A hop called fuggle
Preserving the UK’s classic varietal
Sunday 25 October 2020
This article is from
Beer52 Awards 2020
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To me, Fuggles hops smell and taste like English gardens. First, a bouquet of earth and damp dewy grass, with hints of mint from a nearby unkempt herb patch, climbing lazily skywards. Then, a gentle undertone of warm wood and subtle notes of ripe fruits; plump, juicy and ready to fall to the ground.
Fuggles hops are often used alongside East Kent Goldings hops and are one of the distinctive elements of British beer. If you have ever enjoyed a pint of cask ale, the chances that you have tasted Fuggles are very high indeed. Whether your pleasure is a bright, sparkled pint of traditional bitter ale in the cosy inns of the Yorkshire countryside, or a classic rich porter nestled into a cramped pub a stone’s throw from the markets of London, it is almost certain that the Fuggle hop has crept into your glass.
The origins of the hop
Like Goldings, the Fuggle hop was first found in the green Kent countryside. Whilst we have always known that Fuggles was born in the Garden of England, the details of exactly how and when the Fuggle hop was discovered remained a bit of a mystery for many years. “For a very long time it was thought that the Fuggle hop was introduced about 1875” says beer historian Martyn Cornell. This is the year that agricultural records show a Mr Richard Fuggle unveiling the hop. However, there were some inconsistencies with this account that have had historians puzzled for some time, and it is only very recently that additional light has been shed on how and when the hop was introduced. Recently uncovered evidence suggests that the first commercial sale was four years earlier than previously thought. “Last year a local history buff from Horsmonden (where the hop originated) named Lionel Burgess found an advertisement announcing the first sale of Fuggle hop sets in a Kentish newspaper from October 1871” says Martyn. “This means, of course, that next year, 2021, will be the Fuggle hop’s 150th anniversary.”
Whilst Fuggles hops have their origins in the temperate maritime climate of England, they are also grown in Slovenia under the name ‘Styrian Goldings’. Slovenian farmers were reportedly seeking a new hop to grow in their fields in the 1930s, after their crop had been devastated by a disease. They believed that they were returning to their homeland with a Golding hop, but in fact it was a Fuggle. The hop was also exported to the USA and found a home in Oregon, helping the state to surpass New York and California for hop growing volume in the early 1900s. Fuggles was put to work in a renowned USDA hop breeding program in the 1960s, becoming a parent of the West Coast IPA stalwart Cascade, named for the mountain range in Oregon.
Fuggles hops are revered as a staple by homebrewers and professional brew masters alike. “I love that they are deeply earthy, even with a trace of tobacco in the aroma” homebrewer Alistair Reece tells me. “There is something very comforting, almost rustic, about that”. Henry Kirk, Head Brewer of Dark Star Brewery in West Sussex, is also a fan. He tells me that he has had both positive and negative experiences with Fuggles, which he says can vary widely in quality, but asserts that when they are at their best, they are a thing of beauty. “Minty in colour and aroma alongside sap, green tea and woody notes. Glorious.”
I love that they are deeply earthy, even with a trace of tobacco in the aroma
Even among other traditional English varieties, Fuggle plays a unique role, according to Andy Leman, Timothy Taylor’s head brewer. “The aim of creating and brewing a traditional style English Ale, is to have a juicy malt character, balanced by delicate hop aromas and flavours,” he says. “This results in a very drinkable beer, that always leaves you wanting more. Without extreme New World hop flavours, normally a blend of English hops is used to create layers of complexity. While our WGVs and Goldings provide flavours of citrus and marmalade, Fuggles give deeper flavours of stone fruits (often apricot), slightly earthy notes, and a minty finish. This is why we love Fuggles so much, and are trying to encourage farmers to continue to grow this beautiful English heritage variety.’’
