Tuesday 8 February 2011

Hop Pilgrim

Last Tuesday I made my annual visit to Charles Farams, our hop merchants, tucked away in the beautiful Herefordshire countryside. It is always a pleasure to visit our suppliers and maintain a personal relationship. The beer 'industry' is totally fantastic like that - really open, warm and welcoming, more like a network of friends really and I was looking forward to my day with Paul and Will.

By early February, all the new seasons hops have come in and the samples are packaged up ready to be scrutinised. As a brewer, this is an invaluable opportunity, not only to check out how are regular hops are looking but also to rub and sniff (to examine hops, you rub them in your hands to release the oils and burst the lupulin glands that hold the aromas, then you sniff them and try not to get too much foliage up your nose), varieties not previously used and dream up new happy hop and malt marriages.
Lots of nice little hoppy packages - I was as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve

I'll be honest, I always feel quite privileged to be able to do this but this year was something quite exceptional. Paul Corbett, head hop honcho, had arranged for Peter Glendenning to join us. Peter is an agronomist (new word I learnt), for the UK hop growers - he does clever stuff like combating all the super nasty pests and diseases that blight our beloved green cones, thus going some way to protect the growers crops and in turn, the brewers supply.

Turning up at Farams like Einstein in wellies, it would also appear that he spends a good deal of his spare time breeding new varieties of hops for our growers. To give you an idea of his dedication, he hand pollinates the female plants with the aid of a paintbrush that has been liberally rubbed around the chosen male plant. The female plants are then incased in plastic to stop any other pollens getting in on the act and then one plant is grown.
Peter started unpacking all his new varieties, tub after tub after tub and I must admit to feeling quite daunted by the sheer volume (bear in mind there was all the 'regular' hops to try as well). Our mission was to grade the hops by aroma intensity and aroma quality as well as likening the smell to something tangible (like blackcurrents or pine needles). A good deal of these were hybrids of traditional varieties, such as goldings, that had been bred to be more pest resistant. Examining them at Farams was perfect with all the commercially available strains to cross reference them with. The best ones will then be grown on a small commercial scale to see how they perform.

Then it got really interesting. At Dark Star, we use a lot of hops from the States as well as some from New Zealand - new world varieties. It's like grapes for wine, you've got your traditional stuff that tends to be a bit more earthy and restrained and then you've got your young upstart new world varieties bursting with full fruity aroma's and whatnot. It's the terroir, see - different climate and all that. As tub number xxxx opened, the room filled with the aroma of top quality cascade hops. Then the next tub was opened and the unmistakable smell of chinooks leapt out. I felt like I was at the start of something so special - Peter had bred these amazingly punchy hops to grow in England. Whilst we don't know how they will develop over time, this is such a huge step forward, our hop acreage has been declining year on year and brewers today are constantly looking for new aromas to please the beer drinker - the possibility that they could be home grown is quite phenomenal.
Sniffing hops, I felt important in my white coat

Everyone was in the right place at the right time. Whilst Dark Star is by no means a big brewery, I said that if they were grown commercially, we would definitely trial a brew with them. So then Paul Corbett had the confidence to say that Farams would buy a bale or two of them, which in turn means Peter Glendinning can approach one of the growers to plant a row, knowing that they have a guaranteed market. Perfect.

74 hop varieties later and all our senses had taken a real battering - we were now somewhat limited in our flavour descriptors, our hands were thick with green resin and bits of hop leaf resided in hair, ears, nose(Iwanted to get a picture of the state of us all but didn't dare touch my camera by this stage!). It was a great day and there was only one way it could possibly get better, beer in Worcester's finest hostelry, The Dragon. We wandered in looking like we had picked a fight with a threshing machine and worked our way through some beers from the Little Ale Cart brewery in Sheffield. They were all excellent pale gold beers that showcased a lot of the American and Kiwi hops we had been so busy sniffing - thank you Little Ale Cart, you rounded the day off perfectly!


  1. I love the sound of US & new world hops being developed for growing in this country, hopefully means you brewers will have loads of overloaded hops to play with more often!

    Thanks for blogging about the day, a really good inside view on what happened.

  2. rather jealous! 74 hop varieties would make me sleep rather well.

    i was lucky enough to show Darren Gamache (American hop farmer who's company patented Amarillo!!) around Tokyo last weekend. was a fantastic insight into the nature of the hop market for me, and a bit like meeting my hop idol of course!

  3. I remember reading Kelly Ryan's blog when he did the same trip last year - sounds like heaven.