Tag Archives: ale

Christmas cheer, mistletoe and beer

2014 has shot by in a blur and unbelievably, Christmas is almost upon us once again. For us that has meant digging out the box of decorations from under the spare room bed, an almost military-scale operation of trying to plan how we are going to visit all of the family over the holiday and me considering taking out shares in the companies who make cinnamon and ground ginger. It has begun.

What we undoubtedly all need to dissipate the stress of all that shopping, baking, wrapping, cooking, planning and decorating is a nice drink. Christmas tends to be a bit of a boozy free-for-all, with a lot of the drinks usually forgotten at the back of the cabinet making an appearance – when else do you fancy a sherry mid-afternoon?! But somewhere between the champagne over breakfast and the port with your cheese in the evening as you duel over the Monopoly board, beer sometimes gets edged out of the picture.

This is a shame, because there are a huge number of breweries producing seasonal festive beers, many of which would go nicely with your Christmas pudding or a nice chunk of sharp cheddar. ICIP took it upon ourselves to sample a few of these Christmas tipples to give you some ideas.

DSC_0013Fyne Ales – “Nice” (5.2%) and “Naughty” (5.2%)
It was great to see Fyne Ales trying something a little bit different to the usual porters, stouts and barley wines on offer at this time of year, and their white IPA and black ale offer two very different drinking experiences.

We know we’re all beer geeks together here, but for the uninitiated – white IPAs are basically the lovechild of an IPA and a Belgian wit, using a wheat base and sometimes spicing. Nice poured with a light, frothy head and had a crisp, light, lemony nose with an underlying earthy hoppiness. It had an astringent mouthfeel with grapefruit and lemon peel notes (turns out it is brewed with fresh citrus peel, so no surprise there), and has a lingering bitterness which will be thanks to its smack of US hops including Citra, Galaxy and Summit. Interestingly, Mr Pip commented he was picking up an almost pilsner-like flavour, and after some research we discovered that the NZ hop Motueka, which is used in Nice, has Saaz parentage. Not just a pretty face!

On the other end of the spectrum, Naughty poured jet black with a light latte-coloured head. We got a red berry nose, which combined both the sweetness and sourness of fruits like redcurrants, and we also picked up a chocolate note. It was highly carbonated and initially had quite a dry, parching mouthfeel, a real charred punch of all the toasted malts – no less than eight different varieties were used, including black and chocolate malt. There was also a hoppy kick from the Centennial, but this gave way to a smooth chocolatey finish and sweet berry notes to match the aroma. Whilst trying to describe the flavour, Mr Pip started talking about the charred roasted peppers we had for dinner the previous evening. I had started to mock him until we discovered that Naughty has been spiked with ancho chillies. I conceded the rest of the bottle to him after that, as it turns out that anchos are known for having fruity flavour characteristics.  I’d better watch out, or he’ll have me out of a job.

DSC_0066“Holly Daze” (5%)
Fyne Ales call their seasonal dark amber ale, Holly Daze, “the antidote to Christmas”, making a point of not using any festive spicing, but instead focusing on producing “a refreshing beer to clear the palate”.  It pours deep amber with a frothy head and has a malty aroma, with a light stone fruit note and slight caramel sweetness at the back. The flavour is initially quite rich and bready but gives way to a grassy hop bitterness and a clean finish.

DSC_0059Ilkley – Mary Christmas (4.7%)
This blonde ale poured golden with a light frothy head. We got a whiff of nutmeg and cloves on the nose as well as orange peel and some bready, malty notes – a kind of marmalade on toast scenario. It had a relatively high carbonation and a rounded flavour that left a lingering citrus peel bitterness. We also picked up the festive spices again which warmed the back of the throat and also got a hint of tropical fruit, no doubt from the Australian hops used. This married well with the Caribbean rum Ilkley brewed with – a perfect pairing. Light and clean, this was a good foil to the heavier stouts and porters we tried later on.

DSC_0025By The Horns – Jolly’s Revenge (5.5%) 
This poured jet black with a creamy head, and had a complex aroma. We got coffee and caramel, and a hard-to-pin-down spiciness that reminded us of rye bread. There was also a sweetness which was reminiscent of a milk stout. It was bitter on the palate with a charred, toasted malt flavour and a quite a parching, dry mouthfeel which was no doubt the result of the addition of some US hops.

DSC_0031Hogs Back – Advent Ale (4.4%)
This ale poured with a thin head, and had an aroma of red fruit and berries which came across as quite tart – almost like cranberries or raspberries. It had a soft mouthfeel with very light carbonation and tasted quite tangy with a slight sourness that was faintly reminiscent of a fruity lambic. It had a dry finish which gave through to a liquorice sweetness, and perhaps a metallic, molasses note too. We were really impressed by Advent Ale and think this could well be the beer we stick with for most of the big day.

DSC_0035Bath Ales – Festivity (5%)
This poured thick and dark, and had a hint of ruby-red in the glass. We got a hit of rum and raisin on the nose, and also hints of caramel, biscuit and vanilla. It had a drying mouthfeel with a bitter cocoa/chocolately note giving way to charred coffee, courtesy of that roasted choc malt, but the bitterness doesn’t linger. There is a vanilla sweetness right at the finish, too. One of our favourites.

DSC_0038St Peter’s – Christmas Ale (7%)
This poured deep amber and unlike a lot of the other festive beers which went in for richer, festive flavours, this had peachy, apricot and even grape notes on the nose. There was a definite estery element there too which translated into a marzipan/cherry pit flavour when we tasted it. It had quite a creamy, smooth mouthfeel and a sharp, herbal hoppy bitterness which almost went through to medicinal towards the end.

