Deal Hop Farm
Truly home-grown hops
PHOTOS: Deal Hop Farm
Sunday 14 February 2021
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When Deal With It, the local green community group in the Kent town of Deal, held a public meeting to announce a project to grow hops and turn them into beer, they expected a dozen or so people to turn up. Instead, the group’s coordinator, a genial retired IT director called Stephen Wakeford, was astonished to find himself addressing a packed pub.
By the end of that evening, back in February 2017, the Deal Hop Farm had 130 sites signed up to take part, from domestic gardens to allotments to community spaces. The only wrinkle in this otherwise excellent plan? No one involved knew anything about growing hops.
That was actually one of the major attractions of the project, says Stephen. “One of our key objectives was to reconnect people to understanding where our food comes from and the history of hop growing in Kent, which had so shaped our physical landscape and history.”
The county, after all, was for hundreds of years one of the biggest centres of hop production in the UK, supplying both local breweries that served the Navy at Chatham and Deal, and the enormous demands of London breweries. Hops are now grown in Kent in vastly smaller quantities than in its 19th-century heyday, but evidence of this rich history can still be found all over the county in the form of beautiful historic oast houses – farm buildings for drying hops – many of which have since been converted to other uses.
Hop farm members’ lack of knowledge turned out not to be a problem. Not only were local brewers and farmers very supportive from day one, Stephen found numerous other community groups who had trod this path before them and were happy to share what they had learned.
Participants each paid a small joining fee, which Stephen used to purchase hop rhizomes – aka root stock, ready for planting – and other essential bits and bobs. Planting took place in March, including at some high-profile locations like English Heritage’s Walmer Castle Gardens, and the first crop of hops was harvested and delivered to Ripple Steam Brewery that September.
Along the way, the hop farm was there to offer advice and lend a helping hand, via its busy Facebook group and at in-person events. A month or so after the harvest, Ripple Steam cracked the cask of Deal Hop Farm’s first ever green hop ale.
“Without sounding too soppy, we really were quite chuffed,” says Rafi Hussein, who’s been growing hops in his garden since 2017. “To see it in the pubs as well. It was great to be able to say, ‘there’s a little bit of our work in this’.”
It was great to be able to say, ‘there’s a little bit of our work in this
The idea of growing hops as a community, harvesting them together and working with a local brewery to produce a professional-quality beer began in south London, in 2011. The Grow Beer movement, as it’s known, was founded by Ann Bodkin and Helen Steer and has inspired around 24 groups across the country, as well as in Germany and Ireland, with new ones setting up each year.
“It’s a funky idea which just happens. And it happens all over the place,” says Stephen. “We pay homage to that.”
What differentiates the Deal project from those taking place elsewhere is the scale: while other hop growing groups might involve dozens of people harvesting a few kilograms of hops, the Deal Hop Farm now operates at 265 sites across the town, producing over 200kg even in a low yield year like 2020. According to the 2020 harvest report, which you’ll find on the Deal With It website, no fewer than 307 people were involved in the harvest. “We’re a bit on steroids,” acknowledges Stephen with a chuckle.
The resulting beer is different too. Unlike most other groups, whose entire harvest goes into the production of a single green hop ale consumed a month or so following picking, Deal dries a proportion of its hops each year, making them available for other brews.
Time + Tide Brewing, the farm’s partner since the 2019 closure of Ripple Steam, has so far produced 12 beers with Deal hops, in fact. Five of these are currently available to purchase by the general public via the brewery’s website (hop farm members get a discount) and, in the normal course of things, at outlets across the town. This variety – think Session IPA, Porter, Winter Mild and ESB along with the Green Hop Pale Ale – is a real boon for hop farm members, says Stephen.
“People have such wide-ranging tastes in beer. Some people swear blind that the green hop is the best beer they’ve ever tasted in their lives and there’s other people who only tolerate it and look forward to a dark stout. That’s the beauty of it really; it reflects the diversity of our community.”
