Published on August 18th, 2013 | by Nottingham Drinker0
The British hop industry is beginning to fight back after decades of almost terminal decline. John Westlake went to investigate what is happening.
Hops are a vital ingredient for every brewer, not only by having a massive impact on both the taste and aroma of most beers, but also by bringing valuable antibacterial qualities to the party. And yet hop production in Great Britain has plummeted. In 1870 the area of hops under cultivation totalled almost 72,000 acres spanning 53 counties, including some in Scotland and Wales, but by 1997 this had shrunk to just 7,526 acres limited to the southern half of England. Staggeringly, this rate of decline continued unabated, to the extent that by 2011 little more than 2,500 acres of British soil remained devoted to hop growing. Fortunately this trend has been halted over the last few years, no doubt helped in part by the astonishing growth in the number of small craft brewers up and down the land, coupled with the marketing efforts of the British Hop Association, the result of a relatively recent rebranding of the National Hop Association in order to emphasise the product’s provenance. But the most important factor has probably been the development of new, more disease resistant varieties, which can also offer brewers both here and abroad a much wider spectrum of exciting flavour profiles from which to choose.
The humble hop (humulus lupulus) is a tall climbing plant distantly related to cannabis and the nettle, the female flowers of which produce lupulin, a very complicated, resinous, oily substance found nowhere else in the plant kingdom. It contains volatile oils that are essential to the flavour of beer as well as resins, the most important being the alpha acids, which have preservative qualities in addition to being vital as a bittering agent. Grown from fresh cuttings each year to a height of at least 16 feet on a framework of poles and wires in hop gardens, also known as hop yards in the West Midlands, the bines are usually harvested in September and fed into machines that separate the cones from the rest of the plant, following which they need to be dried in a kiln or roast house in order to reduce the moisture content from around 80% to nearer 10% prior to packaging.
Acreage set aside for growing certain traditional British varieties such as Fuggles, first developed by Mr Richard Fuggle in 1875, continues to reduce despite it being voted best hop in 2012, mainly because of its susceptibility to disease and in particular, verticillium wilt. Indeed, its total demise may even be on the cards but research into possible replacement varieties such as Sovereign is already well underway alongside other work, such as the development of dwarf, hedgerow varieties like First Gold, which do not require such extensive supporting trelliswork, thus making them more economical to grow and harvest. Much of this research is being shared between Dr Peter Darby at Wye Hops Limited in Kent, a subsidiary of the British Hop Association, and Worcestershire based hop merchants, Charles Faram & Company Limited, founded in 1865 and one of the industry’s biggest suppliers, especially to Britain’s ever-growing band of microbrewers.
“Brewers are artists and hops are their palette,” Will Rogers, Charles Faram’s very affable Sales Manager tells me as we discuss the services they offer to small brewers. “We can provide them with complete recipes if asked to do so, as well as recommending specific hop varieties and blends in order to achieve desired characteristics,” he adds.
In addition to 20 or so commercially grown British hops, which they are eager to promote, they can also supply around 80 other varieties sourced from all over the globe, notably Slovenia; Germany; New Zealand and in particular, the USA. Historically, the problem has been that after production, hops are usually packaged in large bales or long tubular sacks called hop pockets, which smaller brewers struggled to get through before the contents started to deteriorate, mainly through oxidation. In order to try and resolve this issue and with the help of Sean Franklin of Rooster’s Brewery, Faram’s devised their ‘Freshpak’, a system of vacuum packaging whole flower and pelletised hops in more manageable quantities, which would also keep fresh for much longer periods. And in response to growing demand, they have also established their own breeding programme aimed at creating new aroma led varieties, which has already met with some success in a surprisingly short space of time.
“We launched Jester in 2012,” Will reveals. “It is a disease resistant hop with a typically distinctive, transatlantic fruity character, full of gooseberry, rhubarb and grapefruit notes”. And while many British craft brewers are still keen to experiment with and exploit the properties of such hops, whether home grown or imported, their American counterparts, it seems, cannot get enough of traditional British hop varieties, with their earthy, spicy, sometimes peppery characteristics.
“I am passionate about hops,” Will confesses, “Furthermore, with the anti-carcinogens and tannins found naturally occurring in hop cones, beer is probably as healthy a drink as red wine, if not more so. “Unfortunately, brewers are not allowed to promote it as such!”
Faram’s work closely with growers both here and abroad, often making personal visits in order to discuss requirements and to secure future supplies, whilst a growing number of successful smaller brewers are now prepared to contract up to three years ahead in order to ensure they will receive the hops they need. In addition, the British Hop Association has recently introduced a scheme with a specially designed logo, which brewers can use on bottle labels and pump clips to let drinkers know their beer has been made using home grown hops, while other initiatives such as the Faversham Hop Festival and ‘Green Hop Fortnight,’ both held annually in Kent at harvest time, the latter intended to showcase the delights of beer made with freshly picked, unkilned hops, all help to foster interest in and demand for the product. It is highly unlikely, however, that we will ever see hop production in this Country return to where it was 20 years ago, let alone in the 19th century, but we do at least appear to have turned the corner. And with the continuing development of new, hardier and more flavoursome varieties combined with a growing demand from brewers overseas for old favourites such as Goldings, Challenger and yes, Fuggles, the future of the British hop industry looks assured.