Ella Buchan discovers the ‘patchwork farms’ bringing hops back to Yorkshire
Saturday 08 May 2021
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Leeds is in the midst of a garden revolution. Beer is working its way back to the people, spreading its way up people’s paths, creeping around window boxes, climbing over walls and sneaking onto allotments. It’s even infiltrated hanging baskets and patio pots.
Hops once grew prolifically in Yorkshire. Romans planted them all the way up to the Scottish borders; Benedictine monks grew (and brewed with) their own. According to the British Hop Association, by the late 17th century, strong demand for hopped, porter-style beers meant an acre of hops was more profitable than 50 acres of arable land. At its peak, in the late 18th century, hop farms covered 77,000 acres.
Demand dropped as tastes switched to lighter ales and, eventually, lager, requiring just a smattering of hops. Pasteurisation made hops’ preservative qualities less necessary; cheaper, easier imports made them less profitable. For hop farmers battling against strong winds and rain in the northern counties, particularly, it simply wasn’t worth it.
Today, around 50 growers oversee 2,500 acres. Most are concentrated in the West Midlands and South East. None are in Yorkshire.
That is, none in the traditional sense. Hops are making a slight return to the region thanks to patchwork farms tended by amateur growers, beer enthusiasts and people who just love a good project. Members of the biggest, Leeds Co-Hoperative, grow hops in their back gardens (or front gardens, allotments, pots, window boxes…) for a collective harvest that goes into making a hyper-local brew.
The group launched in 2017, inspired by the Grow Beer Project founded in Lambeth, London in 2011. There are now around two-dozen of these collectives around the UK with some, including the Manchester Hop Project and Deal Hop Farm in Kent, blossoming into bigger operations.
“The aim was to produce a beer with as many people as possible participating in the process,” says the pioneering project’s co-founder Ann Bodkin, who still runs her group of 35 growers in Lambeth. “We wanted to do it in a way that was the exact opposite of how the market usually works.”
It’s a concept that’s spread organically, mostly by word of mouth. People hear about the groups at beer festivals. Or they spy a verdant, climbing plant in a neighbour’s garden, and wonder what those cone-like flowers are, exactly? Others, Ann tells me, have simply moved out of London and packed their hops – and passion for community growing – with them.
For Sharon Scarmazzo, project lead for the Leeds Co-Hoperative, it’s the smallness of her group that makes it so special. It’s also about returning beer to its roots, in every sense. “It’s bringing something back. Beer in the UK used to be brewed with British hops,” she says. “I think there’s a bit of a mystery around hops and how they grow, but actually they’re pretty hardy plants. People are surprised they can grow so far north.”
They are, in fact, “rampant”, according to Sharon. They’re beautiful, too: full and flowing, adorned with clusters of pale green flowers or cones (the part used in brewing). Hop plants can be trained up walls or grown around a trellis, with an ornamental appeal equivalent to ivy or wisteria. Except, of course, those plants aren’t known for making beer.
It’s a refreshingly simple model. For £20, new members to the Leeds group are given a starter pack with a bare rootstock or rhizome to grow cascade, one of the most commonly used hops in craft beer, prized for its soft citrus, pine and floral notes. They’re also equipped with twine, soil improver, growing instructions and a bottomless pot of support via group get-togethers (when allowed) and a Facebook group.
Of the 100-odd members, the majority are women, says Sharon, while there’s a mix of ages, backgrounds and gardening experience (some had barely grown a houseplant). A few are enthusiastic home brewers, though some don’t even like beer that much.
Harvest usually takes place on a weekend around late September and the turnaround is brisk. Growers take their yields to a local brewery, Nomadic Beers, where they’re added to the mash tun, within two days of being picked. The resulting green hop beer – made with fresh rather than dried flowers – is ready to sup within the month.
Katie Marriott founded Nomadic in 2017 – the same year the Co-Hoperative launched – and joined as their brewer the following year. She now grows for them, too, with hops in her garden and at the brewing warehouse, where they’re planted in an old barrel and trained up wires attached to some old guttering.
“They’ve grown up with us,” she says. “The first year we brewed four barrels, now it’s more like eight. It’s so nice to brew with hops grown in Leeds. And the flavours are fantastic.”
