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Breweries behind the launch of a new annual two-week beer festival hope the event will boost the UK’s hop industry amid fears the traditional Kent crop could become a thing of the past.
In a departure from the norm Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight will see more than 20 brewers dispense with their usual dried hop recipes and instead use only fresh, locally grown hops which will go into the beer less than 12 hours after being picked.
They hope their efforts and a two-week celebration of drinking the fruits of their labours will help raise the profile of British hops and lead to more brewers using them.
At its peak in 1872 British hop farmers grew around 72,000 acres of the perennial climbing plant but over time demand for the flowers, traditionally used as a flavouring and preservative in beer, has decreased to the point that last year only 2,500 acres were grown.
Despite a record number of breweries in the country and although beer is, to many, a typically British drink an increasing number of brewers are turning to hops from overseas rather than using UK varieties. Hops from locations including the USA, New Zealand and Eastern Europe are favoured by many microbrewers for the stronger flavours they can produce, but hop farmers and merchants feel the fashion for using imported hops could mean the end of the industry in the UK.
“Some growers have been idling crops this year because there haven’t been enough sales and if they can’t sell the hops they pull them out. Our fear is that if demand falls any further then the infrastructure not just for growing, but for picking and processing hops will disappear,” says Paul Corbett, Managing Director of hop merchant Charles Faram & Co Ltd.
“If we don’t stick up for the UK hop industry now there will be no industry in a decade’s time,” he added.
Where once hops were grown at a number of locations defined by where labour was available for harvesting them the only major hop-growing regions in the UK now are Hereford and Worcester in the West Midlands and Kent in the South East.
Despite this the UK is at the forefront of efforts to develop new hop varieties - including dwarf or hedgerow plants thought to be more sustainable than higher climbing hops - and the revival of old ones.
“Although historically hops are not the only plant that’s been used to flavour beer they have become an integral part of how it tastes, but many people don’t realise what an incredible range of flavours and aromas brewers can create by using different varieties of British hops in different ways,” says Eddie Gadd of the Ramsgate Brewery – and a green hop enthusiast.
“We hope Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight will flag this up to a few more people and in turn raise the issue of what’s going on with the UK hop industry and that if we don’t use it we’ll lose it.”
Green hops are said to give beer a characteristic light and fresh flavour because they retain oils usually lost in the traditional drying process which preserves them for use long after they have been harvested.
The beers can only be made once a year, at the tail end of summer, and brewers say they are truly unique because you literally can’t make the same beer twice.
Eddie Gadd added: “We want the Fortnight to be a success not just for ourselves but for the UK’s hop industry. It would be a national tragedy if this part of our history and heritage was allowed to just disappear.”
Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight begins at the Canterbury Food & Drink Festival on Friday 28th September and continues at the county’s pubs through to 12th October, or until the beer runs out. Further details: www.kentgreenhopbeer.com