Hops are arguably the major flavour imparting ingredient in beer and as such the most important. With British hops having been in decline for a number of decades and only producing ~ 1.5% of the world's hops, I was interested in knowing more about how they are grown, and how British hops are faring against other countries varieties. To get some answers I got in contact with Ali Capper from Stocks Farm and the British Hops Association and asked her some questions.
With the introduction of strong and very hoppy American pale ales into the UK market has this benefited the UK hop industry?
In some ways the UK have mimicked the US craft beer trend rather too closely and in copying the trend for highly flavoured, highly hopped, beautiful tasting, regularly changing beers, some UK brewers missed out the importance for US brewers of these beers being locally produced with locally sourced ingredients. That said there are a larger and larger core of UK brewers who have worked out that craft beer is about local provenance and we are seeing growing support for British Hops. American Hops have become more expensive too so British Hops are now very competitive.
Since 2009 there has been an increase in the demand for British hops what do you put this down to?
British Hops have a distinct terroir - delicate and complex and ironically the US craft brewers now see British Hops as answering their need for hops which will produce wonderful session beers. Session beers would seem to be the next trend coming from the USA. Brewers like Goose Island, Summit and Boston Beer Co are using British Hops in their IPA’s too.
What is the ecological impact of an increase in demand for hops?
Hops, like all plants, need to water to grow. Climate change is putting all growers under pressure but especially those in Yakima Valley, Washington State where they are suffering from water shortages, drought and high temperatures. By contrast the UK has fairly even precipitation throughout the year which means that the majority of British Hops are grown without irrigation.
What are the main challenges for the hop farmers in the UK and how do you anticipate that they can be overcome?
Our challenges are the same as for hop growers in the main hop producing areas: high land prices, high labour costs, ever tighter regulation and red tape and more and more restrictions on crop protection products. This requires sensible pricing that provides profitability to sustain farms into the future. In addition hops by their nature are a long term crop and we need customers to take a long term view with us and be prepared to commit to varieties by contracting forward for their hops.
Can you please give me an overview of all the hard work and hours that goes into the hop harvest?
In tall hop yards (the majority in the world), every plant needs a structure to grow up - this is string, a coir based string that we put in place every Spring, by hand. The hop is a perennial plant and as it emerges in April, it is trained to grow up the string. Every plant is trained by hand, clockwise to grow upwards. Each plant has to be trained usually 2 to 3 times each Spring. For 100 acres of hops, we employ 8 workers on our farm to string the hop yards and train the hops over the course of 4-6 weeks. At harvest time, 100 acres of hops requires 13 people to bring in the hops, pick, separate and dry them. Today the harvest is automated using a hop picking machine. In the olden days the hop harvest would have required hundreds of people on each farm to pick the hops by hand.
What sort of quality control is in place to ensure that the hops are in the best condition possible for harvest?
During the growing season (March to September) the hops are “walked” every week to check for pests and disease and the appropriate crop protection products are used depending on what is found.
The yakima valley in the US is a particular hot spot for hop production with new hop varieties being produced and regularly introduced into the market place. This must be big challenge for UK hops producers. What innovations and efforts are being made to ensure that they maintain their market share?
British Hop growers have a world leading hop breeding programme called Wye Hops (http://siba.co.uk/2013/09/wye-hops-new-hop-variety-breeding-programme/) that is renowned for producing excellent new varieties. In 1998 there were only 13 commercially grown British Hop varieties, today there are 27, including Pilgrim, Endeavour, Jester, Archer and Minstrel.
What is your favourite hop variety and why?
I have lots of favourites but if I had to choose two: love Endeavour which is a daughter of Cascade - it has the same citrus flavour notes as Cascade but also some summer fruit notes such as strawberry, raspberry and blackcurrant. But I also love Jester which is all about tropical fruits - mango and lychee.
Other than brewing and the occasional tea what other uses are there for hops?
Sleep remedies - most over the counter sleep remedies contain hops - there is something very soporific in hop oils.
What is your favourite hop related fact?
Each acre of hops produces enough hops for about 500,000 pints of beer.
After years of declining hop production in Britain it seems like British hops are regaining a seat at the top table due to their unique flavour profile and for their ability to assist with producing very drinkable, sessionable, beers. As Ali describes there is evidence to support this, and one piece is an increasing demand from US brewers for British hops. Further evidence of the return of a great British product is that some UK craft brewers are now producing beers that contain only British hops for bittering and aroma e.g. Thornbridge Erioca Britannia Handsome and Coniston Brewery's Bluebird Bitter. It just goes to show the hops are not always greener on the other side.