Tag Archives: real ale

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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Ales of the riverbank

After a frankly sodden Bank Holiday Monday (I am sure I can still detect an unpleasant squelchy quality to my shoes), we were apprehensive about what Mother Nature would hit us with for Beer by the River. Set in the lush leafy surrounds of Morden Hall Park, the second annual celebration of Sambrook’s Brewery’s birthday would be a festival of beer, music and food held next to the very river their flagship ale is named after – the Wandle. We were promised a bouncy castle, hay bale seating and street food. This could either be a balmy summer paradise or a hellish muddy dash as all the revellers tried to pack into one beer tent.

Thankfully, we got lucky, and the sun was shining as we made our way through the park to the event. By the time we arrived the party was already in full swing, with a 1,500-strong crowd enjoying the late summer weather. Families packed out the grass with their picnics, the delicious smell of burgers wafted across the grass and Jo Elms & Sue Ballingall provided the soundtrack from the stage. We wasted no time in getting ourselves near to the beer.

20140830_140422We started off with a clutch of beers by our hosts, Sambrook’s. This was the perfect time to sample their wares as we caught both the tail end of their summer seasonal, Lavender Hill, and the first batch of their autumn beer, Battersea Rye. Both clocking in at 4.5%, these two beers demonstrate the range the brewery is capable of. Lavender Hill is a golden honey ale with a biscuity nose and surprisingly hoppy punch, whereas Battersea Rye pours deep copper, hits you with dried fruit aromas and comes through bready and bitter on the palate. We round out our first trio with tried and tested favourite, Junction (also 4.5%), a bitter with Challenger, Bramling Cross and Goldings hops.

20140830_141102Despite being the hosts of the event, Sambrook’s weren’t the only brewery on offer at the festival. It was interesting to see an eclectic mix of both well-known locals (By The Horns and Hop Stuff from London), further-flung stalwarts (Hogs Back from Surrey, Gadds’ from Kent) and names which were totally new to us (Flack Manor all the way from Hampshire, and Westerham from Kent). So by our second round, we were ready to start mixing things up a bit. We went for a decidedly British selection of bitters: By The Horns’ The Mayor of Garratt (4.3%), Hogs Back’s British Endeavour (4.5%) and Flack Manor’s Flack Catcher (4.4%).

20140830_150018A pint of The Mayor of Garratt comes with a little bit of local history. During the early 18th century people would elect a ‘Mayor of Garratt’ at the same time as the main parliamentary elections in nearby pubs in Earlsfield and Wandsworth. Local characters would stand and give silly speeches as a light-hearted railing against the ruling classes (and an excuse to have a few drinks). By The Horns brewed this very British beer in homage to this tradition, using purely British ingredients, and the beer has the grassy aroma you would expect from home-grown hops.

British Endeavour, Hogs Back’s tribute to the Great War centenary, is of special significance to ICIP: we saw the eponymous hop being grown at Stocks Farm during our visit in April this year. Endeavour is a hop developed through a British Hop Association breeding programme, crossing Cascade with a wild English hop. Hop grower Ali Capper promised us it would have blackcurranty, summer fruit aromas, and this beer delivers that in spades. It has raisin and stone fruit on the nose with a warm, caramel maltiness. We’re looking forward to more brewers experimenting with this new hop in future.

Flack Catcher was sweeter than the other two beers in this round, and had a spiced quality that complements the hoppy bitterness. With the citrusy, orange-like aroma it almost felt a little festive.

20140830_141553The festival also posed an opportunity for some keen amateurs to stand alongside the pros. When we arrived we had been given tokens which would be used to vote in the homebrew competition, the victor of which would win the chance to brew a beer for Cask Ale Week with Sambrook’s. Sadly, it appears that south west London prefers buying its beer than brewing its own, as there were only two entries from Kevin Wright and Andrew Barber, who were crowned joint winners after the vote was declared too close to call. By the time we made it to the tasting table our fellow festival-goers had snaffled all the samples, so we can’t comment on this outcome – but we’re looking forward to the launch of the collaborative brew later this month.

Unable to get our hands on the award-winning homebrews, we fought our way back to the bar. We nabbed a Westerham British Bulldog (4.3%) and a Gadds’ She Sells Seashells (4.7%). The British Bulldog was crisp and toasty with hints of toffee and a floral nose from the Goldings and Progress. She Sells was much lighter and more zingy, hitting the schnoz hard with Cascade lemon and pine and delivering on flavour with a lingering dry bitterness. Perfect summer drinking. We also tried a kegged offering from Sambrook’s – Battersea IPA (6.2%). This is a new addition to their line up, only launched in May 2014 and their first foray away from traditional cask ales. Chinook and Citra ramp up the aroma and the hop flavour spike we’ve come to expect from an IPA. It was a shock to be drinking something cold and carbonated after so much real ale, but it was a refreshing interlude.

