The season of mists and mellow fruitiness is quickly passing, and in the beer world thoughts turn from Keats’ gentle poem to the hop harvest. Early reports indicate a steady year but with some traditional varieties down, due to the very wet spring weather followed by the hot summer,
The Humulus lupulus is a curious little green flower that plays an enormous role in the diversity of beer, providing luscious aromas, flavour and the crucial bitterness that makes you keen for another pint.
Hops have been recognised for centuries for their medicinal and preservative properties. Bt in the Middle Ages they were condemned as a ‘wicked’ foreign threat to English ale. Back then we used such delightful ingredients as bog myrtle and St John’s wort. In the early 1500s hops were a banned, but, fortunately for us, the enlightened Edward VI repealed the law.
By the time of the industrial revolution we had Goldings, a soft and earthy hop still very much in use. And in 1875 Richard Fuggle came up with his eponymous variety that, with its delicate, minty, grassy character that has proved to be the mainstay for many quality ales. Other old stages include Admiral for bitterness, Bramling Cross for spicy and blackcurrant flavours and Challenger with full-bodied roundness and crispness.
In recent times the hop business has evolved with many new varieties, particularly from the USA and New Zealand – Citra, Chinook, Amarillo, Cascade, Nelson Sauvin and Motueka – much embraced by our new wave brewers for the distinctive citrus and tropical fruit notes for blonde, golden pale ales and US style IPAs (India Pale Ale).
The British hop industry suffered as brewers moved to these New World hops, but today there are some 50 commercially available British hop varieties and our growers are hitting back with their own new varieties – Jester, Olicana, Endeavour and GP75, offering tropical style fruit notes to rival the foreigners. Meanwhile American brewers are demanding British hops for session ales.
My own discovery of hops began as an ‘unemployed student’. After a few weeks of summer travelling around Britain I was stony broke – so I hitched to a hop farm near Staplehurst, deep in the Garden of England, for the harvest.
After two days struggling some 80 miles along the south coast – on a diet of plums and a solitary pint of Sussex bitter (I still remember how I savoured that one) – I was very glad to meet the hops.
When the Kentish September sun shone, I loved working among the bines on the tractor and trailer. But tackling the rather malodourous shed, where the bines were stripped and dried, with a touch of a Kentish ale hangover on a chilly autumn morning was….. something else. By October I had seen – and smelt – enough of hops, I thought, to last a lifetime. I sped back to industrial Lancashire and a building site job – where hops in a glass were very firmly in the glass.
Rockin’ on at the hop shed
Quite some years later I renewed my acquaintance with the hop world when the UK’s oldest brewery, Shepherd Neame of Faversham, kindly invited me to their ‘harvest blessing’.
This long tradition had faltered, but was revived by ‘Sheps’ in a jolly church service complete with its own rocking vicar, the Reverend William Mowll. The 15thC parish church of St Peter & St Paul at Bought on-under-Blean rang out with hymns to celebrate the almost bewitching heritage of the Kent hop fields, from centuries ago to more recent times when London’s east-enders made their seasonal pilgrimage.
Post ceremony it was down to the hop shed. Now this was more my sort of shed, complete with the famous Spitfire ale plus table’s groaning with ‘hop-pickers’ culinary delights.
No wonder the East-Enders went out by the train load. Then it was on with the communal singing, led by the rockin’ Rev with a choir, belting out with some great sixties hits. I seem to particularly recall Dylan’s famous Blowin’ in the Wind. A wonderful, bizarrely British, celebration.
When you take that welcome gulp of your first pint tonight, perhaps think for a moment about the magic and romance of the Humulus lupulus – quietly raise your glass to a bright future for the British hop and, maybe, hum a bar or two of Bob’s golden oldie. I think I will.