Tag Archives: brewing

What the right hand is doing: Left Hand re-launches in the UK

Between Brits brewing American-style beer and Americans brewing British-style beer, it was only a matter of time before Americans started brewing British-style American beer and selling it to Brits and the whole system collapsed in on itself in a multidimensional paradox.

Responsible for this rupture in the beer time continuum is Left Hand, a 25-year-old Colorado-based brewer whose broad range (which includes stouts and “English-style” IPAs and PAs) has gone down a storm in the US. Now, thanks to some ambitious expansion plans, it plans to renew its presence here in the UK.

Interested to see what the other side of the Atlantic thought our brewing-style looked like and determined to write a review that didn’t put “coals” “to” and “Newcastle” in the sentence you might expect, ICIP headed over to LH’s UK launch, at Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green, London.

IMG_20140904_192424Surely, we thought as we studied the menu and carefully DID NOT LOOK DOWN AT THE OTHER NON-LH BEERS BECAUSE WE ARE WEAK AND WOULD HAVE ORDERED THEM, having TWO milk stouts called basically the same thing is a bit excessive.

But oh, my beery friends, they were not the same thing at all. For here, at MK’s, ICIP discovered the power of “nitro”.

I have little-to-no grasp of the scientific theory, but in a weird and misshapen nutshell: when you “carbonate” beer with nitrogen, you make it taste creamier, like Guinness. Because nitrogen is largely insoluble in liquid, a higher proportion of nitrogen in beer means you can keep it at high pressure but with less CO2 absorbed, making it feel less fizzy and more creamy and giving it that all-important creamy head. A piece of tap equipment in bars called a restrictor plate forces the beer through tiny holes as its poured to give it a bubbly, carbonated effect and head, with a much smoother mouth feel. Nitro is a big thing in the US – bars and brewers quibble over the proportion of nitrogen to CO2 – although, arguably, it’s something Stout brewers like Guinness have been on top of for years. Making it even more ironic that Guinness was launching its craft-beer style beer on the same night LH launched it’s, er, Guinness-style craft beer.

Anyway! As a loather of excessive carbonation (like, any carbonation, really, because I don’t want nasty stinging bubbles popping all over my lovely hoppy mouth), I think this is brilliant and we should all be early adopters. Left Hand – and this sounds like black freakin’ magic to me – has even invented nitro-bottles, with the added power of something to do with widgets. The whole process (tap and bottled) is shrouded in secrecy. In addition, the beers are truly described as being ON NITRO!, which makes drinking them sound like some kind of exciting new technology for Formula One.

IMG_20140904_192944Crucially, exacting science (a side-by-side comparison facilitated by MK’s lovely staff) revealed an astonishing difference between the nitro- and non-nitro- Milk Stout on offer. Hand on heart, the Nitro tasted like Guinness straight out of a Dublin tap. It was well-balanced, with strong notes of mocha, chocolate and coffee that tasted so natural in the smoother pour. While the non-nitro Milk Stout had nothing to be ashamed of, you’d need some good reasons to opt for it in a market already saturated by chocolate stout, chilli stout, stout-y stout, stoat-y stout, etc.

Meanwhile we had it on good authority from those that know (London’s bestest beeriest Twitterati) that awesome results could be achieved by mixing a half of nitro and a half of non-nitro. Punks.

IMG_20140904_195811While disappointed that we couldn’t get it (or indeed everything else in our lives) “on nitro”, we consoled ourselves with our regular favourite, IPA. LH’s 400 Pound Monkey (an English style IPA!) was totally session-able, a gentle backdrop of US hops giving way to a smooth, easy drink. We were quite surprised to discover the beer was 6.8 per cent – it tasted about 5, and lacked the big, sweet mouthfeel you associate with IPA at that stronger end of the scale.

It’ll be interesting to see how this works out: everything about this IPA is approachable. You could easily drink a pint or three, and it could be a great way into IPA for someone not so keen on hop bombs. But at 7% it might prove a more difficult way out of eg. the pub door after a few pints. LH risk losing the 7%-craft-drinkers market over flavour, and the ale-happy session drinker on strength.

IMG_20140904_194314Stranger Pale Ale was another approachable, quaffable pint. A bit too fizzy for us – but then everything for the rest of our lives will be unless it comes ON NITRO! – it had a British, biscuit-y base that could have come straight from Fullers’ cook books.

Black Jack Porter (6.8%), described as an English style Porter, was a solid, coffee-ish porter, stronger than it tasted but full-bodied and chocolate-y.

Left Hand deserves to do well here, their range a friendly and diverse lot that could slip as easily into your village local as a branch of Craft. It’s really interesting to taste an American take on an English take on an American beer (wait, what?!), and the brewery has done a great job of taking the best of the US and packaging it for a classic British palate.

