The Brews of Summer is a series spotlighting the area’s best summer beers.
Today, our beer is Astro Lab Brewing’s Fresh As, a 7.1% IPA hopped with Nelson Sauvin, Citra, and Mosaic.
Of all the places you could leave behind for Silver Spring, Maryland, it’s hard to imagine somewhere as achingly idyllic as Tauranga, New Zealand.
Endowed with white sandy beaches, surrounded by forested mountains, temperate in both the summer and winter, this small coastal city has long been a magnet for surfers and outdoor enthusiasts. Situated on the country’s North Island, Tauranga – not coincidentally, the Māori word for “port” – looks out onto the Bay of Plenty, a body of water and 162-mile shoreline given its name in 1769, when British explorer James Cook “discovered” the area, its indigenous inhabitants, and their abundant natural resources, namely fish and timber.
Nowadays, the region around Tauranga is perhaps best known for its bounty of kiwifruit. While originally from China, these furry berries were first commercially cultivated in New Zealand, and in the following century they’ve come to be associated with the island nation. Along the Bay of Plenty, kiwifruit is big business – a point of pride for some locals. Indeed, the town of Te Puke, a 20-minute drive southeast of Tauranga, has even proclaimed itself the kiwifruit capital of the world.
Head ten minutes in the opposite direction, though, and you’ll find Te Puna, a rural community similarly flush with orchards. This is where Matt Cronin would pick kiwifruit as a teenager. Over two decades have passed since then, but the Astro Lab Brewing co-founder remembers it well. Each year, his school’s two-week autumn break would land during the fall harvest, and so most mornings during that recess, the Tauranga native and his cousins piled into their “busted-up” Ford Escort and made the short commute to work for a countryside grower.
Heavy with ripe kiwifruit, the orchard’s vines climbed up “T-bar” trellises six feet high. To pick their fruit, Cronin, who is 6’2” and possesses the muscular frame you’d expect for a rugby player turned professional stuntman, would have to crouch under the wooden frames and the brown orbs hanging from them. Beneath his boots, fallen kiwifruit would slowly be trampled to a green pulp. Meanwhile, outside these trenches, the orchard was encased by rows of pine trees and cypress that had been planted to shield the crops from strong winds.
The days grew warm, but in the brisk early morning and evening sunset, when the dew had dropped, the smell of these natural elements would swirl together. It would create, in Cronin’s words, “a mosaic of sensory” – the crushed citrus wafting up from below foot, the pine of the shelterbelt, the crispness of the cool air.
Cronin shares this memory as we discuss something seemingly unrelated: Nelson Sauvin.
A hop prized across the world, Nelson Sauvin is grown exclusively in New Zealand’s Nelson region – which, like Tauranga, sits on a bay atop one of the country’s islands, albeit the southernly of the two – and the neighboring Tasman District. The latter half of the moniker, Sauvin, is shorthand for Sauvignon Blanc, a green wine grape that has flourished in the sandy soils and cool climate of Nelson’s other neighbor, the Marlborough District. Introduced in 2000, the product of a 15-year breeding program, Nelson Sauvin was given this name on account of an unmistakable white wine fruitiness it brings to a beer.
But the complex cultivar can express a dizzying array of supporting flavors and aromas, as well: passion fruit, mango, peach, lychee, feijoa, citrusy lime, piney resin, crushed gooseberries and kiwifruit. For Cronin, this distinctive combination is evocative of those brisk mornings in the orchard.
“Whenever I smell a beer made with Nelson Sauvin, that’s where my mind drifts back to – that experience,” he tells me. “It’s fantastic.”
Like grapes, kiwifruit, or any other agricultural production, hops are a reflection of their terroir – that is, the soil, topography, and climate in which they’re grown. The same hop rhizome planted in Yakima Valley, Bavaria, and South Africa will express a range of unique and overlapping attributes in each location. But nowhere else in the world do hops seem to develop the attributes that they do in the New Zealand.
Wakatu, a hybrid of German Hallertauer Mittlefrüh, displays a citrusy mélange of fresh lemon and lime, in addition to the floral, spicy notes of its European counterpart. The American hop Cascade, a staple of craft beer’s 1980s boom, emerges less resinous and more tropically fruity in New Zealand soil, so much so that growers had to rebrand it from New Zealand Cascade to Taiheke in an effort to underscore the difference.
