Alison said she married into the hop industry when she teamed up with husband Les at Myrrhee. He died nearly five years ago, but Alison has continued in the industry by growing about 15 old, mostly aroma rich hop varieties for boutique breweries.
Although she doesn't drink beer Alison is quite taken with a green hop derived boutique beer produced in the King Valley.
Alison said the industry was more or less on an even keel – although hops were always much easier to grow than to sell - until entrepreneur John Elliot decided the industry was a cash cow in the 1980s.
"He established a large area of vines in Australia but took no account of the fact that growers tend thousands of hectares of hops overseas and Australia could never have any impact on the world price"
Even the current Rostrevor hop garden near Myrtleford, set up by John Elliot, grows 100s of hectares of hops and "burns off the competition," Alison said. It also breeds new high alpha varieties which growers like her cannot get access to.
Botanically hops, a perennial herb, are closest genetically to marijuana. But they don't contain THC, the active ingredient which makes marijuana so desirable.
Alison said hop roots are extremely tough and will grow during summer up to more than 5m vertically along strings tied to overhead wires.
The old varieties she grows are not easily machine harvestable and since the demise of readily available mostly Asian work crews for stringing up and training vines and picking hops – the biggest work areas – the crop had become much less economical to grow.
As well growers must invest in about $2m worth of processing equipment on farm, including a $1m pelleter. At their peak the Earps used to produce each March/April about 400 bales weighing 120kg each, of kiln dried hops.
Today there are two main agents handling sales from about 30 growers with Myrrhee remaining the principal point of production in Victoria. It is not historically and currently possible for growers to sell direct to brewers.