DSC_0057Wychwood – Bah Humbug (6%)
This poured without much of a head but had an attractive burnished copper colour when held up to the light. The aroma was unmistakably of British hops – grassy and peppery, with a sour twang – with a slight spicy sweetness at the back and a breadiness from the Maris Otter malt. When we tasted it, it had quite a thin mouthfeel with high carbonation. Initially we got bitter and herbal notes which were almost citrussy or lemony, which gave way to a slight cinnamony warmth towards the finish.

harveyHarvey’s Christmas Ale (7.5%)
We’ve hit barley wine territory – this is serious, after dinner cheeseboard stuff. Harvey’s Christmas Ale poured an incredible tawny colour without a head, clear with a deep reddish hue. We got dried fruit on the nose with a hint of boozy Christmassy spirits such as brandy or rum. It had a smooth, almost oily mouthfeel with a slight, clean carbonation at the finish, and was surprisingly sweet – a treacly, iron-like tang. Despite being very rich it gave away to a dry, parching finish and a lingering bitterness which offset that heaviness. Definitely one for an after-dinner snifter.

DSC_0064Adnams – Tally Ho Ho Ho (7.2%)
Described on the bottle as “an unashamedly strong winter warmer”, we approached this one with caution. It poured deep ruby – an absolutely gorgeous colour – and had a strong aroma of tart green apples and pear drops, with a hint of raisin. The flavour is rich boozy fruitcake with a grassy hop bitterness to counterbalance the sweetness of molasses and liquorice. Smooth, velvety mouthfeel with quite a high carbonation – possibly the result of this batch being bottle conditioned with live yeast. We also loved the label, which trades the usual Tally-Ho horse and rider for Santa and Rudolph. A class act.

DSC_0060Brouwerij d’Achouffe – N’Ice Chouffe (10%)
What comes after the after-dinner snifters? A nightcap, perhaps? We’re bringing out the big guns – it wouldn’t be Christmas without some face-meltingly strong Belgian stuff. N’Ice Chouffe poured a chestnutty brown with reddish hue and a creamy head. You get dried fruit and caramel on the nose and perhaps an estery, bubblegummy note at the back. It is highly carbonated with an almost chewy mouthfeel, and has the distinctive Belgian yeast flavour profile; it is rich and boozy, with a balancing sweetness which may be the caramel character of the malt. Has a fresh, clean finish.

DSC_0068Brouwerij Huyghe – Delirium Christmas (10%)
This poured deep amber with a reddish tinge and only a thin head. We got raspberry, cherry and almond on the nose along with a punch of bubblegum and banana ester notes – all very sweet scents. It had quite a high carbonation and, initially, a silky mouthfeel which gave way to a dry finish, although curiously there was no hoppy flavour behind this. It left quite a medicinal, herbal, almost sour taste in the mouth, but this was not unpleasant, and it balanced well with the rich, Belgian yeast and marzipan flavours.

We were hugely impressed by the sheer range of festive beers out there – there is certainly something to cater for everyone’s tastes, whether you like your high-percentage barley wines, spicy porters or even lighter beers. We’d love to hear what you’re planning to crack open over Christmas – do let us know, either in the comments, on Twitter or on Facebook.

We’d like to take this opportunity to wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Have a fantastic holiday, and here’s to a healthy, happy 2015 to all of you. Cheers!

– PS

Full disclosure – some of these beers were sent to us as samples, others we bought for ourselves.

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Blame John… and the rest of your marketing department

This morning Melissa Cole drew our attention to this new advertising campaign by Manchester-based brewery, JW Lees.

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Screengrab taken morning of 5/11/14

Where do I begin? The assumption that only men drink beer? That women are shrieking harridans who prevent men from going out for a drink with their friends? Or that men are untrustworthy louts who lie to get their own way? You get the picture.

When I see things like this, I seriously cannot believe that we still live in a world where enough people thought this was a decent enough idea to go ahead with it. The attempt to push it on social media with a hashtag is even more offensive. Let’s spread the casual sexism and give it some real exposure. Fantastic. I know you’ve been around since the early nineteenth century, JW Lees, but what century do you think it is now?!

What baffles me the most about sexism in beer marketing is that breweries continue to alienate potential female customers. Yes, we know that there are a lot of women beer drinkers (and indeed brewers, sommeliers and writers) who will merely roll their eyes at this and move on to their next pint, but I’m not talking about them. Marketing like this solidifies the incorrect stereotype that beer is a man’s drink, and many women will continue to live in ignorance of beer’s fabulousness if we don’t remove barriers to entry. Women bombarded by this kind of bullshit may never build the confidence to go up to the bar and ask for a pint, even if they wanted to.

I #BlameJohn, and whoever else came up with this shit idea.

– PS

Beer writing – past, present and future

20141023_152154As we approach Hook Norton Brewery in rural Oxfordshire, the Victorian tower brewery comes into view through the trees, its five storeys looming above us. We are here for a seminar jointly run by the British Guild of Beer Writers (BGBW) and the Brewery History Society on the topic of “beer writing – past, present and future”, and this historic setting of the 160-year-old brewery could not be more perfect.

Our education begins with an introduction to beer writing in the Victorian era by Dr James Sumner, who has recently published a book on the history of brewing science and technology between 1700-1880.