20140830_162049We decided we needed to stop for food, and after agonising over the burgers and fish and chip van we went for Pizzarova, a family run pizza company run out of the back of a customised Land Rover. The sourdough crust and delicious melty cheese made us weep when we discovered that they are based in FRICKIN’ DORSET. The humanity. If you are lucky enough to live in Dorset, they frequent Sherborne, Bruton and Castle Cary. I am already trying to work out how long the commute to Moorgate would be.

Our pizza break was a good opportunity to kick back and enjoy an impassioned speech by Beer Sommelier Jane Peyton. After reminding us of the health benefits of our favourite tipple (full of B vitamins, potassium and antioxidants!), Jane encouraged any beer philistines to get up to the bar and give the great range of ales a go, especially any women who still mistakenly viewed it as a male drink. “If you don’t like it, try another,” she implored, “and another, and another!” Great advice.

We were flagging after a long day of boozing and starting to lose track of our tokens so we decided to head back to the bar for a final round.

IMG_20140830_165530We tried Sambrook’s kegged version of Battersea Rye, with a slightly higher ABV at 5.8%. Like the IPA, this was launched recently as a toe in the craft waters and contains no less than four different grains – Maris Otter Pale Ale Malt, Malted Rye, Crystal 400 and Chocolate Malt. It is rich and caramel-like with yeasty, bready notes and a spicy, fruity flavour. We were impressed, and tried not to argue over whether it’s better from cask or keg.

We wrapped up with By The Horns’ Diamond Geezer (4.9%) and Hogs Back’s HBB (3.7%). Diamond Geezer is a red ale, sweet and malty with a bitter, floral finish from the American Willamette hops. HBB had a lighter touch with grapefruit aromas and a lingering, acidic bitterness on the palate. The perfect aperitif.

The party looked set to continue on into the evening, the families were beginning to thin out as the evening crowd moved in and the music cranked up. We were fair sloshing with the good stuff by now and were ready to get home and order a curry, so we slipped away past the babbling Wandle into the gloaming, already looking forward to next year’s Beer by the River.

Want more? Check out our tour of Sambrook’s Brewery, our interview with Jane Peyton and coverage of her book launch.

– PS

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Great British Beer Festival 2014 – festival report

I’ll admit it – I am pretty anally retentive. A worrywart. An Order Muppet. I plan everything in advance. I’ve always got a pen. I love to make lists and – more importantly – tick off said lists (mmm).

So, when I was handed my pint glass and programme for this year’s GBBF, and staggered into the barrel-vaulted spectacle that is London Olympia, panic began to set in.

DSC_0219So many beers. So. Many. Beers. The completist in me started nervous twitching as I struggled to accept that no amount of planning or tactics would allow me to drink over 900 different beers, ciders and perries in just five hours.

DSC_0226Luckily, my neuroticism was immediately soothed by Mark Payne, Off-Trade Sales Manager from St Austell, who offered me my first drink of the day at a pleasantly numbing 7.2%. This was Big Job Double IPA, big brother to their popular IPA, Proper Job (clocking in at a more sedate 4.5%). A fantastic burnished caramel colour, this heavy hitter is hopped with Citra and Centennial, and has a lightness which belies its high ABV. Mark told us that they use Cornish Gold malt and attenuate it until nearly all the sugar is gone, allowing those hops to really sing. It’s a good start.

Next, we made the mistake of visiting the USA cask beers bar. I say “mistake”, because once we’d checked out the list of available brews, there was a serious danger that we would never leave, and we’d only been at the festival about fifteen minutes.

Surrounded by a huge throng of beer fans, this bar was perhaps one of the most popular of the festival, and for good reason. The sheer variety of beers on offer was outstanding – everything from a 4% wheat to a whopping 9.3% Imperial IPA – and we started off with a Franklin’s Psychedelic Smokehouse (5.3%), a smoked, sour ale. It poured light with a seriously smoky nose, like getting a delicious faceful of BBQ and bacon, but then shocked the palate with a light, zinging acidity.

DSC_0241Next we went for something at the other end of the scale – a dark, rich Left Hand Milk Stout (6%). We’re usually sceptical of milk stouts because we’re frankly evangelical about Bristol Beer Factory’s take on the style. But this impressed us mightily. Hopped with Magnum and US Goldings, this stout was incredibly smooth and seemed to stealth its way down your gullet, leaving a strong, cocoa-nib bitterness behind. Dreamy.

