The Hop Garden of Eden

In a corner of Cornwall's world famous Eden Project, Stephen Carter finds a little patch of paradise devoted to the mighty hop


To the untrained eye, Cornwall might appear to be nothing more than a sleepy fishing county and a picturesque holiday destination. In some instances, those untrained eyes might be correct. However, if you scratch beneath the surface of the Cornish landscape (oftentimes, quite literally) Cornwall has a lot more to offer. There are Cornish roots in many scientific and technological advances and the discovery of kaolinite, or ‘China clay’ to you and me, occurred on Tregonning Hill overlooking St Michael’s Mount. A world leader in its production and export, Cornwall has been on the world map for many years now and, bizarrely, it’s the result of this production that Cornwall now has its own small-scale hop farm at the Eden Project. 

Housed on the grounds of an old China clay pit, the Project’s iconic domes now dominate as one of the South West’s premier visitor attractions. Opening over twenty years ago, their mission was simple; to create life where there was dereliction since the pit’s closure. Whilst there is an abundance of exotic life within their rainforest dome, their mission in the outdoor gardens is a lot closer to home. Speaking with Julie Kendall, Outdoor Horticultural Lead, it’s unlikely there's anyone more passionate about home-grown produce than her working at the charity. 

“It’s all about playing with food and seeing where it comes from,” Julie explains as she tells me about their philosophy and the extent of their program. A home to four acres of Cornish cider apple trees, a crop of Belgravia barley and ten hop varieties, it’s clear their Brewing & Distilling area has its roots firmly in production of all things English. “We don’t produce commercially,” Julie tells me, but goes on to say their role is educational as opposed to financial. “We once had a little girl who said, ‘Mummy, I thought peas came from the freezer’ when seeing Mangetout peas for the first time,” Julie explains, rationalising their philosophy. 

Based a stone’s throw away from the nearby town of St Austell, you don’t have to look far to see the fruits of their labour either. Whilst their production may not be commercial, it is used by local businesses when possible and where available as Julie tells me, “St Austell Brewery uses both our hops and barley when they’re ready.” There’s a saying in Cornish, ‘Dreckly’, meaning an unspecified time later, and this couldn’t be more true when it comes to the harvesting of their twenty hop plants. “We pick them when we can and when we’re available,” Julie muses, almost, a benefit of them working to no deadlines other than their own, just the way it should be. 

Not only are the Project’s hops used locally, they’re all English heritage varieties too. Included in the ten varieties they produce are Fuggles, Target, Challenger and Progress, and it all comes back to showcasing where our produce comes from. “We can have all the exotic varieties we want,” Julie states, before concluding, “But, again, we want to demonstrate where our food and products come from.” Whilst we, as beer drinkers, may have fallen in love with American and Southern Hemisphere hop varieties, it’s easy to lose sight of those grown in our own soil and used by our much-loved breweries. 

That said, growing hops in the UK isn’t easy, particularly in Cornwall. The Cornish landscape might be beautiful, but it can also be harsh and unforgiving at times. Surrounded by coastlines, Cornwall finds itself at the mercy of coastal winds that howl against anything in their way. Mercifully, the Eden Project finds itself below ground level as Julie cheerfully elaborates, “Thankfully, we’re below ground! I wouldn’t like to be growing hops above ground level.” It’s probably for this reason that Cornwall isn’t renowned for its hop farms. With bines growing comfortably upwards of 15 feet, I’m not sure I’d like to be up a ladder in the face of a stiff breeze either!

The weather may present its challenges, however, Cornish water more than makes up for it. Renowned for its softness, water in the South West is the perfect nourishment for plants and people alike, with fewer chemicals added to it. Not only is this perfect for brewers looking to create a delicately balanced IPA, it’s perfect for Julie’s crops too, particularly when they’re entirely self-sufficient. “We have two reservoirs which we use and we re-capture rainwater that falls on the domes,” she tells me, explaining further how they have a focus on sustainability and efficiency. Requiring high volumes of both water and electricity, the Eden Project is conscious of its carbon footprint and how to offset their output. Testing has been conducted this year for their latest geothermal initiative, Eden Geothermal, which will not only sustain their electricity needs but also provide energy for houses within the county too. 

Their mission and message is an infectious one; look after the environment and nature, and they in turn will look after you. The world has never been smaller but, with rising household costs, our focus on sustainability and locality has never been stronger. Whilst there aren't currently any plans to expand the Brewing & Distilling exhibit at Eden, Julie doesn’t rule it out by saying jokingly when asked if they would, “Who knows? We have four acres of cider orchards,” she tails off, indicating it could be a possibility. 

With the beer landscape ever-changing and household costs ever-increasing, locality could well be the key to seeing us through challenging times. With the likes of Julie and her team educating future generations on the source of the products they consume, all may not be lost. As nationwide hop growing schemes and UK-sourced green hop beers become more prevalent, the annual UK hop harvest may once again become a holiday for many households. If it means travelling to Cornwall, then I’ll see you dreckly… 

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