Steve Dunkley of Beer Nouveau and Temperance Street Brewery in Manchester has experimented with larger volumes of Fuggle hops and reports incredible results. Beer Nouveau specialises in brewing historic and heritage beers, rebrewing recipes from as far back as Ancient Egypt and the time of the Vikings. Steve tells me that he used Fuggles in the recreation of a recipe from the 1800s. “The sheer volumes of hops that they used meant that the essential oils that carry the aromas couldn’t escape in steam during the boil, they recirculated back into the bulk of the wort and isomerised there” he explains. “Beers we’ve brewed like this have smelled as fresh 18 months later as they did when we first brewed them.” He goes on to explain that Fuggle is a great hop for understanding the impact of this effect. “When you use it in small quantities, like it has been done recently, it’s pretty average. But when you use a lot of it, you get wonderful mango/stone fruit aromas and flavours.” Steve tells me that the difference is so pronounced that the profile has confused many who have taken a sip. “Drinkers trying it without knowing the hops have guessed that it’s an NZ hop.”
Drinkers trying it without knowing the hops have guessed that it’s an NZ hop
Challenges for Fuggles
Once the undisputed ruler of the hop fields of England, the Fuggle hop has seen a downturn in recent years. In the middle of the 20th century, Fuggles accounted for more than three quarters of the English hop harvest, but unfortunately this heyday for the classic hop appears to be in the past. Fuggle’s acreage in the UK has been threatened in recent years due to the crop’s susceptibility to Verticillium wilt, a soil-borne disease which is caused by various species of fungi, including V. albo-atrum and V. dahliae. The disease may be spread by seeds, insects, or soil from the shoes of a farmer who has walked across infected soil. Mild strains of this disease can cause yellow veins to develop along the leaves as the vines and leaves wilt, whereas more serious cases can lead to rapid death of the whole hop plant. Once a field becomes infected with Verticillium wilt it can spread quickly, making this a devastating plant disease for hop farmers. Unfortunately, there is currently no treatment for this.
It is not just susceptibility to wilt that could threaten the future of this classic British hop, but demand too. As the COVID-19 pandemic places restrictions on the on-trade consumption of beer, the effect trickles down the supply chain to hop farmers. “Pub closures have meant that many of our bigger customers are only brewing at about 20% of capacity” says Will Kirby of Brooks House Hop Farm. “In order to save on growing and harvesting costs, we have reduced the area of hops we grow, and the intensity of production.” I am keen to learn about the latest methods that Brooks House are using to tackle the diseases which can affect hops. “We continue to invest heavily in technology to reduce our environmental footprint and increase the brewing value of our hops” Will tells me. He explains that Brooks House is experimenting with a cultivation system which disrupts the life cycle of diseases by moving the soil around at the base of the hop plants, but that, unfortunately, this is not effective against wilt, since infected fungal spores can live in soil for many years. “We are farming on two different sites” Will says. “Because of the wilt risk, we are sticking to traditional methods on the other site where we grow susceptible varieties such as Fuggle”.
According to Worcester-based hop grower Tom Spilsbury of JW Spilsbury & Co, paying attention to the changing tides of the craft beer market is also relevant when we consider the future of our classic British varietals. Tom observes that drinkers are increasingly attracted to beers which feature hops from exotic locations, with intense tropical aromas. These qualities are challenging to obtain via the terroir in the UK, which could mean that the hops typically grown on British soil will be less in demand as the tastes of drinkers evolve and change.
Protecting the hop’s future
Classic English varietals such as Fuggles deserve to be preserved, and fortunately, help is at hand. Wye Hops, a subsidiary of The British Hop Association, is working on developing a wilt resistant Fuggle hop. I spoke to Ali Capper of Stocks Farm to learn more about the grower-funded breeding programme. She explains that whilst traditional plant breeding could be expected to take between 10 and 25 years, Wye Hops have also invested in molecular marker breeding. This means that hop breeders can potentially identify where in the genetic coding a genetic trait may be sitting, which offers the potential to speed up the process considerably. Brewing trial results for the wilt resistant Fuggle hop are expected later in the year. “We are getting close to something that grows, tastes and brews like a Fuggle” says Ali. Thanks to dedicated hop farmers and the ambitious Wye Hops breeding programme, it seems like the classically British taste of Fuggles hops will be gracing our pint glasses for many years to come.
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