IMG_20140904_201405But – LH needs to know that British tastes have changed, and beer-fans are as keen as their American cousins for big flavours and innovation. A quick glance at LH’s website reveals some one-offs – like Beer Week Sauce, a kegged Porter brewed with Ethiopian coffee, a Tripel and a limited edition double IPA – that ICIP would love to get our hands on. We hope LH’s expansion will, in time, extend to these special editions.

Meanwhile, ICIP would like to throw our weight behind a new campaign for a nitro pump absolutely everywhere for everything. Our favourite smoked porters and IPAs, sure, but also perhaps sandwiches and lasagnes. If you need us, we’ll be ON NITRO!

Left Hand will be available at Beer Hawk, Whole Foods, Barworks craft bars and more.

-LD

“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

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brewer

Sometimes the Twitterverse throws you opportunities too good to pass up.

In October 2013, ICIP and the – at the time, very new – Little Brother Brewery started following each other. We said hi, felt a pang of disappointment when we realised they were based over the North Sea in Norway, and made some wistful comment about coming to visit if we were ever feeling flush.

Eight months later, we had booked a Scandinavian jaunt which was going to include a stay in Oslo, Little Brother’s hometown. A few emails later, and we were on for a visit.

littlebro1Founded in mid-2013 by brothers Andrew and Cameron Manson, the brewery has just been granted its production license and is now officially the smallest commercial brewery in Oslo. “I was brewing in uni in Brisbane in the laundry with my brother and some flatmates,” Cameron reminisces. “When I moved to Europe, I got back into brewing. When I first moved to Oslo, my neighbour gave me a bottle of homebrew which really impressed me. So I decided to pick up the hobby again.”

lilbro5The ball is just starting to get rolling for Little Brother. “We got our first order the other day, actually,” Cameron tells us, proudly. “We have three orders now! It’s Oslo beer week next month and we’ll be selling some kegs to the organisers, Grünerløkka Brygghus.” They will also be releasing a bottled beer which will be sold in local pub, Cafe Sara. “We’ll be hand bottling, and we’re using 750ml bottles because you pay a tax per bottle in Norway. You have to pay a recycling company because they are then responsible for cleaning away all the rubbish. So you choose big bottles to get the most out of each one. If you have a container over 4 litres then you don’t pay, so the key kegs are going to be important.” It sounds like a lot of red tape for a small company starting out. “It’s costly and it takes time, but getting the kegs will help a lot. That’ll save time, then we can just do bottles for restaurants.”

The brewery still isn’t the day job for Cameron, who manages a bar at an upmarket Oslo hotel. “I plan the roster so that I can work in the brewery. It’s hard work, but now we’re getting a few orders in, and we’ve got our license in place, it’s working out.” With interest in the brewery picking up, he is hopeful that he may be able to focus more on Little Brother as time goes on: “maybe in a year’s time I can even think about this being a full time thing.”

lilbro3Despite coming from London, home of very expensive craft beer, we’re still reeling from the prices of beer in Norway. “Ah, sure, it’s pricey, but then wages are pretty high here as well. If people weren’t profitable they couldn’t make a good business – everything’s costly, but then again, I think minimum wage is about 140NOK (c. £14).” We’re stunned by this – we’re pretty sure the minimum wage is about half that in the UK. No wonder we’re finding everything more expensive in Scandinavia. The other issue is where the beer can be sold. You can only buy beer up to 4.7% in shops (and at limited times). Any alcoholic drinks over this percentage are sold exclusively at the government-owned Vinmonopolet. “I’m going to brew this wheat beer to about 4.6% so I can try to get it into the supermarket,” says Cameron. “I’d go higher if I could, but then it would never make it into the shops. The IPA will never make it into a supermarket!”

Despite the costs and the bureaucracy, craft beer seems to be booming here, maybe even more so than back home. “Apparently there’s a new brewery opening every month in Norway,” Cameron agrees. “Even the homebrew shops have expanded massively since I started out. The one I go to has gone from two to thirty employees in two years.” On our trip, we saw a huge range of styles available – everything from European pilsners through to a Cassis Tripel that nearly finished us off (thanks, Nøgne ø). Is there a particular style that sets Norwegian hearts racing? “Definitely IPA. The first beer that we’re going to release is an IPA; we’re playing it safe there. I think the core range will be the IPA and a wheat beer.”

lilbro4But Little Brother clearly won’t be content to stick with the basics. “I’m trying the wheat beer four ways; the same grain bill, brewed with local honey and then with a different yeast for each one. I’ll dry hop with a couple of different varieties of hops. In one I’m going to try adding the dried skins of coffee beans. It doesn’t really taste like coffee, it’s more of a tea flavour. So I’m gonna add that with the dry hops and leave it for seven days.” And Cameron has other plans up his sleeve. “I’m also going to do an imperial coffee stout – I’ll coarse grind the Mexican coffee I’m using, then bag it and then just stick it in like dry hops. This will be mashed at a high temperature and there will be lots of residual sugar, then I’ll referment it with champagne yeast in the bottle so it’ll have a sweetness and a malt backbone that’ll handle the acidity. The coffee has dark berry flavours, so it’ll go well with the chocolate and coffee flavours from the beer.”