It’s been beneficial for the team at Time + Tide too. “The hop farm beers are traditional English style beers; quite different from the big, bold, hoppy beers which we are renowned for,” reports Kerry Campling, the brewery’s director.
“This was an opportunity to work together with the local community and create something wonderful.”
The whole system, despite its size and complexity, runs on good will alone. Josh Berry, a local fifth generation hop farmer who dries the hop farm’s hops alongside his own in his beautiful six-kiln Edwardian oast house, does so free of charge.
“Stephen pops along occasionally during the hop harvest and we find room on the kiln,” says Josh. “We don’t charge anything for it. Being a small family farm, I try to do things for people in the area.”
It’s a relationship Stephen values hugely. “They treat the hops like the crown jewels and they are so sweet and lovely,” the co-ordinator says of Josh and his team. “We make sure they get some beer in return.”
There’s a similar understanding with Time + Tide. The hop farm donates its harvest to the brewery, which then donates free casks of beer to the hop farm for its member events, as well as a free can for each member. There are risks involved, Kerry explains – there are no guarantees on the yield each year and “if the beer doesn’t sell, we take the hit” – but it’s worth it. Not only do she and her team really enjoy the community engagement element, but brewing for the hop farm has also brought commercial opportunities.
“We’ve tapped into a market that wasn’t there for us before,” she says referring to a subset of hop farm members who “are very much cask orientated and hadn’t really experienced what the craft side of beer can bring.
“They’ve gone from ‘I only like a pale ale’ to ‘I’ll try your new berry sour’. It’s just brilliant because it’s really opened up the opportunity for them to try something new.”
They’ve gone from ‘I only like a pale ale’ to ‘I’ll try your new berry sour
These loyal, invested, open-minded customers have made all the difference over this past year when it’s come to facing the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. With pub and restaurant closures hitting wholesale orders, healthy retail sales, driven partly by hop farm members, have been a big help.
“They were brilliant during lockdown,” says Kerry. “What we did have in cask, we were able to repackage as bag-in-box. We learned along the way, because they don’t travel particularly well: a few interesting, sloshy experiences! We’ve got mini kegs now, which are a lot easier to move.”
2020 wasn’t a straightforward year for the hop farm either. The logistics of the hop harvest are complicated at the best of times, with hundreds of people needing to drop off small quantities of hand-picked hops in a tight time frame to fit in with drying and brewing schedules. The pandemic made everything that bit more difficult: more space was needed to allow for social distancing so Stephen had to find a new drop-off point; he also gave members time slots to drop off their hops; and instituted a one-way system.
The public-picking days they usually host during the harvest also had to be massively scaled back to make them COVID-safe. And of course there weren’t the usual opportunities for socialising, one of the most important elements of the whole shebang. “It was just bring your hops and go”, says Sonja Watsham, who grows hops on her allotment and as part of a gardening group at Deal Railway Station.
Despite all those challenges, however, “it was lovely just to have that distanced contact with people”, she says. Stephen agrees: “Because everything’s so weird at the moment, it felt very normal doing the hop harvest; just nice for people to see people that they may not have seen for a little while.”
Because everything’s so weird at the moment, it felt very normal doing the hop harvest
The harvest was 30 percent smaller than in 2019 but Stephen and Kerry were actually pleasantly surprised by the yield. Considering the challenges not just of COVID-19, but also of drought and aphids, it could have been much worse.
“This year has been very different from the previous years, but in the end it worked very well. Mainly because people were so focused on their gardens and allotments during the lockdown,” says Stephen.
Time + Tide had ambitious plans to brew a lager with the 2020 green hops but ultimately opted to play it safe with another green hop pale ale, as in 2019.
“With things as they are, we’ll hold that back because it will need a bit more time with members, to help them understand the style and then talk them through the tasting when they get it,” says Kerry. “For next year’s we’re quite excited.” Watch this space.
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