Promising ourselves “one for the road” before we headed off to… uh… the other 21 bars, we went for a Buckland Brewery Ginger Pale Ale (5%), brewed with macerated ginger. A deep coppery colour, this promised a lot on the nose but didn’t quite deliver on taste, although we got a pleasant ginger tingle lingering at the back of the throat.

We did finally tear ourselves away from the delights of the good old US of A… here are some of our other festival highlights.

DSC_0250I was confronted with an offer I couldn’t refuse when I spotted Kissingate Brewery’s Black Cherry Mild (4.3%). I had initially made fun of this beer in my GBBF preview post, saying that it was the kind of gimmicky fruit concoction I would select when already inebriated, only to find that it was rubbish. I then found out that it had won numerous awards, and, having tried it, I now see that I should eat not only my words but also my notebook, pen and GBBF souvenir pint glass. It was delicious – smelled like a bowl of fresh cherries but had no cloying sweetness, just a rich, smooth mouthfeel and a really nice dry finish. Just goes to show that no matter how much beer you try, there will always be something to surprise you!

DSC_0256When we fancied something lighter, we were drawn to a beer by Jo C’s Norfolk Brewery – Norfolk Kiwi (3.8%). The brewery was established by Jo Coubrough and this beer is a tribute to her husband Chris, a native New Zealander. It uses locally-grown Maris Otter and a mixture of British and New Zealand hops, giving a tropical, zesty punch despite the modest ABV. Refreshing and extremely quaffable.

DSC_0268We couldn’t pass up on an offering from Bristol Beer Factory. We first discovered this gem of a brewery on a cottage break to the West Country in 2011, when we popped into a beer festival at The Tobacco Factory. This was when we fell in love with their Milk Stout in particular, but their other beers have never disappointed and we hadn’t had the opportunity to try the 3.8% Nova pale ale before. This beer has a light malt base (Maris Otter, CaraPils and wheat malt) providing a perfect, subtle backdrop for the hops, coming through zesty and fresh with a grapefruit tang.

DSC_0262It was nostalgia that initially encouraged us to give Exe Valley Brewery’s Winter Glow (6%) a try – Mr Pip and I are Exeter University alumni. This is a traditional old ale, and usually the brewery’s winter seasonal. While we weren’t entirely sure why it had showed up at a beer festival in the middle of August, we enjoyed the rich, dried fruit and malty nose and the dry bitterness after the 6% punch. Hope that we spot it around once the nights draw in a bit to enjoy it in its proper environment!

After a pork roll to soak it all up and much wandering, sampling and poring over our programme, we decide to visit to the cider and perry bar, which we often end up neglecting. Since our trip to Stocks Farm earlier in the year and being introduced to the wonders of cider, we felt we needed to at least try a couple.

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We begin with an offering from Lancashire, Dove Syke Cider’s Ribble Valley Gold. This comes in at 6.5% and is described as “medium dry” on CAMRA’s scale. It is delicious – no cloying sweetness, but not too acidic either. Encouraged, we persevere with a taste of Oliver’s Yarlington Mill (also 6.5%), which had a little more sweetness than the Ribble Valley but not to the point of excess – it still had a good level of dryness to round out the flavour. We enjoyed chatting to one of the CAMRA volunteers (complete with pirate hat) on the cider bar about the different varieties on offer and were very grateful for his recommendations and tasters. Cider is still a bit of an undiscovered country for us but we’re certainly going to continue our exploration of it in future!

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We have to fight through the crowds to get near enough to hear the announcement of the Champion Beers of Britain competition. With eight categories as well as an overall “Supreme Champion”, there are too many winners to list here, but special ICIP claps on the back must go to our friends at Oakham Ales who took Gold in the Golden Ales category as well as Silver in the Supreme Champion contest for Citra (4.2%), and also the guys at Sambrook’s who took joint Bronze in the Bitters category for Wandle (3.8%).

DSC_0287The results of the Supreme Champion contest were announced by Bruce Dickinson of rock band Iron Maiden – an avowed real ale fan who has brewed his own successful beer with Robinson’s Brewery – Trooper (4.7%). The announcement of first place in this year’s competition – Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker (4%) – is met with some consternation by the crowd. “Did he just say Timmy Taylor’s?” someone asks behind us, while the chap to our right goes with a more forceful “Timothy Taylor’s? Fuck off!” As the crowd disperses, we hear another festival-goer commenting to a friend “it’s average at best”. It’s obviously a controversial decision. We haven’t tried Boltmaker so we can’t comment, but we’ll be keeping our eyes open for it in future to see what we think.