lilbro1So where does Cameron get his inspiration for such creative brewing? “I do surf the net a lot. If I like a beer I’ll look for some sort of clone recipe to try and find out what hop or yeast is used. I try a lot of different beers too; lately I’ve been trying single hop ales because you really get the profile of the hops without having to brew with each one, and really understand flavours.” Cameron’s passion for brewing is obvious. “I always remember the first time I tried beer was in the pub with my dad, and I hated it. I thought: ‘I’ll never like beer’. Now I realise that it was just shit beer, and I still don’t like it now!” It seems unlikely that a young adult growing up in Norway would have the same problem. We’re staggered by the choice here.

Despite the brewery still being very much in its infancy, Little Brother has big plans for the future. “Right now we’re looking at getting some funding to get some large equipment – we want two conical fermenters, a palette of kegs and a palette of bottles so we can really start operating. What we’d love to aim at a beer cafe, similar to what Mikkeller has done. We’re going to do a beer club here at the brewery as well, hopefully. We’ll get fridges, and we already have a hop-back so we can serve beers through the fresh hops.” And what of worldwide domination? “Well, my brother is back home. He’s an architect and photographer and he does all of our design and the website. In the distant future we’d like to open up down there. Craft beer is becoming bigger there now too.”

littlebro2It’s been exciting to witness the birth of a new brewery which is already doing some really innovative and exciting things with their beer after just a few months, and with such great plans for the future. We can’t wait to see what Little Brother come up with now they have their production license – we can only hope they’re prepared to ship overseas!

Want more? You can read more about our boozy trip around Denmark and Norway.

– PS

Unite Pale Ale, and unification indeed

Unable to attend the launch of a special beer brewed for International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day due to a trip to India (D) and a trip to a hop farm (Pip), ICIP knew it couldn’t let this event go by undocumented. So we asked roving reporter Sharona for the lowdown on what we missed…

When ICIP asked if I could write about the launch of Unite Pale Ale at Wild Card Brewery on April 26th, I was reluctant. I mean, I’m not a beer writer. I’m not ANY kind of writer. My tasting notes at the end of any drink-fuelled day tend to be beer names hastily and illegibly scrawled, supplemented with smiley faces and A++++’s in direct proportion to my intake. And these ICIP girls, WELL. They know their stuff. They’re actual JOURNALISTS. They can QUOTE people. ACCURATELY*.

But if there’s one thing I love, it’s a good party. And that Saturday afternoon, Wild Card’s event did not disappoint. Full of wine, women, and song (read: beer, women, and BBQ), there was nothing not to love.

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International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day (IWCB) came about as the brain child of Sophie De Ronde of Brentwood Brewing Company, who I think we can all agree is one of the most crush-worthy** women in the beer industry. Brewed on International Women’s Day (March 8th), Unite Pale Ale is the collective work of brewsters from all over the world, including Britain, the US, Australia, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand. Project Venus and the Pink Boots Society were an essential part of the effort.

The beer had some parameters (4% ABV pale ale made with Cascade hops), but the rest was left to the brewsters’ creativity. “We went mad with ours,” says Britain’s Beer Sommelier of the Year, Jane Peyton, who was brewing with Brentwood. “There wasn’t a thing left but the kitchen sink by the time we were done. In fact, that may have gone in, too.”*

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Not pictured: kitchen sink.

The three Unite Pale Ales being poured at the April 26th launch party were Brentwood’s Unite Pale Ale, brewed with Sara Carter (Triple FFF), Jaega Wise (Wildcard), Susanna Forbes (Drink Britain), Jane Peyton (School of Booze), Cassandra Orford (Fuller’s), Helen Wardle (Ales by Mail), and friends Victoria Leyshon and Samantha Warner. Gadds’ Unite Pale Ale was brewed by Sue Fisher with Allegra Copps (SEB), Angela Malloy, Rebecca Lee, and Helen Watkins. Brewsters‘ special blend was made by owner, brewer, and girl-about-town Sara Barton and Kathy Brittan of Oldershaw. To cap the day, a USA Unite Pale Ale was sent by Kristi Griner of Capitol City, “brewed by a dozen area beer goddesses, homebrewers, and professionals.”***

It just couldn’t get better. And as the sun began to set on that special day, golden light filtering through the trees of the park as we all talked and laughed in the good humour that can only come about as the result of like-minded camaraderie and lots of alcohol, Sophie swirled the liquid amber in her pint glass and said aloud what we had all been thinking: “This – this right here – is a job well done.”*

IMG_2853And it was.

*Any quotes in this particular article are entirely made up. 

**Because she’s brilliant and I have a crush on her.

***An accurate quote! An accurate quote! 

– SS

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