Adapted from text supplied by the British Hops Association www.britishhops.org.uk
The History of Hops
The modern hop has been developed from a wild plant as ancient as history itself. As far back as the first century AD it was described as a salad plant and is believed to originate from Egypt.
Today, the words ‘beer’ and ‘ale’ mean much the same, but the word ‘ale’ was originally reserved for brews produced from malt without hops. This was the original drink of the Anglo-Saxons and the English, whereas ‘beer’, a brew using hops, probably originated in Germany. Hops were cultivated in the Low Countries (modern Belgium and the Netherlands) from the 13th century.
The cultivation of hops was probably introduced from Flanders to England in the Maidstone area of Kent at the end of the 15th century. Our national drink until then had been ale, unhopped and sometimes flavoured with herbs such as wormwood. Brewers started to import dried Flemish hops, but these contained so much extraneous matter that an Act of Parliament was passed in 1603 imposing penalties on merchants and brewers found dealing in hops adulterated with ‘leaves, stalks, powder, sand, straw and with loggetts of wood drosse’. In those early days, the sole reason for using hops was to preserve the beer in good condition: the bittering effect was reluctantly accepted by Englishmen.
By the 17th century ale (un-hopped beer) was no longer popular and beer was the established drink – by 1655 hop cultivation had grown rapidly in fourteen counties. In a successful year, an acre of good hops could be more profitable than fifty acres of arable land, but some farmers would not grow hops due to the erratic yields caused by drought, wet periods and mildew. Duty was imposed in 1710 and the Act prohibited the use of any bittering agent other than hops in beer, as hops were far more wholesome. The duty varied from year to year and speculation on the tax became a popular form of betting.
The 19th century was the golden age of the hop industry. Hop acreage continued to increase until 1878 when it reached a peak of 77,000 acres. However, tastes changed, and there was a decline in the demand for porter and lighter beer, known as Indian Ale or Pale Ale, became fashionable. Pasteurisation arrived in the late 1870s and fewer hops were needed as a preservative. Clean water became more available and this may have contributed to a falling demand for beer. By 1909, there were only 32,000 acres of land being used to grow hops and a renewed import of foreign hops. This was due to breweries being contracted to brew foreign beers under licence, and thus being required to use the hops stipulated in the original recipe.
Twenty three years later and acreage had fallen to 16,500. The producer-controlled Hops Marketing Board was created to control the flailing industry. The Board would negotiate a guaranteed price with the growers and the brewers would indicate their expected demand to the Board, resulting in allocated quotas to each grower. This brought stability and by 1968 acreage had slowly increased to 17,900 acres. However, in 1982 EEC rules led to the disbanding of the Board and the introduction of independent producer groups for the marketing of English hops.
The hop industry was soon to face further problems as lager gained in popularity and fewer hops were required. In addition, the seeded hops produced in the UK were purported by competing countries to be of inferior quality. This has since been disproved, but the myth caused considerable damage to the British hop industry.
Formerly, hops were grown in almost every region of the UK, but they are now confined largely to the West Midlands and south eastern counties of England. Because a huge itinerant force of workers was needed to pick the crop by hand, production became concentrated near to the industrial areas of London, South Wales and the West Midlands where working class families were glad to be able to spend their annual holidays in the countryside.
In 1922 the first hop picking machine to be used in this country was imported from America by a Worcester grower. Machine picking was not to become widely practiced until the 1950s as the American machines were not suited to conditions in England and hand pickers were still available. However, when the change came it was the West Midland growers who led the way. The first British-made picking machine was produced in Martley in 1934 and the two main makes were manufactured in Suckley and Malvern.
Britain’s brewers in the 21st century require a comprehensive portfolio of hops ranging from low alpha acids of around 4% to higher alphas nearer 20%, and are increasingly interested in the individual flavours of each hop variety. There will always be a need to develop economical hops that are more resistant to disease and that require lower chemical inputs. Horticulture Research International at Wye College in Kent joined with England’s hop growers in the 1980s to anticipate this need and to develop the new category of hops called ‘hedgerows’. These address many of the above problems, as hedgerow hops only grow to 8 feet rather than the 20 feet of traditional varieties. They are also cheaper to establish, can be harvested at speed by machine, require less chemical input and provide a wonderful playground for beneficial bugs and insects.
Today, with almost no Government support, the development of new varieties continues apace. When the Wye College hop development programme was closed down, the British Hop Association (formerly National Hop Association) created a subsidiary company in 2007 called Wye Hops to continue driving the British Hop industry forward.
Herefordshire & Worcestershire
Hops produced in the West Midlands counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and, for a brief spell, Shropshire and Gloucestershire, cannot be isolated from the history of English hop growing.
The less suitable areas, particularly to the north of Bromyard and to the west of Leominster, went out of hop production early in the present century, but the better areas in the Hereford-Ledbury-Bromyard triangle and the Teme Valley, have retained their importance to the present day.
The first planting in the West Midlands has never been established, but is likely to have been prior to 1636, for in that year there was a reference to a field in Littleton, Worcestershire, which was named The Hopyard. The crop probably reached Herefordshire about the same time for the Victoria County History records show that hops were sold in Hereford in 1692.