James informs us that although there were a few publications about beer prior to 1800, these tended to be few and far between. When cheap mass printing took off with the dawn of the industrial revolution, everything changed, and there was a much wider scope to print about a variety of topics. One organisation who took advantage of this new technology was the Society for Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, a Whig-supporting organisation who created pamphlets to educate the increasing numbers of literate members of the public on a variety of subjects. This included the 1829 publication The Art of Brewing, and marked a point where it could no longer be assumed that the basics of brewing were common knowledge, especially for those living in a more urban environment. Another example of this came in 1851 when Percival Leigh – commissioned by none other than Charles Dickens to write for Household Words – wrote The Chemistry of a Pint of Beer. This light-hearted piece used a comic narrator, Mr Saunders, to subtly pass on information whilst not appearing to question the reader’s level of understanding:

“Now for the malt. What is malt? Not many of you, I suppose, are such Cockneys as not to know that malt is barley, steeped in water, laid out on a floor, let be there till it is just about to sprout, and then dried on a kiln, at a heat high or low, according to the colour you want it to be; pale, or amber, or brown.”

f4Another trend during the Victorian era was that of brewers and engineers writing to promote their inventions, and these took the form of very long, technical manuals such as William Tizard’s Theory and Practice of Brewing (1850) and Henry Stopes’ Malt and Malting (1885). There was a sense at this time of the professionals drawing together against outside forces such as taxation, the temperance movement and the “pure beer movement” which claimed that beer was a bad and potentially dangerous product. In 1852 Allsopp’s were forced to defend themselves in print against claims that their beer contained strychnine. In 1900 there was an arsenic poisoning epidemic in Manchester when brewers sugar bought from Bostock & Co sugar refiners turned out to be made from sulphuric acid containing the poison and this lead to further writings, including humorous cartoons in Punch.

James reminded us that at this time there was no real national distribution of beer – it was nothing like today where we can be anywhere in the country and drink the same product. So a lot of the writing focussed on overall quality and safety rather than specifics. We were still a world away from tasting notes or reviews.

Ray Anderson, President of the Brewery History Society, took the baton from James for his talk on beer writing between 1900 and 1960. Apparently a staggering 500 books on beer were published over this period, with over half of them focussing on pubs. Specialist journals also began to take off during this time, including trade titles such as Brewers Journal and Country Brewer’s Gazette, and also technical titles such as the Journal of the Institute of Brewing. So there was definitely an increase in the amount being written about beer.

Ray pointed out that the people really making a living from beer writing at this time were the consulting brewing chemists such as Edward Ralph Mortiz and Alfred Chaston Chapman. The arsenic poisonings of 1900 meant that brewers had to start analyzing their beer, so there was plenty of work for the chemists. They were prolific in their writing during this time, with Mortiz writing more than 40 scientific papers, and Chapman a staggering 120.

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Pubs were certainly the hot topic during this period. While a lot of urban pubs had degenerated into either “gin palaces or hovels”, country pubs were still written about and regularly appeared in idealised forms in literature. In an attempt to reform the pubs, in 1916 the government began the Carlisle Experiment, taking control of five breweries and a total of 363 pubs. They changed these dramatically, making them bigger, providing table service and food, gardens and sporting facilities such as bowling greens, and even pull ins to encourage more middle class customers to visit by car. There was a huge backlash against this, as many people found the “improved pubs” austere and lacking in personality. The Journal of the Institute of Brewing launched an attack in 1932 stating that many historic pubs were being torn down for rebuilding in the new Carlisle mould, destroying heritage. This led to a trend for writing sentimental nostalgia about the traditional English inn, such as Maurice Gorham’s The Local (1939). Publican’s memoirs also became popular during this time, both genuine and fictional, with John Fothegill’s Innkeeper’s Diary (1931) being one example.

Between the two World Wars, British beer was in a dreadful state. Compared to 1914’s beer, 1933’s brews were 23% lower in gravity, and had 20% less hops in them. Both breweries and pubs were run down and failing. This seemed to galvanise writing on what was going wrong with the product, such as John L Shimwell’s series of papers on brewing microbiology between 1935-39. He stated he wished to bring “order out of chaos”, and explained in scientific terms why beer went bad, and what to do about it.

Towards the end of the period we finally saw what we might be able to call the first real piece of beer writing as we know it now in the form of Andrew Campbell’s The Book of Beer (1956). Interest definitely seemed to have grown in the topic by this point, to the point where The Times ran a special edition about beer in 1958.

At this point Ray Newman, one half of blogging duo Boak & Bailey and co-author of the recently published Brew Britannia, picked up the reigns as we passed into our final period: 1960 to the present day. Here, Ray told us, the trend began to drift towards writing for popular audiences, with less technical information. Most writing was sponsored by the industry itself, and after a rough ride through the two world wars, there was a desire to raise beer’s profile with the public without encouraging anyone to be too critical of the product.

untitledIn 1963 the Chancellor removed the requirement for home brewers to have a license. This led to a dramatic increase in popularity for home brewing as people sought to make their own cheap beer at home, and there were a huge number of manuals published during this period. Some, like Ken Shale’s Brewing Better Beers (1967) boasted sales of over 250,000 copies on covers of subsequent editions, and went on to sell even more. There was also a sense during this time that the accountants at the breweries had too much control over what was available, so home brewing was seen as a rebel alternative.

The 1970s, of course, marked the birth of CAMRA, and sparked a revolution in the beer world, holding brewers to account and highlighting the closures of so many family-owned regional breweries and pubs. In 1974 CAMRA published the first edition of the Good Beer Guide, which of course is still published annually today. From the 1980s this began to include beer essays on the issues of the day, which provided a valuable outlet for beer writers who were struggling to get their voices heard elsewhere in print.

Another big turning point for beer writing came when Michael Jackson published The World Guide to Beer in 1977. It was the first time that someone had talked with authority about the taste and quality of beer and the first attempt to elevate beer to the status of wine. Many books throughout the 1980s mimicked Jackson’s style, and although there was nothing ground-breaking or particularly new, the community of beer writers had begun to grow. In 1988 the British Guild of Beer Writers formed, bringing with it a statement of intent – a demand that beer would be taken more seriously.

