Signs of life

After several quiet years, we see movement in the British hop growing scene, and it’s happening at Buxton Brewery


“I’d like to say it’s all very formal, and we all sit down and have regular meetings, but it doesn’t always work that way,” says Rob Topham, production director at Buxton Brewery, when asked about the kinds of conversations that happen between a brewer, supplier and grower when collaborating to develop new hop strains. At the time of my conversation with Rob, Buxton has five, single-hopped beers in tank, each flavoured with an experimental varietal so early on in its development, as to not have a name yet. 

Rob says that on a fine day last year, the Buxton team headed down to Townend Farm, in Herefordshire, where many of Charles Faram’s British varieties are grown. Faram’s is a grower-owned hop merchant, so it’s no surprise that both farmer, Mark Andrews, and Faram’s global technical director, Will Rogers, were present to offer the Buxton team a tour of the farm, and guide them through an experimental selection of more than 60 unnamed hop plants.

After rubbing and sniffing their way through the offering, the Buxton team chose five varieties with qualities they found interesting. Then about six weeks prior to my call with Rob, the brewery received 10-15kg, small-pellet batches of each hop in the mail, all for inclusion in a series of single-hopped beers to be exhibited at Beer X with Charles Faram. 

When you put it like that, brewing with experimental hops sounds more like a nice day out, than a significant marker in the evolution of a product with the potential to influence the future of craft beer. However, Buxton was specifically chosen by Faram’s to partner with for this project because of its longstanding commitment to British hops and experience of brewing exceptional single hop beers. 

When it can take ten years to get a new variety to the point that it’s worth planting in a field, you want an experienced team like this on-side, and on which the significance of commercial trials won’t be lost. At the time of my call with Rob, the Buxton team are all too aware that any one of the hops in tank might just be a brew or two away from making its way to market. 

Commercial release is the end result of a rigorous and elaborate trial programme. Once parent plants are successfully bred, their progeny need to demonstrate resistance to disease and pests, have a harvest window that doesn’t clash with other commercially established varieties, and show potential that its unique flavour and aroma compounds will behave appropriately in a brew. With the benchmark for success being so high it’s no surprise that of the thousands of varieties constantly being trialled, a hop worth naming is only released every couple of years. 

Considering this, it’s all the more impressive that Charles Faram’s development programme alone released eight UK grown varieties — Archer, Emperor, Godiva, Harlequin, Jester, Olicana, Mystic and Opus — between 2013 and 2019. However since then, the UK market has quieted somewhat, leaving many oscillating between worry and impatience. 

“There's still lots of stuff coming out of the US, the Germans have been working hard on some new varieties as well, like Mandarina Bavaria and Hallertau Blanc,” says Rob. “I think some of the older hops are starting to show signs of wear and tear in the fields; Perle in Germany, for example, is losing its alpha acids year on year, so there’s definitely been a move on to find what the new alternative for that is, as well. Here in the UK, Faram’s has done a fantastic job, and it’d be great for them to continue the work their hop development programme has been doing. Thanks to that programme we’re now starting to get some of these really nice American-esque flavours, which means that we can start to grow those varieties more locally, be a little bit more sustainable, and stop having to rely on shipping everything from the States.”

Rob says that of the experimental hops in tank at the time of our conversation, “there's a little bit of everything in there,” meaning the hops are a result of pairing desirable growth characteristics with aroma varieties, before introducing them to British breeds, or in other words, varieties that know how to grow well in the UK. That might look like breeding two UK hops, or bringing together hops from all over the world. 

It’s important to note, however, that whatever the combination, however they grow, and no matter how unique the flavour and aromas produced, for new hop varieties to be a success, their functionality has to cater to the needs of the brewing industry. 

“It’s a tough time for craft beer right now,” says Rob. “You can see it from the amount of breweries that are closing, and you know, hops cost a lot of money, so I think the industry as a whole will be looking at their usage right now. In the past, there’s been a massive rush towards dry hopping with the most grams per litre, but I think there’s now going to be more of an appetite for intense varieties that you can get the most out of with the lowest usage. That also might not be a bad thing for the beer itself; more isn’t always better, you know, you get things like hop burn, and off flavours if you use too many hops, so there is a sweet spot to be found.”

Rob continues, saying that while he and the rest of the industry wait patiently for new varieties to emerge, he’s been dabbling with whole and pellet hop alternatives which, by taking a liquid form, minimises absorption and bolsters yield. 

“I don't think we're ever going to get away from needing whole and pellet hops, as they just bring a very unique flavour, and that really clean, fresh, hop aroma, but I think supplementing with some of the non pellet alternatives like SPECTRUM [100% hop derived, liquid hop] and hop oil are something that we're all looking at. For example, we've been working with Totally Natural Solutions for some time now, and used them in a few of our beers. Most recently we have worked with them to get hold of some Harlequin hop oil which we will be planning to test out in some of our upcoming brews.” 

Rob says that while Buxton still uses US-grown American hops, and sources the majority of them through Faram’s, they’ve been collectively focusing on the utilisation of British grown hops. “We still like the American varieties for the full on punchy hop aroma, but we’ve found beers like The Girl From Mars do everything we wanted it to by just using Harlequin,” says Rob. “We use Godiva, which is another one of Faram’s developmental hops, in our lager as well, so there's quite a nice fresh lemon character to that.”

“We’ve used Olicana before in a blonde ale, but only used it on the kettle side, so we’re excited to see what using it for dry hopping will bring. We also now have this hop in T45 pellets, so we should have some more concentrated lupulin in there, and get a little bit more tropical fruit, a little bit of melon, and mango, which should be its full profile.”

With the next generation of British hops in tank, so near and yet so far, now is the time to get acquainted with its predecessors. Is the difference between wood and herb enough to tell Jester from her sister, Olicana? In the fine line between flowers and white fruit, could you tell that Harlequin is the daughter of Godiva? I’m not sure I could, but suppose this vast ocean of culture and terroir is worth taking a dip in at least.

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