The green, green hops of home

Matthew Curtis argues it’s time to start showing English hops the respect they deserve


“Go and visit your nearest hop farmer,” Will Kirby, the owner of Herefordshire’s Brook House Hops tells me. “Ideally in late August just before harvest.”

I’ve been guilty of dismissing English hops in the past, referring to them as “twiggy” and “bland” among other, more colourful slurs. However, during the last year or so I’ve realised that I’ve perhaps been viewing them through the wrong lens. Yes, I love big, aromatic and righteously bitter IPAs — in fact these are the beers I generally enjoy the most. Much of the reason for this is thanks to the potent aromatics of northwestern American hops.

“Grapefruit”, “mango” and “tangerine” are good descriptions for these hops, and ones that you might be used to hearing regularly. The character they add to beer is immediate and obvious. If you’re used to drinking beers made with exclusively English hops, tasting a US-hopped beer for the first time can be like watching television in colour, after previously only viewing in black and white. When you also consider the equally potent varieties from New Zealand and Australia, it’s enough to reconsider why you used to drink boring English-hopped beers at all. 

However, more recently I’ve come to develop a deep respect for our more delicate and subtle English hop varieties and the nuances they lend to some of my favourite beers: Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter, Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, Five Points Best. One of the reasons English hops work so well in these beers is not simply because they are being used properly, in a style that suits them, but because these breweries are forging a deeper connection to their agriculture by considering how they are processed during and after harvest. They’re also forming strong relationships with those that farm them, like Will Kirby. 

When I followed Kirby’s advice and visited an English hop farm (or hop garden, to use the correct colloquialism—but make no mistake, these are working farms, so make sure you ask for permission before visiting) my mind was blown by just how pungent the fresh hops on the bine were. These hop flowers were bursting with notes of lemon and peach, with barely a hint of twig to be found. In the space of one afternoon my newfound excitement for English hops was cranked up several notches.

“The excitement that intensely flavoured US hop varieties have brought to craft has been great for bringing attention to hops as an ingredient, he says. “English hops are seen as ‘less impactful’ but this isn’t exactly correct—they just work together with malt and yeast to create a rounded, more balanced beer.”

You won’t find English hops bringing big hitting flavour and aroma to a style like New England IPA—because that’s just not part of their design. Bitter, mild, stout, porter, ESB, golden ale—these are just some of the beer styles English hops flourish in. Sadly, these styles have been overlooked as more and more beer lovers in the UK join the never-ending pursuit of beers with flavour. With my palate being somewhat more seasoned than the average drinker, I’ve found myself coming back to the classics, and in doing so have discovered a newfound respect for them. In turn, this also made me reconsider the importance of their ingredients. Traditional British styles are as exciting as they are culturally relevant, I’m just ashamed it took me so long to figure this out. 

Speaking to Will Kirby, I discovered I’m not the only one dreaming of frothy pints of English-hopped bitter and mild either. “As a business we see a lot of demand from US brewers who want to buy UK hops to brew something different from their perspective,” he tells me. It’s fascinating to me that even with access to some of the most sought after varieties like Citra and Mosaic being grown on home soil, a desire to brew with our delightfully mellow hops from US brewers exists.

One of Brooke House Hops’ customers is Reece Hugill, of the Hartlepool-based Donzoko Brewing. You may already be familiar with Donzoko’s excellent lagers, such as Northern Helles and Big Foam. Neither of these uses English hop varieties however, instead leaning on German varieties such as Hallertau Blanc, and those from Australia like Astra. In his latest lager, Garden Bier, Hugill has decided to plump for home grown varieties, with First Gold and Challenger forming the hop additions in this recipe. 

Reece Hugill, Donzoko Brewing

“I used English hops in Garden Bier as I wanted the soft, floral earthiness only UK varieties can deliver,” Hugill says. “There’s subtleties there that are unique, that simple beer styles like lager or bitter really showcase. Especially when using large quantities in the kettle or whirlpool. It smells like our countryside, like our gardens.”

Garden Bier tastes a million miles from the preconceived notion of bland, English-hopped beers. Delicate notes of rosemary and honeysuckle shine through in the aroma, while flavours of apricot mingle with a herbaceous earthiness, enhancing the dry finish. That these flavours are supported by the soft, supple malt character created by decoction mashing (a process which creates some unfermentable sugars, adding body to the beer) in a beer of just 3.8% means it’s a beer that practically demands to be enjoyed by the caseload. 

There’s subtleties there that are unique, that simple beer styles like lager or bitter really showcase

It’s a perfect example of how English hops shine through when used properly. And it’s a great showcase for how important the supply chain is. English hops are far more delicate than their more robust counterparts cultivated in the US or Germany, for example. With farms like Brooke House investing in modern processing technology, it means that the delicate aromatics are still preserved by the time they reach the brewer. 