More than these somewhat familiar varietals, though, it’s a trio of versatile high-alpha hops, all developed in New Zealand by government-assisted hop breeding programs, that exemplify the vibrancy of the country’s homegrown offerings. One is Motueka, an aroma hop with intense impressions of lime and lemon zest that’s often likened to a mojito. Another, Riwaka, is far less commonly found outside New Zealand, but it’s coveted for its massive passion fruit, grapefruit, and bergamot orange attributes. And, last, of course, is Nelson Sauvin – Cronin’s favorite hop in the world.
“I could go on about it pretty much all day,” he shares. “Nelson is the hop that I’m always striving to make sure that I’ve got. It’s so versatile.”
Since opening Astro Lab Brewing with his business partner Emma Whelan in the fall of 2018, Cronin has brewed nearly a dozen recipes that showcase Nelson Sauvin. He’s deployed it as the sole hop in an IPA and in saisons both clean and wild. He’s paired it with other New Zealand varietals to make pilsner, kölsch, and saison. And he’s bridged the Pacific with IPAs that unite Nelson Sauvin and Washington-grown hops.
The chalkboard in Astro Lab’s Silver Spring taproom has also displayed an anniversary pale ale hopped exclusively with Riwaka, a single-hop Taiheke IPA, and Motueka in the form of saison, double IPA, and the aforementioned kölsch (which also includes the peachy Wai’iti).
There’s a tactical motivation in showcasing all of these Kiwi hops: In a crowded market, it differentiates Astro Lab.
“New Zealand hops are as good as any other hops in the world, if not better,” Cronin explains. “They provide a new, interesting flavor dynamic. You can switch up the flavor profile in your beer and make it a little different and unique.”
There’s an additional, less tangible motivation, too – one that has to do with being 9,000 miles from home.
“I’m proud to be a New Zealand-American,” says Cronin. “I really wanted to bring a little New Zealand into the brewery.”
It is worth nothing, however, that Cronin’s fondness for New Zealand hops came later in life, long after he left the country. The New Zealand where he grew up, where he homebrewed from the age of 16, had been dominated by multinational beer conglomerates like Corona, Heineken, and Lion. The island nation’s craft beer community, with its history of making do with whatever resources were available, was relatively nascent. The one local “boutique” brewery Cronin can recall came and went quickly without much fanfare.
“Back then, there wasn’t much of a showcase for New Zealand hops,” he says. “It wasn’t until I got to California that I got a true, wider exposure to craft beer.”
Certified as an accountant in New Zealand, Cronin arrived moved to Los Angeles in 2004 on a work visa for stunt work. Eventually, having grown frustrated with that industry and now in possession of a green card, he transitioned back to crunching numbers, helping to budget major motion picture productions. All the while, he was immersing himself in the state’s burgeoning craft beer culture. He was making trips to an up-and-coming brewery called Stone. His mind was being blown by the interplay of hops and malt in Russian River’s Pliny the Elder. And he was falling in love with pungent Pacific Northwest hops – Citra, Mosaic, Simcoe, Amarillo, Columbus.
He met his future wife, Erikka, and when she got into a Yale graduate program, the two drove from Hermosa Beach to the East Coast in a Volkswagen Beetle with seats that didn’t recline. They stopped at breweries along the way – in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas – and at one point, Erikka queued up an NPR segment on craft beer for him.
“I always thought I’d open a brewery; I just figured it would be in New Zealand,” says Cronin. “I kind of felt like that goal was getting further and further away from me. And as we were listening to that podcast, Erikka was like, ‘Are you ever going to do this?’ It was sort of like whoa, you know?”
This whoa moment was the spark for what would someday become Astro Lab. Cronin immersed himself in homebrewing again, working on a one-gallon kit with some Yale School of Medicine students he had befriended. He read “a ton” about opening a business. After relocating to Maryland, where Erika had landed a fellowship at National Cancer Institute in 2014, Cronin quit his day job so he could focus on homebrewing while the sun was up. He was obsessed with water chemistry, hop compositions, mouthfeel – things he would dial in over the course of 45 homebrewed barrels, all produced within the couple’s one-bedroom apartment.
