Hungry for hops

They're a notoriously tricky ingredient, but that doesn't stop some chefs


Hops can be divisive. Some of us love IPAs that slap you around the chops with hops, while others prefer those bitter, citrussy notes to remain firmly in the background. So putting hops in our food is bound to be a little bit controversial, especially considering that creating a delicious dish with the flowers is notoriously tricky.

Yet, despite these challenges, a handful of determined food producers is adamant that hops can bring something very special to the plate.

The flowers haven’t always been prized for their taste, even in brewing. According to the British Hop Association, hops were first used as a preservative in British ales in the 15th century and were tolerated, rather than loved, for their bitterness. Now, of course, ‘hoppy’ and ‘hop-forward’ are positive descriptors for those who do lean towards American-style IPAs and the like.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we want such a hit of hops delivered via fork or spoon, so balancing the flavours and textures is a difficult and delicate business. Dried hops – far more readily available than seasonal fresh flowers, harvested in autumn – are woody in texture and strong in flavour. Fresh hops can be too vegetal in a broth, and can taste soapy or overly, offensively fragrant when roasted with meat.

Many chefs have tried, tested and given up. Interviewed by Total Ales about Beef & Brew, an ale-centric restaurant that operated in London from 2015 to 2019, head chef Jessica Simmons described a lamb shoulder she cooked with fresh hops as tasting “like shampoo”. “Hops are really difficult to work with,” she explained, adding that she would keep trying regardless.

It’s a similar determination – and perhaps the thrill of a challenge – that has kept Nina Matsunaga going with her own hoppy experiments. As chef patron of the Black Bull in Sedbergh, a boutique hotel and renowned gastropub on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, she has incorporated (mostly dried) hops into an incredible array of sweet and savoury dishes.

She’s infused hops into syrups, which add an earthy aroma to cakes and biscuits. She’s roasted them for granola, and ground them up with sugar and citric acid to coat house-made candied fruit pastilles for a “floral, nutty, bitter sweetness”. They’ve been mixed with hay to smoke lamb – a dish that proved hugely popular – and used to flavour sauces, gravies and even a cream for a cauliflower cheese dish. “That works really well because of the nuttiness of the cauliflower,” explains Nina.

Adding hops to food isn’t like reaching for some dried oregano or a jar of Herbes de Provence, and that’s part of the appeal. “It’s like using wine,” she says. “There are different results depending on the variety and the quantity. The flavour can be of mild, pleasant undertones or it can be too strong.

Adding hops to food isn’t like reaching for some dried oregano, and that’s part of the appeal

“Hops is a unique flavour and not everybody’s cup of tea. It’s difficult, and then there are the time constraints of working in a professional kitchen. I can have 20 ideas but only really have time to try out two of them. But hops are amazingly versatile and go with so many different things.”

Nina’s passion for cooking with hops began with a love of beer and grew as she began to think about how its ingredients could enhance existing recipes and inspire new ones. The restaurant even hosted a beer-themed tasting event with dishes like beer doughnuts – filled with an IPA-infused cream – and the granola of roasted hops, nuts, syrup and fruit, now served each morning to B&B guests.

Her most recent experiment is adding dried hops to meat rubs, mixing them with other herbs and spices. She’s also working on a take on herbaceous Argentinian sauce chumichurri. “The sauce can be quite woody anyway so in terms of mouthfeel there’s not much difference,” she says. “In terms of flavour it’s quite interesting: nutty and savoury flavour with some floral notes. It should work well with the smokiness of the barbecue.”

It sounds edgy and it is, in a way. Yet it also harks back to when hops once grew across the UK – including in swathes of Yorkshire – and labourers would travel from London to Kent to help harvest the crops each autumn. For Nina – who grew up in Dusseldorf, Germany, where bread flavoured with beer or spent grain is commonplace – the heritage of hops in the UK has been forgotten.

“Hops is quite a traditional grain and a very British thing,” she says. “I like the idea of the harvests, people working away picking hops, drying them on the beams and then having a hard-earned beer. That’s been forgotten about a little bit. It’s quite interesting and quite nice to bring that back by cooking with varieties of hops and trying out new recipes. It’s not just for the sake of being different.”

Nina isn’t alone is realising hops’ culinary potential. She buys a hops-matured cheese, its edible rind encrusted with the dried flowers, from a local cheesemonger. It goes on her cheeseboard and is cooked into a soufflé, the hops cutting nicely through the richness of the cheese. Sheffield-based Birdhouse Tea Company sells a blend of Assam and Darjeeling teas with hops called Hoppy Days. It’s inspired, they say, by Yorkshire’s “two great loves”: tea and beer.

At the Holy Smokery, a smokehouse set in the grounds of Kilnsey Park in Skipton, North Yorkshire, owner Jake Buchan is also working on incorporating hops into his smoked fish and meat products. So far he’s experimented with an IPA-inspired smoked salmon.

“The idea was to recreate that flavour profile in the cure, those citrus and floral flavours,” says Jake, previously a head chef in Manchester. “I used three different aromatic hops and ground them with a little coriander, some grapefruit juice and zest, sugar and salt. That’s then packed around the salmon, which cures in the smokehouse for two days before being washed and dried for another eight hours.

“It really penetrates the fish for a subtle, delicate, fruity flavour, like an IPA without being overpowering. It’s just something different.”

The smokehouse often draws from the drinks world, for example with a salmon cured with gin botanicals of juniper, orris root and cardamom. They also produce charcuterie items such as bresaola, an air-dried and salted beef that’s often brined in red wine. Jake adds a local twist with elderberry wine and is planning to try a brine of malty barley mash infused with hops. “It’s like working with any other herb,” he adds. “You’re looking for that balance.”

Still, hops remain a relative rarity in the culinary world. Partly, Nina reckons, because people don’t tend to think of them as food herbs and also because of the challenges involved. But she thinks hops can – and should – be the next big food trend.

“Breweries must have had to try lots of different methods and quantities to get the beer right, too. It’s worth the effort,” she insists. “And it’s exciting and new. When people get excited about ingredients like tonka beans – hops is like that for me. It is a learning curve. But there’s nothing you couldn’t do with hops. And there’s nothing like it that’s quite the same.”

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