“I wasn’t won over with English hops at first,” Hugill admits. “In 2017 I had a Kernel table beer green hopped with Bramling Cross. It was a heady mix of blackcurrant, flowers and pine, it was a real eye opener. Finding higher quality English hops was then a must.”

I’ve empathy for Hugill in this situation. The inherent qualities in high-quality English hops is something that I didn’t truly appreciate until I visited a hop farm for the first time, which leads me to think this may be the case for many other brewers and drinkers. It’s interesting then, as a new wave of farmers like Will Kirby emerges, that a new generation of brewers is finally discovering their potential. However, not all brewers (or drinkers) have been won over yet. Take Jack Walker, head brewer at Liverpool’s Love Lane Brewing, for example. 

“In modern styles of pale and hoppy beers, the flavour profile just isn’t right,” Walker tells me. “Where we look for pungent, fruity, dank hops with high oil contents, typically UK hops lack in these qualities.”

He does, however, also admit that he does have a fondness for some English varieties, pointing towards Bramling Cross and its effectiveness at imbuing dark beers with luscious blackberry notes as one example. And while it’s true that English varieties wouldn’t be particularly suited to Love Lane’s beers like Baltic Haze – a riotously tropical New England IPA – Walker explains to me how it’s not merely the subtleties of English hops that are dissuading him from using them.

“I’ve certainly had quality issues in the past,” he says. “We have fallen significantly behind in hop breeding programmes. I haven’t seen new varieties released that are more applicable to progressive beer styles. It is very unlikely that I’ll buy more English hops when pale and hop forward styles are the vast majority of our production.”

New hop varieties are being developed in the UK. Jester, bred by Kent-based hop merchant Charles Faram, was launched in 2012 promising notes of grapefruit and lychee. This variety was used in the development of another new English variety called Harlequin, which has only recently been released to market. I managed to get my hands on some samples at the Society for Independent Brewers annual Beer X conference in March, and was pleasantly surprised by its lime and strawberry aromas. 

Walker is clearly aware of these newer varieties as he namechecks Ernest, another new variety (well, technically a revived hop that was shelved in the 1950’s because it was far too aromatic for what brewers wanted from hops for at the time) that London’s The Five Points used in one of its Green Hopped Bitters released last autumn. I remember it tasting of fresh citrus rind, with a note of freshly cut grass that reminded me a little of Amarillo—one of my favourite North American varieties.

However, I found myself asking why there’s this constant push for bigger, better, more resinous, more potent, more aromatic hops. If anything, the joy I take from English hops is from their nuance and subtlety. As someone who turned his nose up at varieties like Fuggles and East Kent Goldings for so long, now I revel in them. Imagine Harvey’s Sussex Best if it didn’t provide you with its characterful, bitter hit, instantly transporting you to the south coast with every sip, until the bottom of the glass. Why are so many brewers trying to get away from this? Well, according to Ross Hukins, British Hop Association (BHA) Director and Kent hop grower, there is change in the air. 

Ross Hukins, British Hop Association Director and Kent hop grower.

“We are now seeing new interest from the craft sector looking to produce remakes of classic beer styles [like traditional bitters and pale ales] to widen their beer style offering,” Hukins says. “There has also been a tendency to look to US and NZ hops first for big flavours but actually newly released English varieties can carry full intensity into modern beer styles and offer British brewers the opportunity to find ‘new world’ flavours from UK hops.”

Hukins also lists a few other good reasons for brewers to invest in English-grown hops. For starters it’s more sustainable, with far less air miles on each beer produced by not using hops that have been flown in from overseas. It puts money back into the economy by supporting British farmers and suppliers. It also gives the brewer a chance to connect with their local agriculture, and in turn have the opportunity to connect their customers to this as well. We talk a lot about how beer is brewed or produced, but never where or how it is grown. A focus on English hops could help to change that. 

“We hope one outcome of the current pandemic is that in general producers will look to use local British malts and hops where possible,” Hukins adds. “At the BHA we continue to develop new hops through our hop breeding programme at Wye Hops along with hop merchant breeding programmes. Hopefully we will see new exciting hops over the coming years to continue the resurgence in demand for British Hops.”

We hope one outcome of the current pandemic is that in general producers will look to use local British hops where possible

If after reading this you still think that English hops are boring, and visiting a hop farm isn’t something you can do on a whim (especially considering we’re in the middle of a pandemic) then my challenge to you is to try a few of the more progressive English hopped beers out there and see how you get on. Donzoko’s Garden Bier is a great example, as is both Best and Ordinary Bitter from The Five Points. 

Despite this progression, English hops still have something of an image problem, and it’s something it’ll need to shake off if it is to become popular to a new wave of drinkers already invested in tropical fruit flavours with names like Galaxy, Strata and Zappa. Perhaps a rebrand is in order. Fuggles could be changed to something like Jagger, perhaps? Or maybe we just need to learn to appreciate them for what they are—an irreplaceable asset that is essential to British beer culture. 

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