She describes the seasonal beer as light and very fruity, “not quite like there’s a whole grapefruit in there, but almost”. Once the growers have claimed their free pints, the rest is sold in pouches or to be poured in local pubs and taprooms.
It’s always called GeeGee, in tribute to the brewery’s dearly-departed green van. And, Katie tells me, it always sells out. People love a good story as much as they love a good beer. Put the two together and it’s pretty much a guaranteed hit, which is perhaps why others in Yorkshire have been inspired by the Co-Hoperative.
“It picks up in leaps and bounds,” says Sharon. “People hear about our group and start their own, and so on. People love their brewpubs and they love to participate. There’s a pride to it.”
The Horsforth Hop Project, for example, is a similar community project based in the town just outside Leeds; members are provided with hop plants and given advice on growing them successfully before a mini harvest each September. Their beer is brewed by Horsforth Brewery for the group to sip in the tap room or take home in bottles.
In Harrogate, North Yorkshire, micro-pub and brewery The Little Ale House sourced from a local hop-growing collective to produce an amber ale. Harewood House, on the outskirts of Leeds, harvests the hops that clamber up around the edges of its Walled Garden. The National Trust property has collaborated with regional breweries to produce estate ales.
Some of these operations have been on hold due to the pandemic, though the Leeds Co-Hoperative already has big plans for its 2021 harvest. The previous year was, necessarily, relatively subdued, so this year Sharon and Katie are keen for a bigger party. “We like it when people can come and brew with us,” says Katie. “We tell people to wear scruffy clothes and wellies so they can get stuck in, helping with the mashing, stirring the brew into a porridge and then throwing in the hops.”
There’s no judgement when it comes to yields, either. “Last year we had someone bring six kilograms and another person brought about 25 grams,” says Katie. “It doesn’t matter. It’s about the community spirit. And if you’ve got a pot with some mud in it, you can grow a hop.”
If you’ve got a pot with some mud in it, you can grow a hop
The patchwork model also acts as an insurance policy. If one person’s garden, or even one area of the city, suffers an aphid infestation or devastating winds, for example, it’s likely others will have been spared – so there will still be a brew. As Sharon puts it: “As a collective we all work together to create something stronger.”
Once the beer is ready, people are invited back to the brewery for a ‘crack the keg’ party. This year, too, there are plans for a second harvest. Members have been given rootstocks to grow prima donna, a dwarf hop variety more suited to smaller gardens and pots. Katie wants to use it in a stout or bitter.
Sharon is keen to spread the word – and the hops. She’d love to see a wild hop brew, made using flowers harvested from plants that grow randomly, unchecked and untamed, on public and private land. She also wants to bring the UK’s hotchpotch of patchwork hop farms together for an annual green hop beer festival, celebrating all the different seasonal brews. Perhaps it could become ‘a thing’ in the same way as France’s Beaujolais Nouveau, a young wine released each November with much fanfare.
Another idea is to encourage breweries to grow their own hops and to persuade pubs to plant them in beer gardens for communities to harvest. “Perhaps people could grow hops for their local pubs, too,” adds Sharon.
There has been an attempt to revive the region’s hop-growing on a larger scale. Yorkshire Hops launched in 2014 with the aim of allowing micro-brewers to sponsor their own patch of hops on a farm in Ellerker, East Yorkshire. It was met with huge enthusiasm, with sponsorship from Black Sheep and Ossett breweries, though ceased operating in late 2016.
When it comes to the garden collectives, scaling up is a tricky issue – and, it seems, not particularly desirable. If a collective becomes too big, or too commercial, there’s a risk the community aspect could be lost completely. If the model does continue to grow, it should perhaps be by multiplying. Imagine hundreds of collectives across the UK and maybe beyond, each contributing to its own hyper-local, seasonal, green hop beer.
“Lots of smaller groups doing what we do would be lovely,” says Ann. “It suits there model: pick it, brew it, drink it. It’s about a more inclusive way of doing things.”
Katie agrees. “I really like the smaller scale and the ‘green’ aspect of it. I like the ‘pick and brew’ concept,” she says. “It’s part of the community. I would love to see other small groups popping up around Yorkshire, though. In fact I’d like other breweries to be involved so we can collaborate some more. We like brewing with friends.”
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