The bines that bind
Meet the Manchester Community Hop Project
Saturday 14 January 2023
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Manchester has an enviable reputation within UK craft, hosting a thrilling mix of ultra-modern craft megastars and traditional brewing of esteemed lineage. One aspect of the city’s craft scene that may surprise even the most watchful beer lover though is that it hosts a thriving amateur hop-growing (and brewing) community – an army of dedicated hobbyists who prefer their beer hyper-local from ground to glass.
Locally sourced ingredients
The robust industrial silhouette of Manchester does not easily lend itself to the image of tall, verdant hop bines reaching skyward. In fact, there are only about 50 commercial hop farms in the entire UK, predominantly in the South-East and West Midlands.
The Manchester Hop Project however has been bucking received wisdom since it launched toward the end of 2017; its goal, to source enough locally grown hops to brew on a commercial scale. Some of those involved had experimented with growing hops already, but sourcing rhizomes from a reputable nursery was quite daunting for individuals. Reaching out on social media, they gathered around 20 local members and were able to buy plants cost-effectively in bulk.
Manchester wasn’t the first place to hit on this concept. The East Bristol Hop Project had sprung to life just a year earlier, and Stroud Brewery in Gloucestershire has been making green-hopped beers using the products of local allotments and gardens since 2008. What began with two plants at the brewery door has grown into a membership of 168 people.
“Each year we gather at the brewery with our bines,” says brewer and environmentalist Greg Pilley. “We pick off the hop cones, drink beer and listen to live jazz. It is a fantastic way for our community to have a hand in brewing, make a personal connection with our brewery, and appreciate the agricultural basis of our business.”
Despite being “an area not blessed with a rich hop growing tradition,” as one local describes it, the Manchester Hop Project also boasts an expanding membership and an ever-increasing harvest. The first harvest in September 2018 yielded around 12kg of fresh hops. In 2022, some 100 growers produced nearly 90kg.
As in Stroud, harvest is a time for the growers to come together. A community brew day takes place on North Western Street. Members bring in their hops and help to brew a green hop beer. They will receive a 330ml bottle for every 330g of hops they supply. Some growers bring in just a few grams while others amass over 5kg.
Craig Reay is one of the growers:“I really enjoy harvest weekend. Picking my hops and hoping for a bigger yield than the year before. Then spending the day at the brewery helping pick the hops from vines.
“While picking we talk about each other's harvests. There’s a few people who grow on allotments and they’re proud of their large yields. We talk about the many varieties, comparing the different smells, and we save the ladybugs and spiders that have helped keep the greenfly away.”
Once the beer is ready and the hop growers’ ‘fee’ has been bottled, the rest is racked off into casks or kegs to be sold over the bar. In 2021 and 2022 the harvest was large and diverse enough to brew several different beers.
The most commonly grown variety is Prima Donna, a dwarf variety that is easier to manage as it only reaches around three metres in height. However, some growers manage to cultivate standard varieties that can stretch well over six metres. This includes English varieties like Fuggles, Goldings and Challenger, European varieties including Hallertau Mittelfruh, Hersbrucker and Magnum, and American hops like Cascade and Centennial.
“I can't tell you if terroir has played a role in the beers we’ve made, as I’ve heard others claim,” says grow-your-own enthusiast Abdi. “But it is great to have made something unique to where we live.”
That sense of place comes across strongly from everyone in the community.
“There's a good feeling about drinking a beer knowing that the Hop Project contributed the hops and that it's a part of Manchester,” Craig says. “Not travelled from Kent, Europe, the US or New Zealand. But from a person's garden or allotment a few miles away.”
“It’s even better if you had grown something a bit different or unusual in the way of hop varieties,” adds grower Andrew Clarke. “Then your hops might be the only ones in a beer – practically your 'own' single estate version!"
The casks and kegs of beer hit the bar at an annual Green Hop Festival, and in 2022 one beer was also showcased at the Didsbury Beer Festival. It was badged as a Temperance Street beer, Fuggle 150, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the English hop. And there are still two freezers full of green hops left, lying in wait for a future brew.
