Top of the hops

As certified beer geeks, we thought we knew quite a bit about hops. We can take a good guess at what country’s hops have gone into a beer by giving it a good sniff. We can rattle off a list of varieties from Amarillo to Zythos. We saw some German hop yards from the Munich to Nuremberg train, once. ‘We’re practically experts’, we thought.

It turns out we were wrong.

“That is the lupulin gland in the base of the flower, and this contains the alpha acid, the beta acid and all the hop oils,” says Ali Capper, owner of Stocks Farm and Publicity Director of the British Hop Association. ICIP is staring at a cross section of a hop flower and feeling very, very ignorant. “Depending on what analysis you look at, you sometimes get 10-12 oils listed, but the key ones are myrcene, humulene and farnesene. There are over 400 hop oils.”

ICIP has left the familiar hustle and bustle of the capital and swapped it for rural Worcestershire. We’ve come to Stocks Farm in Suckley, Worcestershire to meet with Ali, who has graciously offered to be our teacher for the day. And we are learning a lot.

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Ali has picked up on our current lack of knowledge and is thankfully starting us off with some basics about the world of hop growing. “Germany and America are about 35% of world hop production each,” she tells us. “The UK is only about 1.6%; we’re tiny. Australia and New Zealand together wouldn’t be as big as the UK.”

We’re stunned by this – we thought that Antipodean hops were all the rage. “Honestly, New Zealand is small – about 400 hectares,” Ali insists. “It makes a lot of noise; they’re just very good at marketing.” This is something that Ali believes the British are less good at – and she attaches a lot of weight to this when discussing the decline of the British hop industry. “We’ve forgotten how to talk about what we do. We’re typically British – we put them in the warehouse and hope somebody buys them. Literally. We haven’t been standing on the rooftops shouting about it like the New Zealanders have.”

DSC_0004From a peak of around 30,000 hectares in the late 19th century, hop farming in the UK has been shrinking progressively despite the recent boom in brewing, with only 1,000 hectares of hops growing today. This slow attrition of what was very much part of British heritage clearly struck a chord with Ali. “My husband’s father bought the farm in 1962, but this farm has farmed hops for at least 200 years,” she tells us as we sit out the rain with coffee in the farm kitchen. “A couple of years ago we had 100 acres of hops which were less than marginal. If you looked at the numbers, it was costing us money to grow and sell them. And my husband, who had farmed hops his whole life, was saying ‘we’re going to have to stop because we’re not making any money’. That’s a really big deal.” But Ali wasn’t going down without a fight. “I said: give me three years and I’ll see if I can turn this ship around.”

It was a worthy cause, but where do you start when attempting to revive an ailing industry? “I started thinking: what if I try to market British hops as a brand? What’s special about us?” says Ali, bringing her previous experience in marketing and advertising to the fore. “Well, firstly, 1.6% makes us a niche. In market terms we don’t need to worry about industrial scale brewers.”

With vastly larger hop-growing areas, the Germans and Americans have spent many years investing on their breeding programmes, developing varieties high in the all-important alpha acid. This is what lends the hops their bittering quality. “Historically, alpha has been a commodity, and industrial scale brewers have been buying it up,” says Ali. “Our highest alpha varieties were 14-16% alpha, whereas the US and Germany have varieties that are over 20%. It’s a numbers game. If their variety has 4-5% more alpha per kilo, you can’t compete.” But things have changed, and Ali believes that it’s all down to craft beer: “Craft brewing has changed the landscape, and that’s down to hop usage. To demonstrate that, consider that craft brewing now represents 8% of all US beer production. But it buys over 40% of the hops. Industrial-scale brewers want to use as few hops as possible.”

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With hop usage on the rise, and a growing demand for more range as brewers began to experiment, it was the perfect time to push British hops back onto the world stage. “I rang Dr Peter Derby, our hop breeder, and asked him to co-author a paper with me. The premise of the paper was ‘what makes British hops unique, scientifically?’. Because I could put any old marketing blurb on it. I wanted the facts,” says Ali. Their research threw up some fascinating results.

“What makes British hops entirely unique is our climate. It is maritime, but it is dull maritime,” Ali tells us. “There is even precipitation throughout the year – we’re the only hop growing area in the world which on the whole doesn’t irrigate. There are some exceptions in Kent on light sandy soil where they do, but the majority of our crop here in the UK isn’t irrigated.”

