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Last week we hosted the first UK Hop Symposium for people involved in all aspects of the industry – from grower, to merchant, to brewer.
The event was an extension of our annual Hop Blessing (a sort of Harvest Festival, exclusively for hops) and the ceremony was incorporated into the day’s activities. The hops were blessed and traditional folk songs were sung in celebration of this crop which is as vital to East Kent as it is to the brewing of great beer.
From there we moved on to the National Hop Collection, for a tour led by Dr Peter Darby of Wye Hops, one of the world’s leading hop research companies. Dr Darby’s fascinating insights into these small, cone-shaped green flowers served to highlight not onto what it is that makes them so unique (alpha acids, among many other things) but also how much there is still to learn about hops. The Collection consists of pairs of each of the varieties historically grown in the UK, but which are no longer grown for commercial use. Perhaps it is exactly these zesty, citrus esters and aromas that were dismissed decades ago that could be the saving grace of UK hops as they are currently in high demand from many smaller UK brewers who are currently having to source their hops from abroad.
Guests, who numbered around 100, then moved onto the Old Brewery Store, Shepherd Neame’s conference facilities to examine season’s hop samples: perfect cubes of dried, pressed, whole hops, occasionally dotted with seeds that are bound in purple sugar paper, secured with a paper fastener. There is a Dickensian air to these pockets of Kentish fare: yet they are alive with the zesty, heady aromas of both the hedgerow and fruit bowl.
After enjoying some of this season’s green hop ales from ourselves, Kent Brewery, Wantsum and Ramsgate Brewery (Gadd’s) guests enjoy a hearty lunch of lamb stew that would have been familiar to the hop pickers of times past (okay, they might have had mutton, but you get my drift).
We enjoyed talks from those closest to the hop world. Tony Redsell OBE a local grower whose farm we have bought hops from for generations gave our annual Goldings Lecture. We learned the challenges that have faced farmers over his seven decades working in the hop gardens of Kent. Where once East End workers enjoyed hop picking holidays as a break from the city smog, now his farm relies on agricultural students from Eastern Europe. Hop acreage has dramatically reduced, partly due to a reduction in the number of manual labour jobs on which the beer industry was so reliant, but also due to changing tastes towards foreign flavours.
Tony’s retrospective on the industry was followed by Ali Capper from the British Hop Association. Ali gave a ‘State of the Nation’-type speech. Where are we now? Well, hop production has plateaued, but it remains under threat. Hops are not easy to grow and farmers could well decide they’re not worth the bother. It’s not all doom and gloom though, never before have consumer cared so much about what they’re eating and drinking and local product is of particular concern. Indeed, UK hops are renowned the world-over. The opportunity is there to encourage drinkers to ask the all-important question: “Is this beer brewed with British hops?”
Next up was Eddie Gadd from Ramsgate Brewery who has orchestrated the Kentish response to exactly the opportunities highlighted by Ali: the Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight. Learn more about the Fortnight here.
In a moment of pure poetry, Eddie told the story of harvesting, and brewing with, fresh hops. Here is an extract:
I'd like to paint you a picture.....
It's seven in the morning and the early East Kent September sun hasn't yet dried the dew off the hop cones that hang heavy on the bines.
It's peaceful, peaceful like only a hop garden can be, and all I can hear is the distant rumble of an old fashioned, blue tractor with a couple of small trailers following as it heads up the field towards pickers.
One picker is out in front, slashing at the bines about two feet from the ground, cutting them & the strings they're wrapped around, letting them hang free from the wire work at the top.
She has a peaceful job, largely in solitude.
Back behind her, by around 50 yards, chugs another old fashioned blue tractor with its own two trailers, rumbling on at a slow walking pace.
Above each trailer stands a picker in a steel nest on top of a short steel ladder slashing with sharp knives at the top of the bines.
They cut them & their strings from the wire work, letting the bines fall into great heaps in the trailers below, guided by helping hands.
A couple more pickers walk behind, picking up and rescuing missed bines and bunches of the freshest green hops.
Read more: The Ramsgate Brewery
It was a genuinely moving moment, which I’d suggest is a rarity at a business conference. But that’s hops…and that’s beer. It goes deeper than just another product on a supermarket shelf, or just a drink. It’s people, it’s ingredients, it has a sense of place, identity and history.
There is no denying a significant proportion of beer drinkers have fallen out of love with beer, in many cases they’ve been wooed by the ‘over-ice’ image of cider in its various flavoured forms. There are other lifestyle factors, of course, but now it’s the job of everyone in the beer industry to reconnect with drinkers and remind them why they loved beer so much in the first place. David Wilson from the British Beer and Pub Association talked on behalf of the Let There Be Beer campaign which aims to do exactly that and delegates were heartened to hear that competitors had put their individual difference aside to help promote the entire beer category.
Throughout the day we heard from people the length and breadth of the country – all with different backgrounds and motivations. One thing united them all: great British hops. They recognised that we are lucky enough to have a national asset that should be cherished, by brewers, by consumers and by the government. We can all drink to that.