We can scarcely believe it’s been five months since we last visited Stocks Farm in Suckley, Worcestershire to learn all about hops. Back then there was still a slight chill in the air, the apple trees in the orchards were mostly bare and the hop plants were tiny green shoots not even a foot high.
What a transformation.
The dark green of the apple trees are punctuated with thousands upon thousands of shiny red apples. In the distance, against the backdrop of the Malvern Hills, the hop yards are flourishing, the plants towering above the ground and creating shaded, almost mysterious passageways between the poles. The ground is littered with the lime green of stray hop flowers, and the air is pungent with that distinctive zing of grass, pine and tart fruits.
A decent crowd of interested locals of all ages has gathered in front of the beautiful farm house and old hop kiln to be greeted by Ali and Richard Capper, who have thrown their farm open to visitors for their first open day to increase awareness of the British hop industry. The afternoon kicks off with an introduction by Ali about the 200 years of hop-growing history on the farm and some basics about hops and their usage. We head off through the apple orchards – stopping to enjoy a Gala straight off the tree, which is just amazing – and come to the low trellis hop yards.
These are unique to the UK and a recent innovation designed to save labour on both tending for and harvesting the hops, as we reported earlier in the year. Down the hill, a large red machine is chugging through the rows. “The machine is picking both hop and leaf, and it’s being conveyed into a trailer in the row beside it,” says Ali. “The harvester is actually based on a blackcurrant picker.” Richard points out that the harvester is only used for one week a year, during which time it “has its guts thrashed out”. There is certainly a bustling atmosphere on the farm – you can feel the frenzy of activity. “People say ‘I’d like to grow some hops; it can’t be that difficult’,” he says, “and actually, the growing part isn’t that difficult, it’s the harvesting and drying that provides the challenges. All the hop growers in the area are picking at the same time, so there’s no spare capacity to loan out.”
Passing through the low trellis hops we come to the more recognisable tall hop yards with their tunnels of pendulous green flowers. Ali passes around some fresh flowers for the visitors to break open and sniff, taking in all those intoxicating aromas. There is something quite humbling about standing beneath these vast, lush plants, and you really feel a sense of the centuries of heritage and tradition of British hop growing.
“The life of a hop plant is indefinite,” Richard tells us. “I know of hop yards that are nearly 100 years old. Usually it’s when a market changes that cause you to dig them out and change the varieties.” Stocks Farm grows several types of hop, including newcomers like Endeavour, and more traditional varieties. “We have a contract with Fullers for all of our Target hops,” says Richard. “Because they are such a reputable brewery, others will follow their lead and that helps us keep some of the older varieties alive.”
We finally reach the bottom of the hill where we are about to meet the hop picking machine. When we visited the old hop kiln back in April, Ali showed us an original old-fashioned hop press, manufactured at the Bruff in Suckley. In the 1960s the same manufacturer made the hop picking machines which have since been exported all over the world, and Stocks Farm keeps it local by still using theirs today. “We love the Bruff because it’s a gentle way of picking the hops,” says Ali. “We decided to reinvest in it. Although it’s antiquated and old, it works! Basically, it’s a series of rollers, belts and blowing air, and it’s all about separating a heavier hop from a lighter leaf.”
We pass the unloading trailers and enter the huge barn which houses the Bruff. The noise is deafening as the machine chugs away, the hops being ferried up and down and around the vast space in a blur of conveyer belts, lifts and cogs. It’s like something out of Willie Wonka’s laboratory, but with hops.
We follow the little flowers’ progress around the room until we climb the stairs up to the kilning area. Here workers are sliding enormous flat baskets of hops into giant furnaces, while huge piles of dried hops loom in the background. “The dry hops are tipped into piles to condition them for 24 hours,” explains Richard. “This allows them to take a bit of moisture back in, so they don’t go to dust. The challenge for the driers is to get the moisture just right: too wet and they get packed like a compost heap, too dry they could combust and you’d lose the whole kiln.”
On the way back downstairs we pass enormous hessian sacks which are stacked up to the ceiling. “The hops are a huge volume, they’re all air, so in order to pack them we need to press them,” Richard tells us. “We create 85kg packs, and when we’ve made the bale, we probe it to check the moisture. Every hop dries a different way, for example the Sovereign we’re doing now, are a light, fluffy cone, which will dry quite quickly. Some years, we’ll need 3 presses to get 85kg, last year because of the weather, they weighed heavy and we only needed two presses.”
As we leave the barn and begin the walk back up the hill, Richard reflects: “all of this kit is used just five weeks a year, and in that time we burn about £25-30k of diesel to dry the hops. Which is quite irritating because as soon as the brewer gets them he throws them in water again!”
As we enjoy tea and cake (apple, of course) on the lawn in front of the farmhouse, we look out across the valley and at the sea of green hop yards below us. It has been fascinating to be able to follow the journey of these hops from shoot to bale, and in doing so we think we have begun to understand the passion felt by the British hop farmers for the heritage and preservation of the industry. We certainly have a much greater appreciation for those British hop names when we read them on a bottle label or pump clip.
On our return journey we once again pass through picturesque Ledbury for a return trip to the Once Upon a Tree Three Counties Cider Shop we pick up, amongst other goodies, some hopped cider by Oliver’s. This, my friends, could be a dangerous new chapter…