DSC_0243The atmosphere at the festival was characteristically jolly, and although the gender ratio is still way, way off (still the only place in the universe with no queue in the ladies’ toilet!), we spotted plenty of women enjoying their beer and there was thankfully no sign of the sexist poster seller that so disappointed us last year. We did slightly question the choice of the “circus” theme (lots of strongmen etc vs scantily-clad female acrobats strewn across the branding) which still made it all feel a bit masculine… but let’s face it, I look frickin’ distinguished with a moustache.

Overall then – a great day with some top notch beers. It was fantastic to see such a broad range of different styles and countries represented, and there really was something for everyone. There are up and down sides to attending on Trade Day – the entire programme is still available, for example, but you don’t get the added fun of talks and signings by the pros or live music. But that wasn’t going to spoil our day.

Being the pernickety fusspot I am, I am already looking ahead to next year and working out my tactics. If I attended for all five days of the festival next time, that’s just… 180 beers a day… which is just… er… 60 pints, if I drink thirds…

I’ll get back to you next August.

– PS

You can read our review of last year’s festival here, and also take a look at our investigation into women’s attitudes towards beer and festivals here. Check out more pictures from the event on our Facebook page.

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From little acorns… the unstoppable rise of Oakham Ales

According to CAMRA, there are now 52 breweries in London compared to 44 last year and 23 the year before that. With so much beer being brewed in the capital right now, we’re spoilt for choice, and sometimes it’s easy to overlook the exciting stuff happening elsewhere across our fair land.

So ICIP is delighted to meet with Oakham Ales, an innovative brewery from Cambridgeshire, to remind us that there is much, much more to discover beyond the mysterious force field of the M25.

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“I’ve been with Oakham for just over nine years, and it has changed so much in that time,” says Nigel Wattam, Commercial Manager at the brewery. “Back then, there were nine or ten of us and we did everything; we racked the beers, we delivered, everything. We’re up to 40 people now.”

Originally established in Oakham, Rutland, in 1993, the company moved to Peterborough in 1998 and opened a new brewery in 2006. Currently, Oakham is churning out a staggering 6.5m pints a year. There is increasing international demand for their beer, and they now export to countries as far flung as New Zealand and Hong Kong. “It’s been in Australia, it was in a shop a couple of blocks away from the White House, it even went to Brazil before the World Cup! So it’s popping up all over. I lose touch where it’s going to be honest!” says Nigel. “I was chatting to our friends from Arbor Brewery,” chimes in Nick Jones, National Accounts Sales Manager, “And they’d been talking to distributors in Rome. They said: ‘I saw a fucking Green Devil lorry driving around Rome, what’s going on?!’”

But the brewery is still hugely popular on its home turf in the UK, managing to walk the tightrope between traditional ale fans and the more recent beer geek boomers. It’s rare to find a brewery showing up in Greene King pubs and winning awards at CAMRA’s GBBF but also on offer at a pump takeover at The Craft Beer Co.

“The one constant as the brewery has grown is that the quality has stayed the same,” says Nigel. “Everyone will have some problems with cask ale, but the ethos has always been you’ll always get the flavour, we’ll always use loads of hops and the quality has to be right. If it’s not right, it’ll just sit there and it won’t go out.”

“Consistency is the key,” agrees Darren Moore, manager of Oaka in Kennington, one of the brewery’s pubs (on which more later). “I’ve never had a bad cask from Oakham. That says everything about the brewery. Some other breweries… sometimes their beer is amazing, and sometimes it’s awful. The customer won’t understand that; consistency is so important.”

“You only have to supply a few bad lines and the landlord will lose confidence in you,” Nigel nods. “Even I was surprised about the number of things we check on. By the time we rack it and get it in the barrel, it should be as perfect as we can get it. Sure, it occasionally gets a bit hot in someone’s cellar, but there shouldn’t be anything else that goes wrong with it. And that is why we get so few returns.” This seems to be the crux of Oakham’s success. “We’ve got some great relationships with some big players in the free trade that other producers would love to have, but we’ve got the reputation in some places where they daren’t take the beer off the bar. They shift so much in a week and the quality is there… as long as we don’t do anything mental, it’s there as long as the landlord is!”

Oakademy_of_Excellence_Logo1Recognising the importance of their relationship with their suppliers, Oakham have started up the ‘Oakacademy of Excellence’, a suppliers club. “It’s been going a little over 5 years now and anyone who stocks our beers permanently can join the Oakademy,” explains Nigel. “We make some special beers that only they can get hold of, we do glassware for them, the sales guys visit them regularly, and we have an annual event where we invite them down and have a few beers and a bite to eat. They get support for their loyalty.”

“Unlike some other breweries, we still have people on the road,” says Nick. “It’s still a face-to-face industry with us, and publicans like that. It’s not an email business.”

“For people like me, having those two or three extra beers draws people in. People look forward to them,” Darren agrees.