So what does this mean for the hops? Ali and Peter got an analytical analysis of several hop varieties grown in the UK, the US and in New Zealand, and compared the results. “The only part of the analysis that was different was myrcene, which is an indicator of monoterpenes… and they are an indicator for aroma intensity,” says Ali. “We have lower myrcene in hops grown in Britain, mostly because of sunlight levels. So a variety grown in the UK will have lower aroma intensity levels than the same hop grown in the USA or Australia.”

Oh. Well… that’s a bit of a shame, isn’t it? Does that mean that our hops are a bit… bland?

“No,” Ali says emphatically. “This is where it’s special. Lower myrcene means there’s more room for everything else. That’s a long list. It means that the hop flavour from a British hop is more complex because there’s more room for the other flavour indicators. The aromas have more range, more breadth and more depth.” Perhaps we’ve been blinded by the craze of mouth-puckeringly hoppy IPAs. “If you think what are we famous for in terms of world brewing, we’re known for very drinkable, sessionable beers – the reason why we can produce these is the breadth in our hops. One dimensional beers are great for one pint, but they don’t bring people back for another. American craft brewers are experimenting with British hops and the commercial reality that they can deliver session beers.”

logo-e1346773961375“So that’s the USP – delicate, complex aromas,” Ali concludes. With this identified, she set about shaking up the British Hop Association (previously The National Hop Association). In fact, the renaming was her own suggestion: “Our best visual mnemonic is the Union Jack, so I said we had to be the British Hop Association,” she explains. “They needed a website, one place where anybody – brewers in particular – can go for the correct information on British hops, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there. We needed to work with our merchants, to make marketing plans to get them to sell better on our behalf. And we needed to start standing on the rooftops and shouting about what is special about British hops.”

It is hugely impressive what Ali has achieved in the last two years. “There’s no big PR agency; there’s just me. When the media pick up the phone to speak to someone about British hops they’re amazed to be speaking to someone who farms, and that they can come to a farm. But I think that has helped a lot.”

The BHA is a group of growers who fund three main ventures: their breeding programme, crop protection lobbying and – more recently, under Ali’s tutelage – their marketing efforts. This new addition to their agenda is particularly important, she believes, as even well-seasoned brewing professionals don’t seem to know half as much about British hops as they think they do.

“There are over twenty British hops being grown commercially, but most experienced brewers have only brewed with a handful. None of them have tried them all. My challenge to the brewing industry was to go and try what’s on offer before you beat us up for what’s not available. And that has had a lot of traction.” She cites Admiral – recently experiencing a boost in popularity – as a prime example. “Suddenly everyone is talking about Admiral again. But it’s only because we started the dialogue. That’s our job as growers; to keep the dialogue up.”

Our introduction to the world of hops complete, and the rain finally clearing up outside, we head out to see the hop yards first hand. On our way we pass through some of the 100 acres of apple orchards also situated at Stocks Farm, currently displaying some bodacious blossom. Having seen some of the tall posts and wires from a distance at the top of the valley, we’re a bit confused when Ali comes to a halt in front of what looks like a scant hedgerow.

DSC_0024“We pioneered low trellis hop growing,” she explains. “With a high trellis hop, you have to string it by hand every year, and you have to tie the plants clockwise around the string. But with this system we would hope to get a 20-25 year life from the post and wirework and 7-10 year life on the net, because it’s UV light resistant. The plant is perennial and self-training. So it’s quite important from a labour perspective.” A further benefit of this system is that the hops can be harvested mechanically rather than the entire plant being taken away to have the flowers stripped from the bine. “Our hop picking machine is quite delicate. A lot of American machinery thrashes the hops. Because ours are seeded they are more delicate and more easily broken up.”

“This is quite special,” Ali says, crouching by the trellis. “This is Endeavour.” This hop was created by Peter Derby, the result of the BHA’s breeding programme. “One parent is Cascade and the other was a wild English male. So it has some of the same citrussy properties as Cascade but with a broader spectrum of blackcurranty, summer fruit type aromas. It’s a gorgeous hop.” With last year’s crop going almost exclusively to St Austell and Marstons, Ali says there will  be more available this year. “I am really excited by what the craft brewers will do with it – they didn’t really have access to it last year.”

As we stomp down the hillside we see the more familiar tall hop yards come into view. “You’ve got your post and your wirework, and that the top there are little hooks,” Ali points out. “In the ground we’ve got a metal peg, and in March we come through with a long pole with a hook on the end called a monkey and we use that to take the string onto the top hook, down onto the peg, up and down, by hand. Then the team come back and tie the hop clockwise – always clockwise, otherwise it falls off! Then we burn off what’s left on the ground to help the plant concentrate its growth upwards.” The time-saving benefits of the low trellis system are becoming more and more apparent. “If it’s windy in April and May they all fall off and you have to come back and do it again,” she says. “By July they’ll have hit the top, in August and September they put out their lateral growth, and then the hop. The flowering is triggered by the shortening of daylight length.”