In the evenings, he bartended. Working at McGinty’s Public House in Silver Spring, he met Whelan, whose husband owned the establishment. Born and raised in the United Kingdom, Whelan had relocated to the U.S. not long before Cronin. She found employment within the British Embassy, first in commercial marketing, then trade and investment. She moved into the private sector to promote McGinty’s and followed that experience to Whole Foods, where she went on to manage marketing for all of the grocery chain’s Montgomery County footprint.
“It was the job at Whole Foods that was catalyst for me going into business with Matt and doing Astro Lab,” Whelan says. “I was working with so many small, local, artisan producers, and their passion and entrepreneurship inspired me.”
Cronin had told Whelan about his homebrewing, which by this point had won several contests and, as their prizes, allowed him the opportunity to scale up his recipes on a professional system. He offered to bring some into the bar.
“It’s always quite risky with homebrewers because they always want you to drink it while they’re watching and then give your immediate feedback,” jokes Whelan, who spent most of her life convinced she didn’t like beer after sustained exposure to England’s mass-produced lagers. “But my mind was blown away by the quality of what Matt was doing. He’s a super talented brewer, and our vision for the business aligned from early on.”
Cronin wanted to open a hop-focused brewery. He wanted to always be developing new recipes and techniques – innovating, a word both return to frequently. After years of planning, Cronin and Whelan would nod to this idea by naming their brewery Astro Lab, a twist on the word “astrolabe.” An elaborate inclinometer, an astrolabe is an analog instrument that was used for thousands of years by astronomers and navigators to identify celestial bodies.
“An astrolabe is a symbol of history, journeys, innovation and craftsmanship,” the brewery notes on its website.
Astrolabe also happens to be the name of a reef off the Bay of Plenty, not far from Tarangua, that’s popular with scuba divers. Here, Cronin has explained, he would fish for snapper and kingfish as a kid.
This double entendre is hardly surprising in the larger context of Astro Lab’s branding. When Cronin said he wanted to bring a little New Zealand into the brewery, the sentiment extended beyond hops. There are sly references to country’s culture, history, and languages throughout his beers.
The double IPA Shaky Isles alludes to Australia’s nickname for its earthquake-prone neighbor. The saison Ruru honors a small brown owl common in the country. A pale ale brewed in honor of Erikka’s birthday, Birthday Wahine borrows the Māori word for “girl,” while the Brett-conditioned saison Waka is named for the Polynesian canoes used to settle New Zealand in the 14th century. Tahi, Astro Labs’s New Zealand pilsner, translates to “one.”
Then there’s the Kiwi slang. A kölsch brewed with a trio of New Zealand hops, Cuzzies is endearing term for family members or friends. On a similar note, the name of the single-hop series No Mates is not likely to be lost on anyone who has heard its latter half attached to a “g’day.” Far less obvious to Americans, though, is the root of Astro Lab’s IPA Fresh As.
“In New Zealand, people will quite often use the word ‘as’ after making a statement,” Cronin explains. “You know, sweet as or that was wicked as. That’s where they leave it. Instead of saying, ‘sweet as the day is long,’ it’s just ‘sweet as, mate.’ So, for us, Fresh As is a statement of how fresh this beer is and how well these hops work together.”
In just over a year and a half of operation, Astro Lab has solidified its position as one of the DC area’s premiere producers of IPA. They’re fragrant, soft, juicy but balanced. And Fresh As is its showstopper IPA. It is arguably the best IPA made anywhere within the Beltway.
Clocking in 7.1% ABV, the IPA showcases Cronin’s three favorite hops, varietals that best represent both his original and adopted homelands: Nelson Sauvin, Mosaic, and Citra.
“Everybody has their favorite hops, but those three hops really encapsulate everything that I love about modern beer,” he says. “That’s why we came up with Fresh As: I wanted a beer with the hops that I love.”
Hopped evenly with the three varietals, Fresh As was designed to let the interplay of these hops shine. Its grist consists of the brewery’s base two-row barley, plus pale wheat and red wheat, which soften the mouthfeel and slightly accentuate the fruitiness of the hops. A touch of caramel malt is further added, giving the beer a hint of sweetness and a rich orange hue that’s mirrored in its can label art.