We are yet to touch on Oakham’s frontrunner… Citra.

500citraUnless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, it’s highly unlikely that you wouldn’t recognise the cheeky little anthropomorphized hop flower grinning out from the Oakham Ales Citra label. Two-time Gold winner of the International Beer Challenge, this fruity, hoppy 4.2% APA has taken the beer world by storm.

“Our biggest Citra stockist is The Wellington in Birmingham,” says Nigel. “They will do close to 900 pints a week on one pump!” But the beer is not just popular in pubs. “In the last 18 months to two years, the bottles have actually gone potty. And Citra is the biggest by some way – it’s over 50% of our bottle sales.”

Demonstrating its wide appeal, Bottled Citra is sold in Waitrose and Tesco supermarkets, as well as a variation of the recipe (at a slightly more potent 4.9%) being available in Marks and Spencer where it is rebranded under the store’s own label.

“It’s crazy that one beer should make a brewery so famous, especially in London,” says Darren. “The brewery just smells of Citra,” agrees Nick. “When I open an M&S bottle at home I just think ‘ah, that’s my work!’ because it’s just that distinctive smell.”

“Every year our Head Brewer, John Bryan, goes over to American and he’ll taste and smell the hops in person,” says Nigel. “Each field is different and he’ll choose the best for us. You could have 20 fields of Citra hops and he’ll pick the two that are best. John thinks that the US hops are the best in the world; that’s why he uses them.”

Because of the all-encompassing fame of Citra, we’re shocked to hear that it’s not the brewery’s biggest seller overall. “JHB (Jeffrey Hudson Bitter, 3.8%) is the biggest cask sale,” says Nick. “Bishop’s Farewell (4.6%) actually edges second on cask.”

With a hophead Head Brewer, Oakham’s core range of beers lean towards a particular flavour profile. “People say ‘why don’t you make a brown beer?’, and I say, if you’re a carrot farmer, don’t grow potatoes,” says Nick. “Our identity is pale ales.” But this doesn’t mean that their range is limited. “We have the Black Hole Porter (5.5%) on all year round, and we have Hawse Buckler (5.6%) which is another dark beer,” says Nigel. “Alongside the four seasonal we have four aged or vintage beers which are usually available all year round, as well as an Oakademy special. Then we’re normally got something wheedled away on what we call the compost heap, which has been there a while. Like the Black Baron (8.8%), which is fantastic.”

DSC_0199“I think at the moment we have 12 available, I think at Chelmsford Beer Festival three weeks ago we had 15 on,” recalls Nick. We’re shocked – is it difficult to juggle producing that many beers? “It’s not as difficult as it would appear because six of them would be aged beers which can be brewed, put in a cold room and then released any time we want,” he explains. “So we’ve got the five core beers brewed at least weekly, then the Oakademy beers every month, the seasonal beers every quarter, then four quarterly specials – they’re supposed to run on to each other but they don’t because they keep selling out! – and then the aged and vintaged.” We’re tantalised by the sound of Oakham’s vintage range. “The aged beers can sit in the cold room for one, two, three years… they just develop another level,” says Nick. “I’ve had 3 year old Atilla (7.5%) that tasted absolutely fantastic,” reminisces Nigel.

Producing these highly-hopped beers comes at a price – hops don’t come cheap. “Even though it’s a bit more expensive, we’re pretty sure if someone has one pint of our beer, they’ll come back and have another one, which is what you want people to do!” says Nigel. In the capital, we’re not shocked to pay £6 for a pint of craft beer. But is it harder to convince drinkers up in their homeland of Cambridgeshire, for example, to pay more? “From my point of view, I sell my beer for a £1 more than it sells in Peterborough, but that’s because I have more to pay out,” says Darren. “It’s not the price of a cask! I’m from Yorkshire and I wouldn’t dream of spending more than £3 on a pint there! Whereas in London I’ll pay £7 for a pint of Kernel IPA because I know how much it costs them to brew it. It’s understanding it, and people understand that things cost more here.”

“Price can be an issue with some outlets,” says Nigel. “We do have to stick to our guns sometimes and say we know it’s a bit pricier, but it’s a quality product. We think that when you put it on the bar, you’ll sell it; you won’t have leftovers you’ll have to throw away. You try and strike a balance. Hopefully you’ll have a guy that’ll come back the next night to drink it again because he knows you’ve got it on.”

“Make the same cash margin and see what happens,” is Nick’s challenge. “The people who stock our beers regularly and successfully will say, ‘no problem, JHB £3.20, some other bollocks at £3, and JHB still sells more’. And people come back and drink it again. There’s a commercial argument there that people support.”

