The hop conundrum

Hop farming is uniquely vulnerable to climate change, yet also presents complex environmental threats, writes Richard Croasdale


When it comes to assessing the overall sustainability of a particular brewery, its hop supply tends to be a bit of a black box. Hop farming doesn’t tend to produce a huge amount of carbon, compared to other parts of the supply chain, and in any case a little hop tends to go a long way in terms of the finished product. But the factors underlying this corner of the process are complex, and are perhaps not as well understood as they should be. 

Charles Faram is one of the UK’s largest hop suppliers and developers, with customers all around the world. Group technical director Will Rogers says: “In the grand scheme of things, hops account for probably less than 5% of the carbon impact of most beers. The brewing in itself produces a lot of CO2, as you know, and combined with actual delivery of the beer will be by far the biggest carbon contributor. So you really have to look beyond crude carbon counting to understand the sustainability challenges the hop industry faces.”

This is echoed by Carolyn Logan, global sustainability coordinator at hop giant BarthHaas: “We're definitely not off the hook as an industry, because we still have an impact, and we still have huge opportunities to improve in all sorts of ways. It’s a priority for us partly because it’s a priority for our customers, who are expecting us to improve and also to support them in achieving their own goals.

“That means we're definitely focused on emissions, of course. But we're focused on waste. We're focused on the use of pesticides and fertilisers. And we’re also focused on resilience to climate change, because this is happening, and we need to be commercially sustainable too. The two things go hand in hand.”

The sensitive nature of the hop plant makes it particularly vulnerable to any changes in its environment, whether that’s climate, soil condition or disease and pests. Ironically though, this is what also makes it so problematic from a sustainability point of view; the very measures that hop farmers must take to protect their crop are often, themselves, ecologically harmful.

We’ve combined GPS technology with a detailed soil chemistry map of the farm

“Hops are a monoculture,” explains Charles Faram’s Will. “So when we talk about a ‘variety’, we're talking about genetic clones, and when you grow anything in that way, you're exposing yourself to disease. They're also relatively nitrogen hungry, so the standard way to deal with them has been to give them nitrogen feed, three times a year, that’s essentially produced from oil. In the US, they all have to be irrigated.

“Then there’s the need for fungicides and pesticides. You can get organic hops, but they make up a fraction of 1% of the market because they’re so difficult and expensive to produce. Hop plants are very vulnerable to certain pests and diseases. Before the dawn of agrichemicals, most brewers would have at least three years-worth of hops in store at any one point, because a fungus outbreak could easily destroy an entire year’s crop.”

Brook House Hops is a relative newcomer to the UK hop farming scene, and set out from Day One to minimise its impacts in these areas. It has employed an agronomist (unusual in hop farming) as well as working with more traditional knowledge, to ensure it is getting the most from the farm’s natural resources, as well as protecting them for the future.

Brook House’s Andy Garbett says: “I think perhaps the most important statistic for our farm is that only around 45% is farmed for profit. We have around 170 acres of managed woodland alongside the hop bines, as well as a wildflower meadow to encourage biodiversity, and sheep wandering round, fertilising everything naturally. 

“We planted hops here for the first time in many years, so we wanted to get it right. Our agronomist helps us safeguard the long-term health of the soil by doing everything as naturally as possible and minimising the use of chemicals. That’s a combination of traditional knowledge and technology; for example, we’ve combined GPS technology with a detailed soil chemistry map of the farm. That allows us to tailor the amount of fertiliser we use according to where it’s needed. Importantly, that means we’re never just saturating the land in chemical products, so the soil can start to build up its natural defences, generally becoming more healthy and reducing the amount of fertiliser even further.”

Charles Faram is also working with its farmers, in a similar direction, combining science with traditional techniques to reduce the need for crude chemical intervention.

“One of the things that’s working really well is called green manuring,” says Will. “Instead of using artificial fertiliser, we plant a winter rye down through the rows, and then you can mow it, or you can put sheep in to graze, and that then gives you a slow release nitrogen into the soil that has been naturally produced. Another thing we’re trialling is replacing the first nitrogen feed of the year with a probiotic feed. That contains molasses and various trace elements, it's organic, and it essentially feeds the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil, which it turn captures atmospheric nitrogen and feeds it to the plants.”

The development of new hop varieties – discussion of which usually focuses on wild new flavours and aromas – is also delivering significant sustainability benefits. Although it’s not particularly sexy, all new hops reaching the market will have passed high benchmarks for resistance to disease and pests, and even factors like water requirement and temperature tolerance are high up the breeders’ agenda. 

New varieties that fare well in the cool, damp British climate are also potential game-changers, bringing New World-like punchiness and fruit notes to home-grown hops. While they’re highly unlikely to replace American and antipodean hops any time soon, varieties like Jester and Harlequin are bringing exciting new options to modern British breweries, with many more in the pipeline.

“The demand in the industry for British hops has never been higher, and we’re encouraged to say that’s increasing every year,” says Andy at Brook House. “And that’s not just because people’s tastes are shifting – though that’s certainly part of it – but I think brewers are recognising the quality and character of our home-grown hops has really improved.”

What is sustainability and what does it mean to different people?

While also working closely with its hop growers, particularly in high-impact areas like irrigation, BarthHaas is using its size and clout to help set standards, allowing breweries to better understand the environmental performance of their supply, and factor this into their own calculations.

Carolyn says: “It’s a really interesting question to pose, what is sustainability and what does it mean to different people? For breweries, they’ll often gravitate to water usage, because they can relate to that. But for example organic is difficult because of the costs and the burden on growers. So we have a system called SAI, through which farmers can check off various areas and eventually certify as sustainable. That push actually came from Heineken, but now any brewery can buy hops, see that they’re sustainable, and most importantly know what that means.”

A challenge as complex as that facing the hop industry is never going to have one single solution. As Will says, it will always be a case of “a 5% improvement there and 1% saving there, but then all these things come together for a compound benefit”. Whether it’s a case of developing less resource-intensive varieties, cutting the sky-high costs of processing, or making the black box of hop production more transparent, changes are afoot that will help make the hop farm a more sustainable place, environmentally and commercially.

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