Sadly, there are no records of the hop acreage in the early years, but in 1794 John Clark wrote in A general view of the agriculture of the County of Hereford, prepared for the Board of Agriculture, that ‘…hops form a very considerable article in the rural economy and seem to be of all others the Farmers’ favourite’. In 1840, there were stated to be some 6,000 acres and in the peak year of 1894 over 10,000 acres.
The present system of supporting the growing bine on a lattice of wirework was introduced by two Worcestershire growers as long ago as 1865. A kiln patented by another Worcester grower before 1880 left in the hops ‘a higher percentage of oil, resin and bitter principle’ than was customary at the time.
British Hops ‘Terroir’
All British hops share the same wonderful ‘terroir’ – great soils and a mild maritime climate with even rainfall throughout the year. We use the natural resources we have available, which means that very few of our hops are irrigated. It is this special and sustainable terroir that gives our hops a lower level of myrcene than hops grown anywhere else in the world. It is lower myrcene that makes the aromas so delicate and complex and so good at helping you to brew the best session beers in the world.
The British Hop Growing Year
Growing hops is a one of the hardest crop choices in farming. Hops require a high attention to detail throughout the year but most especially in the growing months as they need to be checked weekly, sometimes more often. Hop growers are resilient folk and often grow other horticultural crops, particularly apples.
Growing organic hops in the UK presents quite a challenge. The first thing you notice is that our hop yards tend to be full of weeds. These are both good and bad. On the one hand they compete with the hops for nutrients and moisture, so significantly reduce yield potential. On the other hand, the weeds give a diversity of habitat where beneficial insects that feed on aphids and red spiders can live. We rely on keeping the plants as healthy as possible and to do this we keep the soil in as good a condition as we can and do not encourage excessive growth in the plant. Despite this we are entirely at the mercy of the season and yields vary accordingly, most notably on the number and timing of the damson hop aphid.
March, April, May and June
The hop plant is perennial and grows back from the rootstock every year. Depending on the warmth of Spring, this usually starts in early April when the first shoots start to emerge.
The ‘stringing’ of tall hop yards and hop gardens starts in March. In fact some farmers use the winter to complete the job slowly. Natural coir string is used to create the framework for the hops to climb, supported by a permanent structure of poles and wirework. The stringing is done by hand with the aid of a long pole called a ‘monkey’ and is taken from the permanent ‘peg’ in the ground to the hooks on the top wirework above, up to six metres off the ground. Various patterns of stringing have been devised to optimise yield and ease harvesting, depending on variety and region.
From April onwards the hops are tied or ‘twiddled’ onto each string. Depending on the variety, either two or three shoots are tied, clockwise, to each string. If they are tied anti-clockwise they will fall off. If we have a windy spring the hops may need to be re-tied several times. Again this is all completed by hand.
In a hedgerow hop yard or garden, spring is the time that the previous year’s old growth or ‘string’ is removed using a front-mounted rubber flail. The hedgerow hops self-train onto a UV stable polypropylene netted structure, significantly reducing the hand-labour requirement. The netting is designed to last for up to 7 years.
In the spring, proactive spray programmes commence. Hops are monitored regularly by walking the crop and any irregularities can then be dealt with.
By June the plants are starting to establish on the strings or netting.
July and August
By the middle to the end of July the hops should have reached their full height and the laterals begin to grow out. Hops come into ‘burr’ first and then the flower or cone develops. It is the shortening of daylight hours that triggers the plant to produce burr and flower. Broadly speaking the plant is three weeks in burr and three weeks in hop before reaching maturity.
It is during these two months that the growers need to be very vigilant to ensure the crop is disease free. Should a disease or pest be allowed adequate time to do damage, the crop may not recover. This may be only a matter of days.
The UK harvest usually starts in early September and, depending on varieties grown and size of farm, it may continue into early October. Tall hops are harvested by cutting the whole bine, including string, and taking it to the hop picking machine where the hop is separated from the bine, laterals and leaf.
Hedgerow hops are harvested mechanically using a machine developed from the British blackcurrant harvester. The hop and leaf is taken to the hop picking machine where the hop is separated from the leaf.
Arguably the most important aspect of hop farming is the drying. Once clean of leaf, the hops are distributed into baskets and put into the hop kiln or oast to dry. Hops contain over 80% moisture when picked and in order to make them store, this is reduced to about 10%. They are then put into bales of 70 to 85kg in weight.
To help preserve the hops they can be baled and cold stored for one year; vacuum packed and cold stored for two years; or pelleted, vacuum packed and cold stored for five years.
October and November
Once picked, the tall hop yard and gardens require the bines to be cut to the ground and disposed of, a process which we call ‘bine-cutting’. At the end of the season, depending on the weather and levels of soil compaction, hop yards and gardens may be improved by subsoiling and/or shakerating the rows.
During the dormant period growers complete a range of jobs including wirework and pole maintenance, liming the soil to provide the right pH balance, slug control and ‘gapping up’ of dead or diseased plants.