Not content with producing a range of popular and delicious beers, the brewery also partakes in a spot of beer and food pairing. When you think of sitting down to a Thai, Chinese or Japanese meal, what drink do you immediately associate with it? A bitter green tea? The fruity acidity of sake? Perhaps a cold lager-style beer like Chang or Asahi?

How about a pint of ale? Not too sure? Think again.

DSC_0195The Oaka Group – a sister company to Oakham Ales – operates five venues uniquely specialising in pairing their beers with contemporary dishes from the Far East. The brainchild of founders Patcharee Shaweewan and Paul Hook, the chain features three venues in Peterborough, one in Birmingham, and, as of 2013, one in London.

On ICIP’s first visit to Pan-Asian restaurant Oaka, we were initially bemused at the sight of hand pumps on the bar, but were quickly converted. Heavily favouring the citrussy, piney zing of American hops, Oakham Ales’ range is an excellent match for the oriental menu. The bitter, hoppy ales cut through hotter, chilli-based dishes, but the freshness of those US hops also complement the invigorating Asian flavours of lemongrass, coriander, lime and ginger. This successful blend of east and west is a characteristically individual move by a brand who excel in pushing the envelope.

With wide-reaching appeal and a good eye for development, Oakham’s growth looks set to continue. They’ve recently acquired a wine division (Bellwether), and began producing a cider in conjunction with Hogan’s last year (Oaple, 5.8% and made with apples from ICIP’s friends at Stocks Farm!). Earlier this week, Citra walked away with two awards at GBBF (Gold in the Golden Ale category and Silver in the Supreme Champion competition), proving its popularity with real ale drinkers. With the success of Green Devil on keg, they will only admit to “looking at” something in the lager or black IPA line, but whatever they come up with, we will certainly look forward to it with high expectations.

– PS

ICIP revs up for GBBF 2014

It doesn’t seem possible that it’s almost time for another CAMRA Great British Beer Festival. Last year’s event marked our first foray into the murky world of beer blogging, and we kicked off the ICIP project with an investigation into where women fitted into this real ale lark, and what women at the festival thought about beer.

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GBBF 2013

This year, returning as a seasoned Beer Blogger (my press pass says so and everything), I’ll be hitting up the trade session. The massive benefit of this is that ALL the beers will be available and nothing will have run out (until at least halfway through said trade session, I imagine). With this in mind, I’ve been perusing the beer list with quite some excitement.

Young's LogI’m having a bit of a real ale love-in right now. This was partly borne out of necessity – living on the fringes of south London, us Wimbledon-ites are somewhat excluded from the craft beer boom that seems to be invading the rest of the capital. We have the great By The Horns half a mile away, and The Antelope over in Tooting, but beyond that, there’s not much craftiness about. What we have in abundance, however, are Young’s pubs.

While we can occasionally hunt down an offering from the likes of Meantime or even Rocky Head at these pubs, generally it’s traditional ale all the way, often Wells and Young’s own brews. These tend to be the classics – Young’s Bitter (3.7%), Special (4.5%), London Gold (4%).

Maybe it was the effect of sitting on the edge of Wimbledon Common in the sun on a lazy Sunday at the Crooked Billet. Maybe I had been to too many craft beer bars and festivals and drunk one too many kegged 7% hoppy IPAs. But I started to remember how much I enjoyed lower ABV ales. I started to feel a twinge of disappointment if I walked into a pub dominated by keg lines. I even passed over keg and opted for Orchard Pig cider if I spotted it on occasion.

With a newfound passion for real ale, it appears that GBBF couldn’t come at a better time for me.

the_great_british_beer_festival_2014The beer list this year is dizzying, with over 900 ales, ciders and perries. As well as a healthy list of British offerings, there are also beers from countries as diverse as Japan, Sweden, Sri Lanka, not to mention the inevitable swathe of American, German and Czech brews (many of which will be kegged or bottled).

When presented with such a huge array of options at a festival, there is always the temptation to go for beers with unusual tasting notes and breweries you haven’t heard of. Sometimes this can end in disaster, but often you can find some real gems (the downside being that it may not be until the following year that you encounter the brewery again if they’re not local).

There’s the added pressure, as the event runs on, of estimating your beer saturation limit. How many tasters and halves can you get through without falling over? I remember an ex-colleague going to the 2010 GBBF and boasting he got through 38 halves (this figure is unsubstantiated), but that’s sadly not an option for little old me. Is it worth passing up on that tantalising half of Thornbridge Jaipur so you can try the potentially dodgy beer from Lincolnshire which proports to have a toffee-pumpkin-mocha-oak chip-cobwebby horse blanket aroma? And how will you live with yourself if you don’t try it to find out?! That’s not to mention the ciders and perries – often neglected in favour of the beers.

