There was a nice spot of irony at work as the 8.20 Spitfire Hop Pickers Steam Special chugged into life and pulled out of London Victoria en route for the September hop festival at Faversham in Kent. A modern diesel employed to help push-start our 70-year-old Black Fives locomotive had broken down.
No matter. With roaring coals, gurgling boiler, billowing clouds of steam and a jaunty pwee-oop! on the whistle, our 450-ton pre-war train eased out of the station and, gathering pace, headed on its way.
In many ways this seemed a fitting start to a festival that celebrates the English Hop industry. Modern methods, it seems, are not always the best. Today, proper bitter, made with fine British hops, barley, yeast and water, is suffering from an onslaught of identikit big brand lagers and smooth industrially made beers that lack the originality and depth of flavour one expects from traditional British beer. And it is hops above all else that impart character to one’s pint.
At the peak of English hop growing around the turn of the last century 80,000 Londoners and others boarded trains and lorries during early autumn for a working holiday picking hops in Kent.
A friend of mine, Milly Colman, a chirpy 87 year-old Londoner, still fondly remembers those days. “I began hop picking during the war years and a neighbour of mine used to hire a big lorry and we’d pack our families on board and head to Kent,” she says. “Picking the hops was hard work but we all treated it like a holiday and the extra money also came in handy.”
The hop picking could last for four to six weeks and Millie recalls that it was like being part of one big family. Today the remaining work is done by machine and the only reminder of this once hectic annual migration are the 200-odd real ale enthusiasts with me on this commemorative train.
The hop, known in Latin as Humulus Lupulus or Wolf of the Woods, is a tall climbing plant, or vine, closely related to hemp (cannabis), the nettle and the elm. The beauty of the hop – or more precisely the prized hop cone formed by the flowering of the female plant – is that it contains an oily substance called Lupulin that in itself contains bitter, aromatic oils and resins, the most important being alpha acids.
These have strong preservative qualities and this is why hops were first added to beer. But drinkers enthusiastically embraced the aromatic, bitter flavours that hops impart and so the head of this willowy plant became an essential ingredient in beer.
Depending on the hop varieties, and whether they are added to the fermenting mash at the beginning or toward the end (or both), they lend a range of aromatic qualities from floral and fruity to spicy and bitter. In essence the hop is like the grape variety in wine, defining character, whether a single hop brew or a blend.
By any measure British hops have been in serious decline. According to figures from the National Hop Association (NHA), 79,000 hectares of hops were grown across 53 counties in the 1870’s, including Wales and Scotland, with hop gardens recorded as far north as Aberdeen. Twenty years ago this had reduced to 500 growers, primarily in Kent, Sussex, Hereford and Worcestershire, further declining to just 150 hop farmers by the new millennium with a little under 2,000 ha of hops surviving mainly in Kent.
Government dealt another blow earlier this year when it withdrew funding to the British Hop Research Centre at Wye College in Kent exactly 100 years after the programme began. This endangered both the future of the (living) national hop archive and the breeding programme overseen by researcher Peter Derby, whose development of disease resistant and cost effective dwarf varieties of English hops has been groundbreaking.
The hop industry, though, is fighting back. With the notable support of regional brewers such as Shepherd Neame and organisations including the BBPA (British Beer & Pub Association), this slide may finally be halted. “The breeding programme and archive are essential for sustaining the future of British hops,” argues Derby. “Without this we will lose our historic material and there would be no co-ordinated effort to breed new disease-resistant varieties.”
In response, Shepherd Neame, a brewer that prides itself on sourcing local ingredients for its brews, has agreed to extend its brewery tour and visitor centre experience by funding a living hop visitor centre near its Faversham brewery. This 1.5 acre hop garden at Queen’s Court in Ospringe will be home to the historic collection of hops, trained on the Old Kent Square high wire system.
“This will be open to the public in a couple of years,” says Derby, “but another seven acre site at China Farm, also in north Kent, has been agreed as the new home of the hop programme.” The NHA, Shepherd Neame, the BBPA and others are funding this scheme. In addition to holding the national archive hops, this will house both the seedling-breeding programme of new dwarf hops and traditional hops and, when fully established, advance selections planted on a bigger scale to enable brewing trials.
The dwarf hops, typically trained to eight-foot high, are being bred from the familiar traditional varieties that create the classic hop garden landscape as the vines wind around twenty-foot high wires.
Of course, saving the archive and breeding programme and bringing this work to the attention of the public is not enough in itself to save the decline of the English hop. But a resurgence of interest in traditional hop varieties among quality-driven microbreweries, plus the heavyweight support of regional brewers such as Shepherd Neame, Adnams and others, including usage of the new varieties being developed, is already helping raise public awareness of this collective heritage.
“New hops are essential in allowing British brewing to move forward and develop exciting new styles of beer,” Adnams head brewer Mike Powell-Evans insists. “Traditional varieties such as Fuggles, which is central to much of my beer, could be in danger of dying out due to disease such as wilt and I have been experimenting with potential replacements.” These include TA 2000, or Sovereign, as this new dwarf variety is known, plus use of up to 20% First Gold in certain Adnams bitters and also a well-received Trafalgar Bitter using 100% of another dwarf hop, the aphid-resistant Boadicea.
Meanwhile, Shepherd Neame, which sources Kentish hops for its beers, has been awarded a PGI or Protected Geographical Designation for its Bishops Finger Ale. Controlled by the EU, this status recognises and ensures all ingredients are sourced locally and that the product’s character reflects its origins. A separate PGI is pending, with approval likely, for the East Kent Goldings hop, which Shepherd Neame’s brewer David Holmes describes as “essential” to the distinctive regionality of his bitters.
“The importance of hops is that they can make a good beer great,” he says. “Hops give a clarity of aroma and depth of flavour above all other ingredients.” Holmes also brews single varietal beers with emphasis on the hop character such as Goldings Summer Hop Ale and Early Bird Spring Hop. A wealth of microbreweries and other regionals are also emphasising the role of hop varieties in their brews.
At the end of the day, though, as Kentish hop grower Chris Dawes points out, the future of hops is in the hands of the general public. “If the public are not interested in beers brewed with English hops then they will disappear,” he says. “There needs to be more public input in terms of buying and supporting interesting beers.”
The cost of good English hops, it seems, only adds a penny or two per pint of beer. But if we aren’t prepared to pay this small sum then events like the Faversham Hop Festival may become nothing more than a historical footnote to a once great British tradition.
The festival proved a lively affair, packed with traditional Morris Dancers, food stalls and families enjoying a great day out – plus a chance to taste some great British beers. Long may it continue to flourish. Because if great British hops, including Fuggles, Goldings, Challenger, Northdown, Admiral, Target and Early Bird, plus their budding dwarf offspring such as First Gold, Boadicea and Sovereign, are lost, then so is the backbone of traditional British beer.
Taken from the latest issue of the Italian magazine Slowfood (number 23).
Andrew Catchpole is a London-based wine, food and travel writer.