yesterday was the highlight of the Green Hop festival at the Hop, West One, Sheffield. As well as sampling some of the excellent beers on the bar (the beer festival ran from Thursday until today) customers paid a little extra to listen to a talk by Paul Corbett from Charles Faram, Ali Capper from Stocks Farm hops in Worcestershire, and Paul Spencer the Ossett head brewer, about hop plants and specifically British hops.
Its perhaps easy to forget what with endless mention made of Nelson Sauvin, Galaxy, Centennial, Amarillo, Ahtanum and the like that whilst they may not be as high alpha, there are a large number of different hop varieties grown in the UK with a wide range of different subtle flavours and strengths.
To make the most of this zesty tingling celebration, I started with a couple of beers from the bar. Treboom First Draft Houblon Nouveau (Fuggles) was a very strong tasting herbal green hop beer which was a good pint to start on. I also tried halves of Irwell Works Green Manalishi (with a two pint crown), also brewed with Fuggles, and Worth Brewery Sovereign. The Irwell won prizes for probably the best name but was an off mix of dry burnt like hoppinness and an unfortunate caramel flavour which blended unpleasantly, the Worth on the other hand was far better with just enough bite to work.
I also took another pint into the talk itself, my favourite beer of the festival, the Brecon Brewery Green Beacons, brewed using fresh Fuggles from Little Lambswick Farm Tenbury Wells. I was blown away by the pungent herby edge and refreshing bitterness that this beer produced.
The talk was very interesting, although the slides were near impossible to read on the screen high above the stage. Hops, I discovered, are part of the cannabis family, and are mainly grown in the wine growing regions of the world - Germany is the biggest producer but to my surprise South America is also up there. The centre of the hops cone produces lupulin which is a resin, and they (can) grow on hop strings from the ground up in their search for sunlight - hops are very susceptible to sunlight.
We learnt about hop picking, previously very labour intensive, now slightly less so with machinery taking the strain, new dwarf varieties like Pioneer, First Gold and Herald, also how organic hops are grown with the help of flowers planted down the middle of the rows to attract pest eating predators, and how, once picked, the hops need to be quickly dried to a level of just 12% moisture.
Next up was Ali Capper, who with her husband Richard grows hops including Endeavour, Target and Admiral on 100 acres in Worcestershire. Ali went into some detail about the subtleties of aroma and flavour in British hops, and by this stage samples of Great Newsome Autumn Bounty, 4.1% and brewed with green AKA fresh Pilgrim hops, were being passed round. Throughout the talks there was also a table of hops to rub and sniff, aroma and bittering varieties, the pungent smell of which was wafting over us as we sampled the beers. The hops were quite sticky and incredibly flaky, but it was difficult to resist rubbing them in your hands.
There are 1000 hectares of hop growing land in the UK, down from considerably more back in the 1950's. And there are 20 different varieties commercially grown in the UK, although it was pointed out that once you plant a hop seed and grow it from scratch you are in fact growing a new variety. For more info see here.
Other free tasters came from Fernandes (Green Gold, 3.8%, a pleasant but not assertively "green" hoppy ale brewed with Sovereign), Big River Hop3 (2.8%, using East Kent Goldings and Northdown) alas this was a poor brown beer which failed to highlight the hop flavours, and finally the excellent Hop Harvest, a gold coloured 4.0% extremely quaffable beer from Green Jack brewery in Suffolk, hopped and then dry hopped with fresh Bodecia hops, with the addition of field fresh wheat, which I concede I had quite a bit of.
This was largely because once the talk was over and Paul had launched his new range of beers for 2013 we were informed that the 10 pints or so left in each of the polypins was free and needed to be supped. Well, it would have seemed terribly rude to have turned the offer down...
Mind you, a word of caution, 3rd pint measures are incredibly easy to empty! And also make it far harder to keep track of how much you are drinking. There was consternation when a bloke started filling his pint glasses, but only to the half pint line as he said, and actually, it probably meant he consumed less in the end. Meanwhile, myself and Simon from the world of the internet bought another pint from the bar to provide us with a more suitable receptacle for our lovely free beer which seemed not to last as long each time we got some....
In the end, the amazing Brecon brewery Green Beacon proved just too nice and despite being tempted by the Hopstar and the Hop Studio Beerjolaise (plus the Marble Quantum IPA, but that had run out) I thought better of staying for more beer and headed to Betty's for some essential sustenance.
This was a really interesting event, and a great wake up call to brewers and punters alike to the fact that there are British hops to be found and they can go into making really enjoyable beers. Target, Admiral and Pilgrim have a higher alpha content than most British hops so the citrussy dry bitterness of American and New Zealand hops could perhaps be matched, albeit with a heavier load than your average English beer.
I noted with interest the other day that Dark Star had produced an English Hop IPA. That we are in a position where this is considered a niche or experimental beer highlights nicely the extent to which British hops have fallen out of favour (I say British, but in reality no commercial crops are harvested in Scotland, and the most northern hop farm, East Yorkshire Hops, is based near Brough (Humber Bridge) so nothing is harvested north of the Humber).
Lets hope we'll see more British hopped beers, and, crucially, information for punters about which hops are actually used in making their beer.