1150547_1389865414573752_639728861_oSkimming the list, I have to admit to being ignorant of the vast majority of the breweries represented. The odd name leaps out- Fyne Ales, Brewsters, Camerons – along with the big daddies such as Fullers and Greene King. But for the most part, I’ll be flying blind, with only the programme tasting notes to guide me.

I’m sure that after a few halves I’ll inevitably do something stupid (there’s a Black Cherry Mild* – that could very well be it). But, sometimes, that feels like it’s all part of the adventure of exploring new beers. It’s about learning what you like, what you don’t like, and having a bloody good time.

-PS

*I have just looked this up and have seen that it’s won bucketloads of awards. So maybe I should be less judgemental about my hypothetical inebriated beer choices.

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

Hopping into Spring: an afternoon at the Nicholson’s Spring Ale Festival

Spring is in the air! Somewhere, no doubt, adorable lambs are gamboling through drifts of cherry blossom as fuzzy chicks escape their chocolate eggs and frolic among daffodils.

ICIP wouldn’t know, because we live in central London, where the turn of the seasons is celebrated in the time-honoured way… with a seasonal beer festival. Forget daylight savings: here we know that winter is [not] coming because the stouts disappear and you can’t move for wheat beer. Our buddies at Nicholson’s Pubs dropped us a copy of the menu for their Spring Ale Festival (which runs Monday 24th March to Saturday 19th April) so, using the mad skills we honed at Craft Beer Rising, ICIP charted a well-balanced, open-minded course through the ales on offer.

coleholeAlas, the best laid plans of beer bloggers seldom work out. By the time we arrived at The Coal Hole on The Strand for a run-through with its manager Annie Power, a number of beers had sold out, just two weeks into the festival. These included Loch Ness‘s Hoppyness, Revolutions‘ Clash London Porter, Adnams‘ Mosaic Pale, Itchen Valley‘s Blackcurrant Mild, Adnams & Camden collab South Town and Butcombe‘s Haka. Spring ales, Annie confirmed, are going down a storm. “IPAs are doing very well,” she told us. “People working in the City tweet us to say: ‘I’ll be there by five, I hope there’s some left!’”

And no wonder they’re selling out: you can score money off beer instantly (is there any better sentence in the English language?) by joining Nicholson’s Hop Circle IN THE PUB ITSELF, by scanning one of the many QR codes (those big square barcodes that you wave your phone at like you’re in The Matrix) around the bar. Luckily for us there is plenty left to taste, and we trust Annie to take us off-piste.

stonehengeWe start with a glass of Inveralmond‘s Ossian, a delicious, spring-tastic IPA. Rich and full, the well-rounded Fuggles balanced out other hops. The lovely Ossian nearly went down the wrong way, though, when Annie set out some glasses of bright green beer on the bar. This was our first taste of Stonehenge Ales‘ Sign of Spring, which Annie assured us was naturally green, not some kind of Frankenbeer. Yes, it was very zingy and refreshing, but it was hard to say where the citrus started and the optical I’M DRINKING LIME JUICE illusion ended.

solutionIn between puzzled sips of green, Annie explained why the festival was going so well. “This year they balanced the menu better,” she says, of Nicholson’s HQ. “They had mild and porters. Collaboration brews are very popular – people know it’s beer they can only get in a Nicholson’s.” Punters are voting for their favourite beers on Twitter throughout the festival, with the winner securing a guest spot at Nicholson’s pubs. At the moment the Pete Brown and Brains collaboration, The Solution, is in the lead (much to our delight – it was our favourite at the tasting we attended in March). Rich and fruity, it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to drink this again.

skinnersNext we try an offering from the Skinners Brewery – River Cottage EPA, brewed for the home farm of the TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The beer is, Annie tells us, “typically Cornish”. It’s light, floral and delicate – and we were pleased to taste the UK Cascade hop holding its own. Jarrow Brewery‘s Isis, which we try next, is similar –  floral, citrus-y, well balanced beer. It’s sweeter than River Cottage but the hops round this off with a bitter finish. We move on to Ilkley‘s Rye and Dry – a great dessert beer, all caramel, sweet and citrus. Such a dessert beer, in fact, that ICIP’s tasting notes shriek in barely-legible shorthand “WHAT’S THAT FRENCH PUDDING?” A quick Google suggests oranges with caramel, which is exactly what this beer tasted like, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence it is French, but that doesn’t matter because it’s delicious. We finish with a mouthful of malty, toasty Balmy Mild by Cropton Brewery.