The 1990s saw a cultural shift as beer’s image continued to evolve. Laddish, blokey travelogues heavy with beer references had their moment of popularity as beer continued to raise its profile. After the millennium, interest had grown and list-based books such as Roger Protz’s 300 Beers to Try Before You Die!, really took off. This style seemed to suit beer, and publishers quickly snapped up variations on the theme. They were light and engaging, with tasting notes which were brief enough not to alienate more casual drinkers. Pete Brown’s writing, starting with Man Walks Into a Pub in 2004, really nailed it in commercial terms, showing personality and humour could engage even those without a deep interest in beer. This really set the template for a lot of beer writing which has come since.

Across the pond in the USA, Garrett Oliver published The Brewmaster’s Table (2010), the first book on beer and food pairing. It was a sign that beer’s reputation was beginning to change, and in 2011 the drink was finally honoured with its very own Oxford Companion. Although many complained that it was full of inaccuracies, it was a sign or respect for the craft of brewing.

Ray wrapped up by pointing out that the renaissance of ebooks has been important for beer writers, as now there is less of a barrier to getting work out there – no reticent publishers. Beer blogging has also taken off in a big way, with many authors such as Pete Brown and Mark Dredge writing blogs as well as books.

Beer sommelier and broadcaster Marverine Cole took over at this juncture to ask whether beer is getting its fair share of voice in the media today. In her view, she said, a lot of people have stopped reading print media. Now the focus is on radio, TV and web content, and beer is not being sufficiently represented.

Marverine’s belief this that there is still a misconception that beer is loutish and uncouth whereas wine and spirits are more sophisticated. While the passion is obviously evident in the industry – there are huge numbers of events and festivals across the country – there is not enough pressure on the media to get that message across. She went on to share some insider tips on how she felt fellow writers and broadcasters could maximise beer’s coverage and begin to affect change in how it is perceived in the media.

historypinAfter a quick lunch break we return to hear from Nick Stanhope from HistoryPin, a new website where contributors can pin photos, videos and anecdotes on an online map to share history and foster intergenerational relationships. Nick said that in their work they’ve noticed how pubs have time and time again been focal points of communities, and that the loss of so many pubs over the past few decades has been a recurring theme in their research. They have recently been working with over 5,000 pictures rescued after the closure of the Charrington Brewery and investigating how the information can be used to help pubs reconnect with their lost history.

Our final activity for the day was a panel discussion on how we can ensure that beer writing has a postitive future. This featured all of the previous speakers and was chaired by BGBW Secretary and author, Adrian Tierney-Jones.

Adrian sparked off the discussion by ask pointing out that beer writing is a renaissance of sorts, incorporating many different subject areas such as travel, food and history. Ray Newman pointed out that there have not really been any breakthrough books on beer in past few years, and that much of the writing tends to be a variation on the same old material. He wondered whether we need to accept that it will never be a mainstream subject and just address the niche, or do we need to challenge ourselves as writers to come up with something new and refreshing, as Pete Brown did so successfully in the mid-2000s.

Marverine agreed with this point, saying that what we needed to do now was engage young people. The craft beer movement has introduced a whole new generation to beer, and what is needed now is for them to take on the mantle and try to put more pressure on the media to show that the interest is out there, and get more coverage. She pointed out that we have to start shifting our focus to digital mediums such as ebooks and the internet.

Adrian asked whether the panel thought that it was our role as beer writers to act as a cheerleader of sorts for beer, and educate the public. Marverine believed that it’s important to mix education with entertainment in order to remain engaging, and cited Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham’s Thinking Drinkers as a good example of this – mixing comedy and beer, and presenting something different.

Ray Anderson pointed out that it was very difficult to convert an enthusiasm for beer to actually reading about it. He had just returned from a trip to Berlin where he went to a bookshop and found a mere seven books on beer in the whole shop, despite being in the beer capital of Europe.

James said that in his experience as an academic working on the topics of brewing and beer, he found that people tended to be dismissive and treat it as a bit of a joke. It was only when he could show them the academic hooks and connections in history, industry, or science that they begin to be drawn in and begin to take it seriously. He believed that a key to gaining a larger audience was to get more academics on board to help give the subject more gravitas.

Nick agreed with the idea that beer has to be seen as inextricably linked to our history and society. He said that his experience with HistoryPin has shown that people don’t just want facts, but that stories, history and a narrative thread are powerful tools to engage people.

imagesAdrian pointed out that, like HistoryPin, digital appears to be the way forward, with apps such as Will Hawkes’ Craft Beer London proving hugely popular. Ray Anderson agreed that he tends to go to Google before he goes to the bookshelf nowadays.

At this point the debate opened up to the floor, where one contributor pointed out that in the UK we have become “far too good at celebrating orthodoxy”. He believes that we celebrate beers that are of poor quality and that there is still a feeling that we push cask as being best when it is not always true. Ray Anderson agreed with this, saying that we now have as many breweries in the UK as we had in 1929, but it’s a similar situation – many are small and producing a substandard product.

Ray Newman said that it was certainly true that beer writers do not generally challenge the brewers on beer quality and have a tendency to keep writing light and positive, which could have contributed to this “celebration of orthodoxy”. Adrian acknowledged this but said that it is very difficult for beer writers to maintain independence. If breweries send them samples, it is hard for a writer who does not want to damage their relationship with that company to be critical of the product. Ray responded by saying that the Guild needs to push back collectively, and let the brewers know that they have to grow up and accept criticism. They could also be reminded that controversy breeds interest.

It was pointed out from the floor said that with the advent of beer blogging there is actually a huge amount being written about new beers and breweries, but it doesn’t seem to be influencing public interest all that much. Marverine said that we have to remember that quality varies a lot online, and this could be part of the reason why the movement has not been more influential.

Another contributor said that we are shying from controversy. If breweries invested more in their PR they could get more coverage in the media, like the wine industry, rather than relying on advertising. This could change beer’s image and also increase its profile.

