, almost hidden pocket of the Bowling family farm, a secret garden revealed itself.
Hops — plump green cones flowering upward and outward, strangling a dense network of tea trees — hung drowsily in their hundreds.
“Just the smell of it. The first time we touched one, it was like, ‘Wow — this just smells like beer’,” Ms Brazendale said.
How and why the hop plants came to be there was a mystery.
Mr Bowling remembers wandering past them as a child, though he didn’t know what they were.
“I couldn’t tell you how long they’ve been here. Probably more than 100 years,” he said.
Hidden ale tale
Hops have been used in a variety of ways throughout history, but are most commonly known as a central component of beer.
Curiously, the local historical society can find no record of beer being brewed on King Island.
Found off the north-west tip of Tasmania and dubbed “shipwreck island” due to its unforgiving winds, King Island once formed a land bridge to Victoria.
Luke Agati from the King Island Historical Society said there was no history of First Nations people on the island, but several failed attempts were made by settlers to establish a life there in the 1800s.
In 1884, the Bowling family farm became the first 200 acres selected for settlement on King Island by the Tasmanian colonial government.
Mr Bowling said the farm was sold in the 1920s, only for it to come back into the family in 1960.
In all that time, he can’t remember anyone using the hops for beer, or anything else for that matter.
When they turned up at the Bowling farm in 2021, the Brazendales were still new to brewing and didn’t know what sort of hops they were looking at.
The couple met in 2010 on the Aurora Australis icebreaker to Antarctica.
Sarah, who grew up on King Island, was undertaking a masters on Antarctica as part of a marine science degree; Corey was working as a mechanic.
In their down time, they experimented with brewing kit beer together.
Years later when they fermented the idea to build King Island’s first brewery, they wanted it to be something specific to its place — something that locals could be proud of.
Here, on the Bowling farm, was a treasure trove of potentially drinkable local history, albeit with an ambiguous origin story.
They hungrily accepted Mr Bowling’s offer to harvest the wild hops.
Once the brewery was completed and the hops were ready to harvest, they carried in ladders and stuffed as many hop plants as they could into car boots.
“We weren’t sure [of] the origins of the plant — could it be a real bitter hop? Or a fruity sort of hop?” Mr Brazendale said.
“We had to be quite cautious how we used it, just in case we made 500 litres of undrinkable rubbish.”
After an anxious brewing process, the result was a thrillingly satisfying beer with earthy and subtle honey notes and a slight bitterness — a far cry from the hop-forward or citrus-bombast beers often favoured in the modern craft world.
It was an instant hit with King Island’s population of less than 2,000. The Brazendales called it the Local Ale, available off tap only at the island brewhouse.
But there was still a gnawing secret hiding at the bottom of the glass.
“There’s so much more to know about that particular patch of hops and I’d just love to complete the story,” Mr Brazendale said.
“It’s a huge mystery and it does niggle away at me quite a lot.”
Thirst for clues
As beer preferences have changed over the past century, so too have the type of hop varieties grown in search of different flavour profiles.
It makes the presence of a historic hop, hidden away growing wild on an island, all the more intriguing.
Genetic testing to determine the variety and origin of a hop plant is complicated and expensive. In the case of those found on King Island, experts have told the ABC testing is unlikely to yield a meaningful result, as they would be difficult to compare to modern hops.
History, instead, offers the best clues.
Hop farming experienced something of a boom in Tasmania during the 1800s and by 1870, the Hobart Mercury stated it was “difficult to overestimate the value” of the hop industry.
“Hop growing is now … the most promising of Tasmanian industries,” the Mercury article declared, as cited in a 1993 research report by Kathryn Evans.
Museum conservator David Thurrowgood has a keen interest in Tasmania’s beer history.
During the latter half of the 1800s, he said, hop plants would have been found up and down the state — not only in commercial operations, but on smaller-scale farms too.
In some cases, hops were planted near homes almost as a matter of course, similar to rosemary bushes.
“They do seem to appear a bit in informal gardens,” Mr Thurrowgood said.
“Hops are quite happy to sulk in a location for decades without much effort and then spring back to life if there’s a good year.”
On King Island, there are records of two brothers — David and Andrew Valance — taking a variety of crops across on a boat and attempting to establish a farm to the south of the island in the late 1870s.
Less than a decade later, that same area was selected as the home for Peter Bowling’s great uncle and aunt.
Mr Thurrowgood thinks it is more than likely that the hops could have come from that era.
After its 19th-century boom, he said the Tasmanian hop industry “substantially died out” during the 1900s and varieties from the time were often wiped out.
Renewed interest in reviving the state’s beer history has, of late, begun to bubble up.
Mr Thurrowgood gained international attention when he brewed beer using 220-year-old yeast from salvaged beer bottles found on a shipwrecked vessel in Bass Strait.
He is now cultivating historic hops that were once grown in a Port Arthur hop garden as far back as 1840.
When the ABC recently showed Mr Thurrowgood a photo of the wild King Island hops, he reacted instantly with an approving “ahh”.
“Excellent!” he said.
“These are very similar to what I’m growing, which is a pretty early English version of hops.
“You can’t tell for definite, but these are very, very similar.”
The variety, he said, was almost certainly an early East Kent Golding hop, developed in England in the late 1700s. The British Hop Association describes the variety as having “earthy” and “honey-like” characteristics.
“It really excites me. There’s only really a few of these historic hops that I’m aware of in Tasmania,” Mr Thurrowgood said.
“They are an absolute treasure.”
As yet, there is no way to be certain about the origins of the King Island hops, but the Brazendales are thrilled to learn of the newly pieced together history.
“That is fascinating. That is amazing.” Mr Brazendale said on receiving an update.
The couple now have plans to replant the hops from the Bowling farm on a number of sites around King Island to ensure they are preserved for decades to come.
“To think that we started the brewery not knowing [the hops] had been there all this time, and then for us to use it,” Ms Brazendale said.
“The essence of King Island is in it.”