croptonLooking around The Coal Hole – which, early afternoon on a Saturday, overflows with tourists, but on weekdays draws a smart business crowd – we wonder if Nicholson’s is at risk of putting off its regulars by doling out green beer and cherry-flavoured ale. “We keep on the traditional ales like Fuller’s London Pride,” says Annie. “We don’t want to force the ‘Jims’ of this world to change their habits” – she nods towards an older man enjoying a quiet pint at the bar, probably blissfully unaware and unconcerned that a pair of over-excited beer bloggers are INSTAGRAMMINGTWEETINGPINTERESTINGTUMBLERING frenetically around him. “London Pride will continue to sell,” she adds. One trick of the trade, Annie tells us, is effective deployment of sparkler. The sheen and added fizz can give otherwise leftfield brews sudden mass appeal. “You have to gauge the customer,” she tells us. “The sparkler is handy with people from Yorkshire. They’re used to Tetley, for example, and we don’t sell that, but if you offer them a pint of cask ale with a sparkler they find a beer they can drink all weekend.” Ladies, she adds, have proved more daring than the blokes. Women have “a more discerning palate,” she concludes.

What, then, is a spring beer? Something with lots of blossom, floral and citrus notes, light and quaffable? “The traditional idea of a spring ale is something that has connotations of pale, blonde, 4%, hoppy, zesty, not too much of anything,” Annie agrees. And yet – Nicholson’s has done a roaring trade in punchy, strong beers, bitter IPAs and, incredibly, porter. “This festival has made a mockery of that!” Annie concludes. Even better, the festival has proved something Annie knew well: that people will travel for a speciality beer. “We should be on that,” she says. “We should always have at least one speciality. This festival proves that that does work.” Beer drinkers in general have become more fluent – Annie tells us that the tasting paddles of three halves have proved very popular. This presents a certain challenge for Nicholson’s, too – pubs try to stock different beers to their neighbours, so that customers ‘doing the rounds’ don’t keep encountering the same beer. “It takes an extra bit of planning,” Annie agrees.

It’s time to bring up the “W” word, because it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Nicholson’s major competitor, Wetherspoons, runs their spring festival at exactly the same time. With three collaboration beers brewed with Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, New York, on offer at the cheeky price of c£2.90 a can [check out fellow beer-blogger Nate’s review here], Wetherspoons have upped their game. “I always go and have a nose around,” Annie admits. “They’re getting better – obviously they’ve been taking notes from us! Some of what they were doing at the last one was an abomination. The staff had no clue and they didn’t have enough beer! It left a lot to be desired, but they are getting better. Competition is healthy.” Annie admits she is jealous of the canned Brooklyn collab. “I wish we could do that,” she sighs. But she thinks her prayers have been answered: Nicholson’s are to experiment with stocking some craft beer in bottles – and The Coal Hole is going to be at the forefront of the new initiative. “There’s a market there,” she confirms.

But Nicholson’s have little to fear from their competitors. Well-informed staff – of which there are 28 at The Coal Hole, 20 in Front of House – are one of Nicholson’s greatest sells. “I don’t expect them to love every beer; we change so often,” Annie says of the staff who are proficiently getting on with their day around us. “But I want them to know the basics. I’m not pretending they’re ale gurus – my cask master is! – but that is part of their education. A big winner for customers is ‘try before you buy’ – that’s good customer service. We ask: what do you normally drink? Then lead them from there. Some people are a bit cheeky but it still leads to a sale.” Regular readers may remember that ICIP like to close up our trips to Nicholson’s with a rare foray into the world of cider (ICIP admittedly frequently has no memory of this). Annie’s happy to oblige. One cider, Orchard Pig‘s Explorer, has already sold out. But we’re more than happy with a glass of astringent, green apple-y Aspall Cyderkyn and the smoother Orchard Pig Philosopher.

beersICIP leave Annie to her busy bar and stagger off down The Strand to The Coal Hole’s closest neighbor, The Wellington, to test the Nicholson’s ale diffusion and to decipher our notes before they dissolve completely into irretrievable squiggles and happy ticks. Sure enough, the bar is stocked with beers that weren’t on at The Coal Hole, so we close our day with the Rudgate Brewery Cherry Pale – as you’d expect, a very sweet floral nose, initially very bitter but tapering off to quite a flowery finish – and the light, sharp and grassy St Austell Proper Job.

The countryside can keep their lambs and chicks. Cheers.

The Nicholson’s Spring Ale Festival will run from Monday 24th March to Saturday 19th April at Nicholson’s Pubs across the country. You can find more information and a copy of the programme on their website.

Want more? Check out our coverage of previous Nicholson’s Ale Festivals (Autumn and Winter 2013) and of the beer and food pairing evening showcasing the Brains Brewery collabs which will be available during the festival.

– ED