20141023_152553After the debate we broke into groups to take the opportunity to tour the magnificent Victorian tower brewery. This remarkable building was powered by an enormous steam engine on the ground floor, installed in 1899 and still in use as recently as four years ago. This powered the machinery all the way up the tower and even provided heating for the brewery workers. While there have been many modern innovations over the years – including the abandonment of the vast copper flat cooler at the top of the building – the incredible Victorian machinery and architecture is still evident throughout.

After climbing up and down all those stairs, we retire to the Visitors’ Centre to enjoy a few well-earned glasses of some of Hook Norton’s offerings, including Old Hooky (4.6%) and Flagship (5.3%).

We thoroughly enjoyed the seminar and learned a huge amount – massive thanks to the BGBW and the Brewery History Society for organising it, the speakers for taking part and giving such informative talks and to Hook Norton for being such gracious hosts.

If you wish to visit Hook Norton Brewery you can find details of their tours on their website. You can also find information on the Brewery History Society and details on how to join online.

– PS

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Reap what you sow – return to Stocks Farm

DSC_0111We can scarcely believe it’s been five months since we last visited Stocks Farm in Suckley, Worcestershire to learn all about hops. Back then there was still a slight chill in the air, the apple trees in the orchards were mostly bare and the hop plants were tiny green shoots not even a foot high.

What a transformation.

The dark green of the apple trees are punctuated with thousands upon thousands of shiny red apples. In the distance, against the backdrop of the Malvern Hills, the hop yards are flourishing, the plants towering above the ground and creating shaded, almost mysterious passageways between the poles. The ground is littered with the lime green of stray hop flowers, and the air is pungent with that distinctive zing of grass, pine and tart fruits.

DSC_0104A decent crowd of interested locals of all ages has gathered in front of the beautiful farm house and old hop kiln to be greeted by Ali and Richard Capper, who have thrown their farm open to visitors for their first open day to increase awareness of the British hop industry. The afternoon kicks off with an introduction by Ali about the 200 years of hop-growing history on the farm and some basics about hops and their usage. We head off through the apple orchards – stopping to enjoy a Gala straight off the tree, which is just amazing – and come to the low trellis hop yards.

DSC_0187These are unique to the UK and a recent innovation designed to save labour on both tending for and harvesting the hops, as we reported earlier in the year. Down the hill, a large red machine is chugging through the rows. “The machine is picking both hop and leaf, and it’s being conveyed into a trailer in the row beside it,” says Ali. “The harvester is actually based on a blackcurrant picker.” Richard points out that the harvester is only used for one week a year, during which time it “has its guts thrashed out”. There is certainly a bustling atmosphere on the farm – you can feel the frenzy of activity. “People say ‘I’d like to grow some hops; it can’t be that difficult’,” he says, “and actually, the growing part isn’t that difficult, it’s the harvesting and drying that provides the challenges. All the hop growers in the area are picking at the same time, so there’s no spare capacity to loan out.”

Passing through the low trellis hops we come to the more recognisable tall hop yards with their tunnels of pendulous green flowers. Ali passes around some fresh flowers for the visitors to break open and sniff, taking in all those intoxicating aromas. There is something quite humbling about standing beneath these vast, lush plants, and you really feel a sense of the centuries of heritage and tradition of British hop growing.

DSC_0165“The life of a hop plant is indefinite,” Richard tells us. “I know of hop yards that are nearly 100 years old. Usually it’s when a market changes that cause you to dig them out and change the varieties.” Stocks Farm grows several types of hop, including newcomers like Endeavour, and more traditional varieties. “We have a contract with Fullers for all of our Target hops,” says Richard. “Because they are such a reputable brewery, others will follow their lead and that helps us keep some of the older varieties alive.”

DSC_0190We finally reach the bottom of the hill where we are about to meet the hop picking machine. When we visited the old hop kiln back in April, Ali showed us an original old-fashioned hop press, manufactured at the Bruff in Suckley. In the 1960s the same manufacturer made the hop picking machines which have since been exported all over the world, and Stocks Farm keeps it local by still using theirs today. “We love the Bruff because it’s a gentle way of picking the hops,” says Ali. “We decided to reinvest in it. Although it’s antiquated and old, it works! Basically, it’s a series of rollers, belts and blowing air, and it’s all about separating a heavier hop from a lighter leaf.”

We pass the unloading trailers and enter the huge barn which houses the Bruff. The noise is deafening as the machine chugs away, the hops being ferried up and down and around the vast space in a blur of conveyer belts, lifts and cogs. It’s like something out of Willie Wonka’s laboratory, but with hops.

DSC_0230 DSC_0235 DSC_0236 DSC_0261We follow the little flowers’ progress around the room until we climb the stairs up to the kilning area. Here workers are sliding enormous flat baskets of hops into giant furnaces, while huge piles of dried hops loom in the background. “The dry hops are tipped into piles to condition them for 24 hours,” explains Richard. “This allows them to take a bit of moisture back in, so they don’t go to dust. The challenge for the driers is to get the moisture just right: too wet and they get packed like a compost heap, too dry they could combust and you’d lose the whole kiln.”

DSC_0311DSC_0306On the way back downstairs we pass enormous hessian sacks which are stacked up to the ceiling. “The hops are a huge volume, they’re all air, so in order to pack them we need to press them,” Richard tells us. “We create 85kg packs, and when we’ve made the bale, we probe it to check the moisture. Every hop dries a different way, for example the Sovereign we’re doing now, are a light, fluffy cone, which will dry quite quickly. Some years, we’ll need 3 presses to get 85kg, last year because of the weather, they weighed heavy and we only needed two presses.”

DSC_0287As we leave the barn and begin the walk back up the hill, Richard reflects: “all of this kit is used just five weeks a year, and in that time we burn about £25-30k of diesel to dry the hops. Which is quite irritating because as soon as the brewer gets them he throws them in water again!”

