With mainstream beer producers tending towards lighter, innocuous flavours in recent decades – partly in an attempt to woo women off wine – hops have taken a back seat in mass consumption brands.

But the explosion of boutique breweries – and “premium” beers as major players fight to retain market share – has sparked fresh interest in the science of cultivating hops with different qualities. That’s where New Zealand’s small hops industry, centred on Motueka in Nelson province, is gaining an international foothold.

New strains developed at Plant & Food Research’s Motueka research centre are lending distinction to craft beers in the United States, Europe and emerging Asian markets, as well as boutique and premium brews launched in New Zealand in recent years.

A change in focus from developing alpha hop strains (which give beer bitterness) to aromatic varieties and dual-purpose hops (which do both) is helping New Zealand build a niche in global beer production. It happily coincides with growing consumer demand for tastier beers and for quality over quantity.

Take Nelson sauvin, a hop whose aroma of freshly crushed gooseberries (hence the nod to sauvignon blanc) imparts “a distinctive, cool climate white wine fruitiness”, according to brewers’ notes put out by growers’ co-operative NZ Hops Limited.

Released in 2000, it’s used here in Steinlager Pure (along with another new breed, Pacific jade) and by several micro-brewers.

Craft beers, if you include big brewery-owned Mac’s and Monteith’s, have about 9 per cent of the New Zealand market and the share is growing steadily.

But it’s overseas demand which has local growers struggling to keep pace. Developed for pilsners but also finding favour in pale ales, sauvin is being used by US craft brewers such as Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada and Widmer; by Baird Brewing in Japan and Hite Brewery in Korea, while in Denmark it is the star of Mikkeller’s single-hop pale ale.

Other hops acclaimed for their citrus and floral notes include riwaka, Motueka, pacifica and NZ hallertauer.

Some have dual purpose qualities meaning they can be used early in the brewing process to impart bitterness or added late for aroma.

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