The climate that has made some parts of New Zealand so good for growing grass also brings opportunities to develop some niche, high-value crops that are helping to establish new industries alongside traditional pastoral sectors.
Taranaki is an area where a comprehensive economic strategy has identified the region’s climate, including reliable rainfall and rich soils which mean it is capable of growing a wider variety of crops than it does – with honey and botanical plants identified as new opportunities.
Botanicals are the herbs, roots, flowers, leaves and seeds added to drinks, cosmetics and foods for scent and/or flavour.
Gin fans would be familiar with the aromatics like juniper, liquorice and angelica often added to quality gins to give them their distinct aroma and taste.
The climate that makes Taranaki so well known for rhododendrons as a tourist attraction is the same one that makes it ideal for growing a range of botanicals.
Until now anyone producing gin has been forced to source their botanicals from overseas, undoing the provenance story about a completely locally made, locally grown product.
A Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment project has identified alcoholic spirits production as a value-added sector with potential to exhibit export-focused growth. As a sector it has been enjoying 10% year-on-year growth, albeit off a small base.
New Zealand now has 20 gin manufacturers wanting to make their product “100% New Zealand”, but forced to import their angelica, liquorice root and coriander seeds.
Today gin makers are not alone as a wide variety of distillers are experimenting with different spirits as varied as whiskey to absinthe, utilising New Zealand-sourced aromatics if possible – botanicals like orris root in Hawke’s Bay, coriander in Wairarapa. Angelica is well suited to Taranaki’s climate, and juniper grows from Kaitaia to Bluff.
Juniper is at the heart of a good gin, and the recent Great NZ Juniper Hunt has had garden club members, land owners, amateur botanists and enthusiasts all hunting through gardens and parks looking for juniper samples.
They were then sent to Massey University as part of the project to identify what it is that makes New Zealand juniper unique, and its value in helping beverage makers keep their Kiwi brew 100% NZ.
Eve Kawana-Brown, Massey University’s head of Taranaki business development manager says so far only 24 samples were received from around the country.
“But the next step is for Massey researchers to identify the genetics of those samples and see what, if anything, makes them distinct from each other and from juniper around the world. The opportunity is there to identify and protect the most suitable specimens that are already in New Zealand varieties, especially those that may perform best as ingredients.”
So far Taranaki gin company BeGin Distilling, manufacturers of Juno Gin have led the charge on identifying and utilising locally grown aromatics.
The award-winning company, along with Reefton Distilling, has worked on the project supported by funding from AGMARDT, Massey University and through Venture Taranaki’s Tapuae Roa project.
Venture Taranaki is working to identify new food and fibre opportunities in the dairy-fossil fuel focused region’s economy.
This work has grown in importance since the government announced plans to phase out hydrocarbon exploration in the region by 2030.
“What we have learnt about properties so far is that New Zealand juniper has a different volatile oils profile to overseas juniper, in terms of its scents and tastes – this could mean it may be possible to use fresh juniper, as opposed to the dry juniper many distillers use now,” says Eve.
Gin has to legally contain 50% juniper as its main botanical flavouring.
Distillers have already enjoyed the support of a Taranaki nursery and Massey University to propagate the variety of juniper identified, and farmers have shown an interest in growing it as a crop also used as a shelter belt.
Expectations are Taranaki growers and land owners are on the cusp of identifying a range of exciting, innovative opportunities to help the region adjust to the move away from oil exploration, and to adapt to growing environmental demands on farming.
“We can see the opportunities, but it will be important to manage how we encourage them, and avoid a ‘boom-bust’ type scenario, says Eve.