As we enjoy tea and cake (apple, of course) on the lawn in front of the farmhouse, we look out across the valley and at the sea of green hop yards below us. It has been fascinating to be able to follow the journey of these hops from shoot to bale, and in doing so we think we have begun to understand the passion felt by the British hop farmers for the heritage and preservation of the industry. We certainly have a much greater appreciation for those British hop names when we read them on a bottle label or pump clip.

On our return journey we once again pass through picturesque Ledbury for a return trip to the Once Upon a Tree Three Counties Cider Shop we pick up, amongst other goodies, some hopped cider by Oliver’s. This, my friends, could be a dangerous new chapter…

– PS

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Malt: getting the grist

The Reinheitsgebot would have you believe that the raw ingredients needed to brew beer are very simple. On paper, it’s just water, barley, and hops (and yeast, they begrudgingly conceded in 1993). Basic raw materials transformed through the magical process of brewing into our beloved tipple of choice. Or so it seems.

After ICIP’s trip to Stocks Farm in April, we learned that the humble hop is anything but simple. There were lupulin glands, alpha acids and myrcene levels to learn about, extensive scientific breeding programmes being developed and multi-million pound hop picking machines chugging away beyond the hop yards. We were amazed by our own ignorance about what we thought was a simple component of the brewing process, and it made us wonder where else our knowledge fell short.

Enter the Maltsters Association of Great Britain (MAGB), who kindly organised for us to tour Bairds Malt plant in Witham, Essex. This is the largest plant under the Bairds umbrella, producing nearly 50m tonnes of malt a year, mostly buying in barley from the “granary of England”, East Anglia. We meet with MAGB’s Executive Director Colin West, who is going to be our teacher and tour guide for the day. It soon becomes apparent that we have a lot to learn.

DSC_0002Giving us a bit of a background to the UK malt industry, Colin explains that we’re pretty unique for having the two big markets of beer and whisky: “whisky around the rest of the world is usually made from other things, whereas Scotch legally has to be made of malted barley, so it’s an important market.” Malting has historically been an active and productive industry in the UK, and the MAGB itself is around 180 years old. “When it was founded, every village and every town would have had a maltings or two, and the 1,800 members were only a fraction of the malting industry in the UK at the time,” says Colin. “There was a malt tax in place and the government were imposing more and more regulations, causing disruption to the production process, and the maltsters were pretty aggravated about this. It took them a while, but they managed to get rid of the malt tax by the early 1880s.”

While we are aware of the decline in British hop farming over the years, we are still surprised to hear that despite the recent beer boom, the malting industry has not grown in recent years. “The maltings sector in the UK is almost exactly the same size as when I joined the industry in 1976,” says Colin. “I remember in those days we grew 10m tonnes of barley in the UK, and 2m tonnes went for malting and the rest went for animal feed. Now we grow about 6m tonnes, 2m still goes for malting and a smaller amount goes to animal feed because they use wheat for that more now. There’s been rationalisation: smaller plants have closed, we’ve got fewer companies than we used to have, and we just haven’t expanded.”

But in the same way that Germany and the US have overtaken us in hop-growing, our continental cousins have been expanding rapidly in the grain business. “The two largest malting companies in the world are now French: over the last 40 years the French have grown between ten- and twenty-fold,” says Colin. “A lot of the grain trade marketing in France was run by farmer’s cooperatives, which were strong through CAP after the common market was formed in the 1950s. They realised that milling wheat into flour or malting barley were ways of adding value to the grain, so they took a long-term view and invested in malting capacity. They own companies all over the world now. I don’t think we could grow quite that big, but it’s a bit of an oddity that we’re exactly the same size after all this time.”

DSC_0003This seems strange when the brewing scene at least appears to be booming globally, but according to Colin total beer consumption is falling despite the proliferation of new breweries. And while cask ale is the winner – growing from 9% to 12% of the market – it’s the big name lagers that are noticing the drop off. He also points out “in some markets they use other materials. As an example, Budweiser in the states has 40% rice in it. Once you’ve got that rice in, and you’re a brand the consumer knows, you don’t change it back at that point. At that point, the customers know what they want.”

The maltings industry is having to adapt to accommodate the new breed of microbrewery, putting in packaging lines to produce 25kg sacks of product rather than sending off 29 ton lorries, and installing mills to provide grist for breweries who cannot mill their own malt. “What Bairds has done recently is set up an autonomous subsidiary, Brewers Select, which mills separately in order to service the craft market. It doesn’t change the way anyone services the big market, they just have to service the smaller guys too,” says Colin.

WIthout further ado, we’re thrown into the science bit. Colin starts us off with Beer 101: at the brewery, enzymes in the malt break down the starches into sugars, which the yeast uses to make booze. The barley’s job is to provide nutrients for fermentation. The reason we malt the barley is that in it’s raw state it doesn’t have the enzymes it needs.

We move on to a very complicated cross-section of a barley grain. This is a seed, and there is an embryo of a new barley plant inside as well as the endosperm, which is a food store which will feed the plant until it has leaves and can get energy from the sun.

In short, and avoiding a lot of jargon – the energy in the endosperm is mostly starch contained in rigid cell chambers. When the seed germinates the embryo sends out a signal asking to be fed, and enzymes are produced which break down the cell walls to release the starch and begin to convert the starch into sugar. This has to be kept in check because the maltster wants to deliver these starches and enzymes to the brewer, so the process cannot be allowed to go too far. This is why although you may see rootlets on barley when it is being malted, you never see any shoots. Indeed, in ye olde times the maltsters would sometimes judge whether the malt was ready by breaking open the grain and seeing how far the shoot had grown inside before making an appearance.

