The green, green hops of home
Anthony Gladman asks whether the fortunes of Britain’s hop harvest may finally be looking up
Monday 30 December 2019
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The tap root on a hop plant can delve four metres into the ground looking for water. At its deepest that would be one metre of root for every generation of the Hukins family that has worked the land on Haffenden Farm in Kent growing hops.
But for a long time Ross Hukins, the current owner, thought he’d do anything other than follow in his father’s footsteps. The story of hop growing in Britain was, for decades, a story of decline, and Ross’s father was no exception. “He lost money on hops every year for 40 years. He only carried on because he loved them, he never made money out of them,” says Ross.
British brewing has been reborn over the past decade, but the new breed of brewers and drinkers that emerged have had their heads turned by hops not from Kent or Hereford but from America and New Zealand. So, is there a place for British hops in our own craft beer revolution?
It’s harvest time in the Weald of Kent. I’ve come to Haffenden Farm, home of Hukins Hops, to see for myself how the hops are grown and taken in from the fields. With me are Ross Hukins, Greg Hobbs, head brewer from Five Points Brewing Co., and a few others. There is a constant thrum of activity in the air. The clank and whir of the hop picking machine we passed at the top of the hill a short while ago is a constant backdrop.
A small red tractor pulls up beside us on the narrow leafy lane. It is open to the elements and covered in mud — a simple, working machine. The woman perched in its driving seat wears aviator shades. We clamber onto the trailer behind her and hang on to whatever we can. The tractor gives a throaty grunt and we jolt off down the hill. Before long we turn into a hop garden and bounce past row after neat row of trellised bines climbing up towards the sun. We pass into another garden half harvested already, where a small group of men at the far end are working on another row.
A figure in blue dungarees walks a few metres ahead, cutting and pulling at the bottom of the bines. Behind him the others follow, one held aloft in a metal basket. He cuts the tops and his colleagues collect the bines and lay them into a trailer like the one in which we are riding. They try to lay them flat and straight, so they’re easier to get out again later on. The trailer is almost full. When it is time, the tractor driver will race back the way we’ve just come to deliver the cut bines to the men who feed the hop picking machine’s mechanical maw. The woman with the red tractor will take his place, her trailer emptied of its human cargo, and the picking will go on without a pause. There’s no time to rest until the harvest is over.
Paul Corbett, managing director at hop merchants Charles Faram, says 70% to 80% of the hops grown in the UK are used right here, mostly by regional breweries in traditional recipes for best bitters, milds and stouts. But that only makes up half of the hops used by British brewers; the remainder are imported.
“In cask, in regional beers, the role of traditional varieties is very understood,” says Hukins. He wants to encourage craft brewers, most of whom still use mainly American varieties, to try brewing more traditional beer styles. “There are lots of breweries who do not buy any British hops at all,” he says. “They don't make any traditional types of beer at all. But they are slowly changing their mindsets and making more different styles of beer. So it's a real opportunity for British growers to get in front of.”
Five Points Brewing Co is just one example. The pints of its Best that we sink in the Pembury Tavern, back in London, later that day showcase what can be achieved by modern brewers using British hops. The beer is light, fresh and easy-drinking, with a minty white-pepper edge and clean crisp bitterness. It is at once familiar and new, and so good I finish my first pint with almost alarming speed. “The product and the passion translate into the beer,” Hobbs tells me. “One of the reasons our Best has gone down so well is the modern Fuggles in it, and we're using a lot of them.”
The area of land used for cultivating hops in Britain fell from 29,000 hectares at its peak to just 950 hectares today. The number of growers has also shrunk. There are about 50 today; Hukins thinks it may drop to 30 or so, as some growers don’t have anyone to pass their farms on to when they retire.
The product and the passion translate into the beer
But at last the long decades of decline have bottomed out. The area under cultivation has been steady for the last few years. Those growers who remain stand ready take up the slack when the last few bow out. There is a new optimism among British hop farmers. Many are spending heavily to secure a future for their businesses.
“I’ve remortgaged myself for the rest of my life to commit to the farm with a level of investment my dad couldn't ever make,” says Hukins. He’s building a huge facility to pick, dry and process his hops. At its heart will be a new machine. Well, new to Hukins anyway. “We’re in the process of renovating the greatest British hop machine that was ever built. It’s quite nerdy. It’s called the Bruff Super E. It’s a 1960s machine.”
Hukins has chosen this vintage machine for the same reason he uses vintage tractors during harvest. When (not if) they break down, his workers can fix them at the side of the road within a matter of minutes. Repairing modern, computerised machines means calling out a specialist engineer, which can take days. Hukins doesn’t have days to spare during harvest.
“We decided to invest heavily. We bought this old machine from a retired grower. We’re sandblasting it, painting it and refurbishing it. We’re basically bringing it back to its former glory.”
This vintage machine has another advantage over more modern German or American machines. It is built to handle British hops and their own unique peculiarities. The UK grows just 1.5% of all hops produced globally, and yet we punch above our weight when it comes to the different varieties that flourish here. “I think it was about 22 at the last count,” says Corbett. “We grow a lot of varieties for a country that is relatively small, and we have a lot of varieties that are unique to this country.”
Charles Faram is one of two organisations developing new hop varieties in the UK. (The other is the British Hop Association.) “The UK has been a big producer of new varieties and it is constantly innovating with the flavours and aromas that it's able to achieve,” says Corbett. In the past these breeding and selection programmes have produced varieties like Archer, Minstrel, Jester and Olicana. The three latest from Charles Faram are called Mystic, Harlequin and Godiva.
“What we're finding now is we're getting some very interesting results from our selections,” continues Corbett. “Every year we get about a 5% increase in aroma, so by crossing the plants again and again, and it tends to be interfamily as well which sounds quite wrong, but by breeding them within the family they tend to throw out some of the crosses which have more of these intense flavours, and we're finding that every year we go on we're getting this step up in aroma.”
It's the right time to be in hops, if you can afford to invest in it
Harlequin is a step up from Jester and Olicana, and there are new experimental hops that are also a step up from Harlequin. “The exciting bit for me is that I firmly believe we can grow more aromatic hops in Britain to compete with some of the hops that are grown around the rest of the world,“ says Corbett. “In another five, 10 years’ time there will definitely be more intensity of flavour.”
A few weeks after my trip to Haffenden Farm I am back at the Pembury Tavern. They’re serving green hop beers brewed with the hops I saw being picked. “It’s the right time to be in hops, if you can afford to invest in it,” Hukins had told me then. “I think it’s got a real future.”
Today I’m here to taste that future.
One of the green hop beers has familiar flavours of white pepper and mint, gentle earthy spice backed up by a grassy bitter edge. This is Fuggle, a quintessentially British hop. The others – hopped with Ernest and Bullion, new British aroma varieties grown by Hukins – offer flavours from a different palette. One is highly aromatic with citrus and blackcurrant leaping out of the glass. One is softly fruity, with peach and apricot over a fresh grapefruit bitterness. If this is the future of British hops, then I’m definitely on board.
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