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Those hoppy days are here again

Only a month short of harvest time, Michael Jackson praises aromatic plants that give British beers their distinct flavour

Everyone knows that wine is made from grapes. Ask the man with the pint in his hand what beer is made from, and will he reply "Barley"? No. The response will be: "Hops, of course." Wrong. What grapes are to wine, barley is to beer: barley that has been partially germinated, then dried to malty, sweet juiciness. The hops -- flowery and almost herbal -- are a seasoning, to add a balancing dryness.

Barley does not excite the imagination, but hops do: their shoots, peeping through in April, grow with astonishing vigour and speed, as potent and priapic as Jack's beanstalk, towering to 20ft by the time they are ready to surrender their cone-shaped blossoms to the brewer this month. Hops, which are related to cannabis, inspire appetite and legend.

Growers in Bohemia say they can cultivate the world's most delicately aromatic hops because the vines are trained by young women. In conservative, Catholic Bavaria, the hop poles stand like crucifixes. In Flanders, the gourmandising Belgians eat hop shoots with poached eggs, as a delicacy. In east Kent, farmers talk wistfully of the cones swelling nicely after a refreshing rain on Canterbury cricket weekend (or, in the Weald, by Horsmonden Sheep Fair).

Where grapes end, hops (and often apples or pears) begin. They like a gently warming climate, with light rain and clayish soil. Bohemian and Bavarian hops make delicately fragrant lagers; but the English varieties, notably the hearty-sounding Goldings and Fuggles, give a distinctively earthy relish to the best of two British ales.

These two classics take their names form farmers: Mr. Golding selected his variety from a garden in Canterbury in 1790; Mr. Fuggle propagated a hop from Horsmonden in 1875.

The growth of lager brewing has threatened the cultivation of these traditional English varieties. So has their susceptibility to diseases and pests. As often happens, the threats have made devotees realise the value of something they stand to lose.

In recent years, the deeply aromatic East Kent Golding, in particular, has become a prized hop among the new generation of revivalist ale-brewers, not just in Britain but also in North America.

In recent years, the deeply aromatic East Kent Golding, in particular, has become a prized hop among the new generation of revivalist ale-brewers, not just in Britain but also in North America. Its depth of flavour suite ales better than the more floral varieties grown on a massive scale in Oregon and Washington state for American lagers.

Kent farmer Tony Redsell, chairman of the National Hop Association, has sold all of his Goldings for the next three years. "Spot" buyers may find themselves looking to one of the Golding's more distant outposts: Slovenia. Whether the Slovenian version is really a Golding or a Fuggle, as some allege, is perhaps the least of that land's problems. The Fuggle is equally renowned, but less aromatic, softer and drier.

This year's English harvest looks good in quality and quantity, and the 250-odd farmers in east Kent and the Weald, Worcester and Hereford, have slightly more land under hops than they did 12 months ago.

It will be a month or so before this crop finds its way into the beer, but hops are dried like an herb to last a full brewing year. The east Kent varieties can be tasted year-round in distinctively hoppy local brews like Shepherd Neame's of Faversham.

Londoners can enjoy a generous dose of the Golding hop in Fuller's and Young's beers. A bottled brew from Young's, called Strong Export, is possibly the hoppiest beer in Britain. It is so aromatic that there might be a hop garden in every bottle -- and the variety is definitely Goldings.

Some of the more assertive Worcester and Hereford varieties are evident in Ind Coope's profoundly hoppy Burton Ale, produced in the Midlands' brewing capital.

The North's most hoppy beer might well be the bottled, vintage-dated, Harvest Ale released every November by the John Willie Lees brewery of Middleton, Greater Manchester. This strong bottled ale is made from the new season's barley malt and hops. The malt is usually made form Maris Otter barley, grown in Yorkshire, and the hops are East Kent Goldings.

Being a barley-growing country and far from the hop counties, Scotland has traditionally produced ales that lean toward a full, malty sweetness.

Being a barley-growing country and far from the hop counties, Scotland has traditionally produced ales that lean toward a full, malty sweetness. In recent years, Edinburgh's Caledonian brewery has even made a malty beer that is varietal: Golden Promise, named after a variety of barley reckoned to produce an especially sweet, clean malt.

Golden Promise has another attribute: it is made only from organic ingredients. The brewery managed to find barley in Scotland to meet the specification, but until now had to import its organically grown hops from Tasmania. These seem to me a little lacking in aroma and delicacy.

I found the original Golden Promise -- and other early organic brews from Britain, such as Hartcliffe Bitter and Lincoln Green Lager -- a trifle astringent in their hop character. A French organic brew, a very pale ale called Jade, is on the thin, grainy side. The German Pinkus Spezial is a dryish organic lager.

This year, organic hops were grown in Kent and will soon be used in Golden Promise. The hop variety is Target, which ought to produce a still-dry, but perhaps more rounded, character. Farmer Peter Hall has managed to fight the hop's formidable array of enemies without resorting to pesticides. First, he planted mustard between the rows of hops. Confusingly, mustard attracts the potato aphid. This creature is regarded as a juicy meal by a wide range of ladybirds. After eating the potato aphids, they stayed in the garden for the next course. This was another gastronomically confusing creature, the damson hop aphid. In eating this, the ladybirds destroyed one of the hop's greatest enemies. Meanwhile, Hall chopped into the ground all the mustard, which acts as manure.

Farmer Hall's other worry was the two-spotted spider mite. To discourage this creature he imported one of its predators, a mite called Phytoseiulus persimilis from South America. This mite not only consumes its spidery prey but then dies of cold in the British climate. This vicious behaviour is condoned by the Soil Association.

Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: SEPT 21, 1991
In: The Independent


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