DSC_0017Basic knowledge acquired, we don hi-vis vests and hard hats and intrepidly set off to follow the grain’s journey around the site. We begin at the barley intake, where they do quality control on the incoming lorry-loads of barley. Gatekeeper Maggie explains: “I use an automated scoop to take a representative sample. I can check some things visually – I want to make sure it’s the right  variety and I want to make sure I’ve got malting barley and not another type of grain. I also look for a fungus called ergot, which is hallucinogenic, so we don’t want to see any of that in the barley!” She gleefully shows us a little pot of the offending substance, conspiratorially adding: “this is our personal supply!”

“If you see one piece of ergot you’ve got to reject the whole truck,” says Colin. “The maltsters have rejected about one load in 150.” This isn’t the only instant rejection, as Maggie explains: “There are insects that would damage the grain by eating away at the embryo inside, like weevils. which are tiny. If I find any one of those – alive, dead or a body part – it’s an instant reject. All would suggest there had been an infestation somewhere along the line.”

After this initial inspection, things get more technical, and Maggie has a proper mini lab in her office. “I look for moisture and nitrogen levels using the infrared machine. There’s also a machine which gives us a breakdown of how many whole corns, broken corns and extraneous material like husks there are. If it falls outside the parameters we take a bit of a claim against the cost, but if it’s way off, we start rejecting the lorries.” And there’s more… “That is a grain stain machine – we cut a corn in half to reveal the embryo and the machine stains it bright red. As it degrades or starts to grow, it becomes paler to the point of being white. If it’s white, it’s dead, so if you haven’t got a red embryo, we can’t do the malting process. We look for a 98% parameter on that and we reject on anything less.” It’s beginning to sound like some sort of barley X-Factor. “It is frustrating, and ultimately it’s the final customer, the beer drinker, that’s paying the extra transport cost for the rejected load,” says Maggie. “So if we can work with the merchants and farmers to make sure everything’s accepted, that suits us. It keeps the maltsters’ costs down which helps when the breweries are negotiating to get the malt price down. But we could be losing half of what comes in, we just happen to be extremely good at it!”

DSC_0009As we move towards the huge conical steepers, Colin points out Bairds’ water recycling plant. Bairds is only the second maltings site in the country to recycle its water. There have been problems with attempts to do this in the past with remnants of materials in the water used for steeping which meant that it could not be reused, but treatments have been developed to solve this issue. “The expectation is that processing waste water will become more expensive in the future,” says Colin, “so this will make a huge difference. All maltings use fresh, drinking quality water for the steeping. At Bairds they also use a barley washer to pre-steep and to get dust off the grain.”

It can take almost two hours to transfer a batch of grain into the giant steeping conicals. Bairds has six of these, each holding 35 tonnes of barley. The reason the capacity is split is to help spread the hydrostatic pressure on the grains more evenly to encourage it all to accept moisture and germinate. “Each batch is four thousand million grains of barley and the aim is to make sure each grain sees the same conditions as the next,” says Colin. “It’s impossible… but you try your best!”

DSC_0033When the barley goes into the steeper, it is usually at about 12% moisture. It is then covered in water, drained and covered again, and in between these wet periods it also has ‘air rests’ where it is allowed to breathe, absorb some of the moisture and begin its biochemical processes. Air is also bubbled through the water for a few minutes every half hour while the grain is steeping to keep it aerated. “When the maltster takes the batch out to steep, he’s looking to raise the moisture content to about 45%, that persuades the embryo that it’s been rained on and that it’s time to grow into a baby plant,” says Colin. This process takes two days. “By the end of those two days, the respiration rate has gone up quite a bit and each grain is generating heat from its own metabolism,” says Colin. “In bulk that’s quite a lot of heat, so it’s important the maltster can move that into an environment where he can accurately control the temperature.”

This marks the beginning of the second stage – germination. “In the germination vessel, the whole point is to keep in at a constant temperature,” says Colin. “If it was left in a steaming heap, it would go well above 60°C. So we both blow air through to keep the temperature down but we also keep up humidity so that it doesn’t dry out. The aim is to make the air 100% humid.”

DSC_0057Traditionally the malt would be spread in a thin layer on the floor and raked over by hand. Today the grain is still turned, two or three times a day, but it’s now done mechanically by a boom that sweeps around the circular vessel. “The goal is to make it flat,” Colin points out. “The resistance at 1m is different from that at 1.1m so you’ll get more air coming up and it’ll affect the grain differently. Obviously, as all the grain moves around, it’ll average out over the 4 days it’s in here.

From around of 3 days onwards, the rootlets realise there’s no extra nutrients out there, so they start thinking about withering.”

During the four days of germination the enzymes are produced, the cell walls begin to break down, and the malster has to stop the process at the right time. “There’s not much the maltster can do during this process to see how it’s going, so he’s relying on experience,” says Colin. “They are constantly testing the end product in the lab, so they can tweak the next batch to correct anything that didn’t go as well last time.”

DSC_0060Using a long cup on a pole, Colin fishes out some grains from both the two- and four-day-old batches of germinating barley. “If you pinch off the end of the corn to get rid of the embryo, then squeeze out the contents and rub it between your fingers, you can feel the texture,” he says, passing us a four-day-old grain. The contents comes out like toothpaste. “That’s perfect. That means the protein and cell wall are gone and what is left is pure starch.” We repeat the process on the younger grains, and the contents are much firmer. “It’s coming on, it’s just not quite as smooth. The maltster will do maybe six to ten corns from different places to get an idea,” Colin explains.

The final stage is kilning, which stops the germinating process. “We started with 210 tonnes of barley, we added 80-90 tonnes of water, and then in the kiln we’ll drive off the added water but also bring down the moisture content from 12% to 5%, so we’re evaporating around 100 tonnes of water!” says Colin as we enter the sweltering kiln. “It has to be a gentle drying process because the enzymes are temperature sensitive, even more so when there’s a lot of water around.”