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As we look through the web of strings disappearing into the distance, it strikes us that this is a lot of hop. Do they really have to harvest all this at once? Ali beckons us over to some rather sad, crispy looking plants in the next yard. “This is Target. And it looks like it’s dying! This is one of the last varieties that we harvest – we can’t do it all at once! In order to manage the staging of stringing and tying what we do with some of the varieties is burn them back chemically and then they regrow later. By that time we’re ready to tie them. Target is one of the later ones we harvest, usually early October, so it doesn’t need to get going yet, it’s still got some time.”

As we begin walking back up to the farmhouse, we’re reflecting on the amazing amount of (wo)man-power that goes into growing this special plant that we have taken so much for granted. It seems like a tough job in and of itself, even before you take into account the unpredictable weather we’ve had over the last few years in the UK, and also the threat of pests and disease. “I don’t know how you feel about pesticides; it’s a debate we can have, but it’s very difficult in our maritime climate to grow horticultural crops without some armoury of crop protection because we’ve got downy or powdery mildew and pests like aphids and red spider,” explains Ali. “Hops are a minor crop, so they get very little attention from chemical companies. It means our armoury of chemicals diminishes every year.”

We listen to horror stories of what sounds like the hop world equivalent to BSE or foot and mouth – verticillium wilt (it even sounds like a comic book villain): “It’s a disease borne on the soil, so it’s moved by boots from farm to farm. It kills the plant and once it gets into your soil, if you have a variety that is susceptible to it, it will continue to kill the plants if you replant,” Ali says. “There were some outbreaks in the 40s and 50s and since then work has been done to grow varieties that are wilt-resistant. But some varieties, like Fuggle, are not. So there are  fewer and fewer farms it can grow on. Often on a farm which hasn’t had wilt you’ll be asked to wear their boots, to park off the farm, so that there’s no chance that you can infect the land.” We look at our own footwear suspiciously, eyeing them for evil spores. “Wilt is a big contributor to the reason why British hops have declined,” Ali adds. “When we had it the Germans didn’t, and they were busy exporting. There was a time when the German and British growers were about the same, but they have grown as we have fallen behind.”

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Back at the farm, there’s just time to check out the old hop kiln before we have to leave. This is attached to the farmhouse – the previous owners obviously liked living dangerously – and is now mostly used for events and teaching. “You can imagine coal fires on the ground floor, pushing heat up by fans. The floors there were a wire mesh, so that would have been the kiln.” Ali points out an enormous contraption in the middle of the room. “That is an original hop press. It hasn’t been used since the 1970s, but it was engineered at the Bruff in Suckley. That is the engineering name of the most famous hop picking machine in the world. In New Zealand, Tasmania and in America you will find Bruff hop pickers. So it’s gone off all over the world, but it’s from Suckley.”DSC_0069

It’s this sort of history, and Ali’s passion for it, that make it clear why she fought so hard to revive the industry. “I am determined that we are not going to let this industry die. I am determined that we’re not going to have to replant 100 acres of hops. And fundamentally I am determined that we are going to be paid a sustainable return for what we’re growing – all British hop growers.” Ali isn’t naive about the challenges ahead. “It’s a huge job to do. But it’s about getting those clear messages out there about what makes us different, getting people excited about existing and new British hop varieties, and getting brewers to explore.”

DSC_0071Before we wave goodbye to the farm, Ali points us in the direction of nearby Ledbury for lunch, recommending a bottle shop run by a local cider producer who uses Stocks Farm’s apples. After almost being converted from beer to cider after sampling a few snifters of Worcestershire and Herefordshire’s finest, we notice some local beers for sale. There, front and centre, are bottles of Mayfields Brewery beers, proudly emblazoned with Ali’s ‘made with British hops’ logo.

Naturally, we take a few home with us… knowing that we would have a new appreciation for every complex, nuanced mouthful.

The British Hop Association website is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about hops, how they are grown and the history of hop growing in Britain.

You can see more pictures from our trip on our Facebook page

– PS

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8 thoughts on “Top of the hops

  1. TastingNitch

    Great write up! Fun to learn more about hop growing. Watch where you step! I’ll keep an eye out for UK beer supporting local growers, thanx!
    -Nitch

    Reply
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