“The malts enhance that feeling of hey, this has got a fruit character coming through,” Cronin explains. “We alternate our IPAs from dry to moderate dry to a little more sweetness. We try to leave this one semi-dry, getting towards that slightly pithy mouthfeel, so it really stands out on its own. I think these hops warrant it, or else the beer would come off as a little cloying. Our goal is always to have the malts working in harmonious union with the hops.”
Like most modern hazy IPAs, Fresh As is fermented with an English ale yeast that contributes its own fruity character. Before and after, the beer is hopped with an even mix of the three hops, at an overall level of roughly 3.5 pounds per barrel. Most of them go into the dry-hop, which is executed painstakingly over the course of three days as Cronin rotates between making additions and rousing the hops so more of their rich oil compounds are absorbed in the beer.
“Hopefully, you can drink this beer and be like, ‘Ah, this is Nelson. I can taste Mosaic. And I’m getting the Citra,” says Cronin. “The Nelson is going to bring a lot of gooseberry and that freshness. It can bring fresh-cut grass and certainly Sauvignon Blanc notes, with hints of pine. Mosaic brings in the tropical element, and a little bit of passion fruit and candied lime. And then we move through the Citra with Valencia orange and maybe a touch of grapefruit pith.”
The brewer likens this interplay to a New Zealand pinot grigio or a fruit salad, but with enough bitterness to balance the sweet fruit character and leave an impression that’s ultimately refreshing. It’s a plush beer, with its mouthfeel further softened by water chemistry and minimal forced carbonation. (Cronin has been surprised by the degree that Astro Lab has been able to adjust its processes and naturally carbonate its beers, often up to 75% of the desired level. Two other benefits from this: smaller bubbles and a higher retention of aromatic compounds.)
Fresh As was introduced on draft in the brewery’s tasting room last April. The response, predictably, was ecstatic. Three months later, it became the first Astro Lab IPA to go into a can.
“It’s definitely one of our most popular – if not our most popular – beers,” say Whelan. “It’s one of those beers that really turns heads. I haven’t had one of Matt’s beers yet that I don’t I like, but there are a few where you take a sip and it’s like, ‘Oh this is just a killer beer. This is going to be super popular and speak to so many people. This is a gateway IPA.’”
Astro Lab released a fresh batch of Fresh As last Wednesday. The previous batch, released at the end of March, sold out in two weeks. Whelan handles the brewery’s marketing, branding, and wholesale relations – “I guess I’m the face of Astro Lab outside the production area,” she says – but she’s been spending more time at the brewery’s to-go window since the emergence of COVID-19, and during that time, she’s fielded a lot of questions about the IPA.
“It’s one of the beers that people continuously ask about,” she shares. “When is Fresh As coming back? Can I place my order now?”
But as much as DMV residents would like to live in a world of everlasting Fresh As coffers, the economics of brewing the IPA relegate it to “special occasion beer,” as Cronin puts it. That translates to roughly one release per quarter.
As you might imagine, Citra and Mosaic are not to blame for this – though, to be fair, they are on the high end of American hop prices. It’s the Nelson Sauvin.
“One-third of these hops have to travel by plane from New Zealand to Silver Spring, on top of the freight and custom charges they incur along the way,” says Cronin. “Fresh As costs about 25% more than another IPA we make. In the end, we think it’s worth it.”
Brewing beer with exotic New Zealand hops is expensive, and that’s especially the case with Nelson Sauvin, a varietal that’s in high demand, has low availability, and thus fetches exorbitant prices on the spot market. To use Nelson Sauvin with some regularity, a brewery must be well connected to hop suppliers or have the cash flow to stomach the resale costs. In the DC area, there are only a handful of breweries who do so –Ocelot, Aslin, and Bluejacket most notably.
“Opening the brewery, I was pretty nervous about whether I was going to be able to secure New Zealand hops,” admits Cronin. “The American rate is… it was just never an option for us. Paying $30 a pound? You’re joking, right?”
