Wednesday 06 December 2017
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There is something lyrical about a hop garden at harvest time, when the sun hangs low and bright in the sky, filtering through the long hanging vines heavy with moist, fragrant cones.
Walking between the uniform rows of carefully cultivated plants, the air is cool and still, redolent with the heady, herbal, lemon astringency of green hops, ripe for picking. Reach out and pluck one, and it falls apart easily between your fingers, exposing the oily yellow of the aromatic lupilin glands; the source of so many of the flavours we as beer lovers have grown to cherish.
I’m here in Surrey to share the hop harvest with Hogs Back Brewery, a small brewer of mostly traditional English ales, established 25 years ago and already a firm favourite of CAMRA, as well as a growing contingent of newer craft beer fans.
Tomorrow is the brewery’s harvest festival – when it hopes to welcome around 1000 guests for a day of music, food and (of course) great beer – but today is all about hops; specifically the three and a half acres of lush green bines currently being brought in mostly by hand.
Hogs Back’s hop garden has been in production for three years now and contains 3 500 plants, a mix of Cascade, Fuggles and a local heritage variety called Farnham White Bine.
This latter is a forbear of East Kent Golding, the UK’s most widely grown hop, and is a major selling point for Hogs Back, as the only brewery in the country to use it. Go back a couple of hundred years and the flavoursome and aromatic White Bine was one of the most soughtafter hops of the brewing world, and the growers of Farnham were famed for the freshness and quality of their goods (the single bell mark of the Farnham hop farms was one of the earliest recognised trading marks, and was synonymous with a premium product).
But in the early 20th century, a strain of downy mildew to which Farnham White Bine is particularly susceptible not only decimated crops, but ultimately shifted the country’s centre for hop growing from Sussex to Kent.
“When we found out about this this fantastic unique hop, our CEO Rupert decided he wanted to revive it,” recalls Hogs Back’s hop estate manager Matthew King. “We worked with Hampton’s, the large estate next door, to get a sample of the original hop root stock and re-introduce it. Hops are a little like grapes, in that they’re unique depending on where you plant them. So Farnham White Bine, in this soil, in this climate is at its most authentic.”
Getting a new hop garden up and running – even Hogs Back’s relatively modest three-acre setup – is a significant undertaking, and Matthew recalls hours spent during the cold winter months, digging holes and running literally miles of tough string between the tall poles to support the young plants. Even with the groundwork laid though, the plants don’t yield immediate results.
“The first year you let them grow unaided, you don’t tie them up, just grow them on canes and then let them die back,” explains Matthew. “Second year you wrap the bines around the string, to encourage them to grow and get the root stock to become more secure in the ground. You do a harvest that year with a small yield. It’s only in the following year that you get a proper harvest.”
“We still have to be cautious about downy mildew, and try to take a preventative approach,” Matthew continues. “It lives in the soil and in the root stock, so at the start of each year, I’m out here identifying the shoots that are infected and picking them out by hand. We’ve also got more effective fungicides than they would have had 100 years ago, so we’re able to keep it at bay. We’ve discovered why White Bine was phased out in the first place though. It’s a hardy crop, but the management of it is very time-consuming; it has to be nurtured.”
Hops are a little like grapes, in that they’re unique depending on where you plant them
Fresh hops are quite different to their dried counterpart. In America, they’re referred to as ‘wet’ hops, and it’s not hard to see why; their moist petals are soft and gossamer thin, and breaking them open to reveal the yellow oils inside unleashes an aroma which – while distinctively hoppy – is somehow less pungent than dried cones, with juicy lemon, mint and fresh grass notes.
At Hogs Back, a proportion of the hops from the garden are carried straight across the road for use in a ‘green’ hop version of the Brewery’s multi award-winning TEA ale.
The sample I try straight from the bright beer tank and still a little young, but the fundamental differences from regular TEA were clear – the malty sweetness is cut with a pronounced lemongrass freshness and herbs including mint and rosemary, with a slightly astringent black pepper finish.
Such green beers are a grand tradition in this part of the world, and Kent has its own festival dedicated to their production and enjoyment. While the beers themselves aren’t actually green, they have a character quite distinct from beers made with dried hops. That’s not to say that fresh hops make better beer; merely that they have a cut-grass freshness and lightness that is changed and intensified by drying.
It perhaps stands to reason that these beers are best enjoyed super-fresh, in a pub close to where the hops were grown. The harvest traditionally takes place before the autumnal equinox (which happens to be the day I visit) and Matthew sees the harvest festival and the chance to enjoy some green beer as a reward for a year of hard work.
“When you’ve been in the garden for 12 months and you’re just waiting for that window of opportunity when the cone produces its aroma, which is a limited time. To take that out of the field and add it straight to a brew, without any meddling, without being dried and compressed, or right at the end in conditioning just pack a little punch, that’s beautiful,” he says.
Left to their own devices, hops will begin to compost very quickly, changing from green to brown and breaking down into an earthy, vegetal mess, in much the same way as cut grass. It is therefore vital that any hops not being used for brewing green beer are dried to halt their decomposition.
At Hogs Back, this process couldn’t be much more direct: a pair of tiny Massey Fergusson tractors – once their trailers are full of vines – take turns heading straight out of the gate and for the oast house about a mile up the road. I hitch a ride up to witness this next stage in the hop’s journey.
Left to their own devices, hops will begin to compost very quickly
As the tractor trundles down the dirt track to the loading area, a couple of the oast house workers are lounging in the sunshine on a pile of fresh hops, while some essential maintenance is carried out on the towering, narrow machine that fills the hall.
This extraordinary piece of equipment – charged with separating fragile hop cones from their tough bines – was clearly designed by a madman. A labyrinth of criss-crossing conveyers, rails, threshers, belts, gears, gantries and valves, it’s hard to discern exactly what’s happening at each point.
Somehow though, full wreaths are fed in at one end, and perfectly intact, trimmed hops eventually emerge at the other. Everything in sight is coated in a frosting of oily, hoppy residue – it’s Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for hop heads.
These separated hops are then carried by conveyor to a huge drying room, where they are laid down in mesh-bottomed tanks, in layers around a foot deep, and hot air from large gas-fired heaters is blown up through them for around eight hours.
The dried hops that are compressed into 59kg nylon sacks at the end are still green, aromatic and free from pieces of vine, leaf and other potential contaminants. With the harvest 90% complete (once picking has started, the race is on to get everything to the oast house as swiftly as possible) I ask Matthew what will happen to the now seemingly barren garden over the long winter.
“We’ve already started to work on the ground for 2018,” he says. “After the harvest, we’ll leave it for a month, then cut everything to the base of the field floor and let all the energy go back into the roots, ready for spring next year.
All you’ll see above ground is the hook – the roots will be shielded from the elements. Then March or April, new shoots will appear very quickly – it’ll produce many more than we need, so I’ll have to reduce the number of shoots. Fewer vines for the plant to put its energy into means a bigger and better crop of hops. It’s not spreading itself so thin. From there, the bines will grow about three inches a day – when they’re active it’s amazing what they do.”
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