DSC_0073Below the drying grain is a chamber about 6ft high which helps balance the pressure: “what you don’t want is the grain nearest the fan to get more airflow, so if the fan blows into a big area it equalises the pressure across the bed so the air comes up evenly,” says Colin. “So you start between 50-65°C, and because moisture is evaporating the grain is cooler than that, around 25°C. After about 12 hours of blowing the air through, the temperature in the grain starts to increase, but because the moisture has reduced to about 15%, the enzymes are more stable, so it’s safe to bring up the temperature.” Coloured malts can be made in the same kiln by upping the heat, and the maltster ends up with a grain with a moisture content of about 4-5%.

At this stage the little rootlets (or ‘culm’) on the grains drop off, and they are collected to be sold for animal feed. Astonishingly, they contain more protein than the original raw barley, and this is all extra income for the maltsters – very important given the huge outlay in energy costs. “Traditionally, everything was manual,” says Colin. “Shoveling, barrows, raking, water it with cans, feel it by hand… but now you could run this whole site with just a few people. It used to be labour was the second highest cost after barley, but now energy is far higher. It’s mostly heat, but it’s also electricity on driving the fans.”

DSC_0086The final stage of the malt’s journey is the roasting plant. “At Witham they have a roasting plant so they can roast in much smaller batches than in the kiln. That takes 210 tonnes of barley whereas the roaster takes just two.” Each type of malt gets a different treatment in the machines, which are based on the same technology used for roasting coffee. “You take white malt and then take the temperature up to about 180°C for brown malt and 220-230°C for chocolate and black malts. This makes it very dark and bitter,” explains Colin. “Colour is the critical control, and the guys here have got decades of experience. They take samples; and at the end of a darker roast they’ll be doing that every few minutes because the end point is critical. They’ll grind some into a flour and compare them against standardised samples which have been tested in the lab.”

The oddball is crystal malt, which is treated a bit differently. “You take green malt, direct from germination, and raise the temperature up to 65°C, which is the equivalent of the brewer mashing it. Each grain is its own mini mash vessel – it’s got a moisture, enzymes and starch in there, so when the enzymes break the starch down so you end up with a liquid package. It’s like liquid caramel inside. The temperature is increased up to about 130°C and the moisture is driven off, and that’s what gives you the lovely toffee character of the crystal malt.”

Our heads spinning from our quickfire introduction to the world of malting (and the ever pervading scent which is making us crave Horlicks and Maltesers), we remove our hard hats and decamp to The White Hart in Witham to enjoy malt in its most delicious form – a pint.

Just as after our hop farm visit, we’re amazed at how much history, technology and science has gone into this basic building block of our favourite drink. We’re glad we took the time to expand our knowledge – the next time we visit a brewery and they casually make reference to their mash tun, we’ll understand exactly what’s going on in there, why, and what all the work that had already gone into those little grains.

Now, someone, please… get me those Maltesers.

-PS

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“Mine’s a pint of the Black Stuff.” “You can’t drink a pint of Bovril!”

As the craft beer boom has gained momentum and the number of new breweries has grown seemingly by the hour, many older, more established breweries have attempted to get in on the act by launching their own speciality brews. It’s hard to think of a more iconic brewer than Guinness, so when ICIP heard that they were launching two new beers as part of their new “Brewers Project”, we had to give them a taste.

DSC_0004Established in 1759, Guinness has a long history and is arguably the most recognisable beer brand in the world, sold in 150 countries worldwide and selling a staggering 10 million pints of their trademark stout daily. The brewery has recently begun operating a microbrewery at their St James’s Gate site in Dublin in order to allow brewers to “explore new recipes, reinterpret old ones and colaborate freely to bring exciting beers to life”. These new releases are the first brews to make it into mainstream production, and Guinness has chosen to keep it in the family – both beers are porters, and both have roots in Guinness’s long, rich history.

DSC_0001The branding for the beers reflects this historical theme, with a muted colour scheme and vintage fonts that really stand apart from Guinness’s usual minimalist, much more modern lettering and logo. It’s an attractive conceit; these are gorgeous-looking bottles, both very much with their own character.

DSC_0003The first of the beers, Dublin Porter (3.8%) is based on an entry in the Guinness brewers diary from 1796 and is made to recreate a “working man’s beer”, to be enjoyed after a long day at work. The beer pours without much of a head, and what froth it did generate dissipated quickly. We noticed that it was much lighter in colour than the other beer, and, indeed, original Guinness, almost appearing a deep, ruby red when held up to the light.

We didn’t get much on the nose for this one – maybe just a whisper of that familiar toasty, almost acrid porter aroma. The bottle makes a point of emphasising the smoothness of the beer, which is certainly noticable – but as a result it has quite a thin mouthfeel. The slight malty sweetness gives way to a dry, bitter finish but this does not linger. With the low ABV, one can see that this is very much meant as a session beer.

DSC_0002We were much more keen on the second of the beers, West Indies Porter (6%). This was based on a recipe from 1801 which was designed to travel on long sea voyages to the Caribbean and beyond, with a higher hop content to preserve the product.

The beer had a much bigger and longer lasting head, with more lacing in the glass. We got a lot more coffee and chocolate on the nose and found it a lot more full-bodied, with a rich and chewier mouthfeel. We could taste more of that roasted, toffee-like flavour and were left with a lingering, dry coffee aftertaste. The higher ABV and increased hop usage really pays off here in both aroma and flavour.

Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease on the Dublin brewery in 1759, and the company is keen to point out that they are only 255 years into their tenancy. They promise further innovation as their new project develops, and we look forward to seeing what they cook up next.

Full disclosure – we were sent samples of these beers.

– PS

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