Since the fall of 2018, though, Cronin has remarkably managed to continuously showcase Kiwi hops in Astro Lab’s beers without relying on a hop supplier or the spot market to purchase them. Instead, he’s achieved this solely by cultivating relationships with New Zealand breweries.
“It’s kind of all about who you know, and I just happen to know a few people that have breweries, and they happen to have a little excess every now and then, and they ship it my way,” he explains. “And a little bit of excess is usually enough to sustain us for a year.”
For these craft breweries, Nelson Sauvin, Riwaka, and Motueka are the hops at their everyday disposal.
“American varieties like Citra and Mosaic are fairly exotic to them,” Cronin continues. “They probably get pretty tired of working with Nelson Sauvin, whereas it’s hard for American brewers to come by, and when they can it costs an arm and a leg.”
All of these breweries opened in New Zealand after Cronin left, so these relationships have been developed during his annual trips home and subsequently maintained via e-mail. Most operations fall into the “friends of friends” bucket. One, based in Tauranga, is owned by a family that sends its kids to the same school as Cronin’s sister. (Cronin has since collaborated with this brewery, calling them “great mates.”)
“It’s been a pretty organic process,” he says. “I’ve worked pretty hard on those relationships. I’m keeping my ear close to the ground, asking questions, always looking – I think you have to in this market.”
Once Cronin has lined up some excess varietals from a New Zealand brewery, it’s his responsibility to arrange for their door-to-door temperature-controlled shipment. Until recently, this process had played out without incident.
Earlier this spring, he noticed that an 11-pound bag of 2019 harvest Nelson Sauvin had been opened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, thus exposing the extraordinarily sensitive pellets to oxygen. While the bag had been resealed, Cronin didn’t want to risk sitting on them for long. He also worried their aromatics might have been compromised. So, he brewed a handful of beers utilizing that bag of Nelson Sauvin in the kettle. This explains the “gluttony of Nelson-hopped products,” to quote Cronin, that Astro Lab currently has available: the kölsch, the double dry-hopped saison, the single-hop IPA, and Fresh As. For fans of Nelson Sauvin, it’s a veritable bonanza.
“The hops were perfect – it wasn’t like I was going to throw them out,” he shares, “but I had to repurpose them.”
This year, Astro Lab will minimize the potential impact of Customs’ heavy hands and supplement its stream of excess New Zealand hops by contracting with a private farm called Hop Revolution. Operating fields in the Tasman District, Hop Revolution is growing Nelson Sauvin, Riwaka, Motueka, and a lesser-known varietal called Pacific Sunrise, then shipping the unprocessed hops to Idaho to be pelletized. Like Freestyle Hops (which has a relationship with Wellington brewery Garage Project, and by extension American breweries like Hill Farmstead, The Veil, and Foam Brewers), Hop Revolution is a relatively new operation recently given a government license to sell these proprietary hops directly to the U.S. market. (In the past, all sales were essentially routed through one company, New Zealand Hops.)
In July, Astro Lab will receive delivery of 2020 harvest Nelson Sauvin and Motueka, which is currently being processed in Western Idaho’s Mill 95. Cronin is also contracted for Riwaka, but the varietal suffered a weak harvest and won’t be available to Astro Lab in the quantity anticipated. A fellow Maryland brewery, Sapwood Cellars, will be splitting this shipment with Astro Lab – a magnanimous move on the part of the Silver Spring operation.
“We were next to them at a couple of festivals and we were talking about New Zealand hops, and I was like, ‘I might have an angle.’” Cronin remembers. “We want to be successful but we’re also aware of the greater good of the industry. It’s such a collaborative industry, and it’s something that we love being a part of.”
“We don’t want to be greedy,” Cronin says. “I want people to try these hops. I don’t want to just hoard them and showcase them through our beer. I love our beer, but somebody else might able to make a great beer with it, too. That would be awesome.”
In a sense, these products of the Shaky Isles, exotic to us but evocative of the picturesque land once ordinary to Cronin, have brought his interest in beer full circle.
“Being from New Zealand, I fell in love more with the American hops, but then I started dialing back into the homeland and appreciating what the other side had to offer,” he tells me on a Saturday afternoon in mid-May, talking on the phone from his backyard, his wife and son nearby. “The grass is really greener on both sides, you know?”
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.