Founder Alex Pembroke certainly seems to hit the nail on the head when he says the Manchester Hop Project has “enabled local beer lovers to become involved in brewing, learn a bit about the process and inspired them to find out more about beer and brewing.” Grower Andrew expands further on the group’s achievements, describing how they have raised the profile of seasonal, green-hopped beers to a wider audience.
“Due to the short shelf life of green hops, it isn't necessarily that feasible to produce a green hopped beer away from where they are grown, because they degrade fast after picking,” Andrew tells me. “To be able to do that in Manchester was really special. We could all get involved to produce something that we wouldn't normally be able to try, and we could share it with the public.”
Locally brewed beers
Being able to taste beers made from ingredients they have grown themselves is a strong lure to be involved in the Manchester Hop Project. Not surprisingly, there is some crossover between this group and the local coterie of homebrewers. Across the Greater Manchester area, there are a number of groups and networks that meet regularly. The Manchester group meets at Cafe Beermoth each month, while the Chorlton homebrewers can be found at The Font, for example.
“It’s a really welcoming and non-judgemental scene,” Chorlton homebrewer Abdi comments. “Me and my partner moved to Manchester from London two years ago and it was a great way to meet people. I was blown away by the quality of the brewers and would regularly drink beers that were better than some commercial stuff on tap in the bar we were meeting in.”
Craig Reay joined the Manchester Home Brewers Group because he wanted to learn from others how to brew from grain, not kits. Researching online didn’t hit the spot, he wanted hands-on support from a peer group.
“What I didn’t expect was how creative other homebrewers were and how many styles everyone experimented with,” Craig says. And he’s right, the latest vogue in beer often springs forth from the homebrewing community, who are eager to find the latest ingredient or method and have more freedom to experiment on a small, affordable scale than a professional brewery.
In fact, you could claim that the strength and diversity of Manchester’s entire beer scene can, at least in part, be traced back to the experimental activities of homebrewing groups.
“It’s a hotbed for testing the new trends in beer,” says Abdi. “It's also a place where a lot of the bigwig brewers cut their teeth. Brewers from Steelfish still attend our meetings to showcase stuff they are working on and give feedback to us about our brews.”
Track Brewing Co has a homebrew legacy; in fact, brewer Matt Dutton was originally a member of the Manchester group before splitting off to form Chorlton Homebrewers. Torrside and Thirst Class both have brewers who started off on the amateur circuit. Two of Marble Brewery’s current shift brewers were hobbyists who joined the team as dray drivers and then seized the opportunity for development.
“They were fed up of their 9-to-5 jobs which offered them no creativity,” a Marble spokesperson told me. “They wanted to jump into the beer industry to turn their hobby into a vocation. We like to train and promote from within, and passion and desire are initially more key than technical knowledge or prowess.”
A background in homebrewing makes many Manchester breweries inclined to support the community. Most of the budding homebrewers have no aspiration to go pro, but they do appreciate the chance to brew on a commercial scale for the experience.
This year for the first time, The Society of Independent Brewers is holding a national homebrew competition where entrants have access to one of Yakima Chief’s experimental hop varieties. The winning brewer will scale up their recipe for a commercial brew at Quantock Brewery in Taunton, Somerset. This competition is a test of the participants’ creativity, something that enthusiast Craig believes is a key signifier of the community.
“Homebrewers can give great insight into how a new hop can be used because of their creativity and small batch short cycle times,” he says.
Homebrew competitions are prized by entrants because the judges give them objective feedback, but the events also bring out a friendly competitive spirit.
“Stockport (and South Manchester CAMRA’s competition) is great for the local community,” Craig continues. “We want to see if we can out-compete the Chorlton Homebrewers as we have a healthy rivalry with their members.”
Abdi is a great example of one of those Chorlton homebrewers with a particular flair for experimentation, using his group to “bounce crazy homebrew recipes off.” For him, membership of Manchester’s hobbyist beer community has been transformative.
“There is a love for cask beer here that I didn’t share before moving to Manchester. It's almost a religion, and I am now a book-waving member of it. I will take a nice new-age hopped, well-conditioned cask pint over keg any day now. Also, it's got to be sparkled!”
But that’s a tale for another page.
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