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Down on the hop farm: celebrating Britain's beery harvest

By Jane Peyton , 12-Oct-2015
Last updated on 15-Oct-2015 at 09:28 GMT2015-10-15T09:28:03Z

Jane Peyton with the haul of Goldings she helped to pick
Jane Peyton with the haul of Goldings she helped to pick

Beer drinkers rejoice – it’s that time of year when hops are harvested in Britain.

Ale is my drink of choice and like fellow hop heads I rhapsodize about humulus lupulus. I am particularly enamoured of British hops and last week took a pilgrimage to Worcestershire to help pick them with Charlie Gorham from Charles Faram Hop Merchants. My destination was the rural idyll of Stocks Farm, Suckley in the shadow of the Malvern Hills.  Stocks Farm is owned by Richard and Alison ‘Ali’ Capper and they grow enough hops annually to brew 46 million pints of beer. Ali is also publicity manager for the British Hop Association and is an eloquent and enthusiastic ambassador for hops grown in Blighty.

Goldings is one of my favourite hops for the spice, earthiness and honeyed characters it bestows so it was serendipity that varietal was to be harvested on the day I visited.

If you are an anorak like me and have wondered about the journey of hops from field to brewery then read on.  And if you are not a wearer of waterproof clothing do still read on because there is some trivia coming up that might be useful in a pub quiz.

Oh What a Beautiful Morning

On Stocks Farm for six weeks from the beginning of September the tractor sparks into action at 6.30am and trundles into a field of hops. The hop is a perennial herbaceous plant that climbs up strings strung on wires secured between neat rows of wooden posts.  Hops add aroma, flavour, and/or bitterness and a natural preservative to beer.

As the tractor proceeds along a row it drags a trailer upon which a picker balances on a platform cuts the strings around which hop bines (3 metre long fronds) grow.  Two men plus me are poised in the trailer wearing protective gloves ready to haul down the scratchy bines in a scuffle that whilst inelegant and very physical does the job efficiently. Throughout the day this will be repeated dozens of times. It takes less than 4 minutes to denude a row of hops but there is no chance to pause as this is the start of a process where time is a luxury that cannot be afforded.  After picking, the hop cones (flowers) must to be dried within hours to prevent mildew spoilage. But first they need to be sorted and that is where a device called the Bruff Hop Picking Machine enters the limelight. 

Say Hello to the Bruffalo

Heath Robinson must surely have been consulted on the design of the Bruff.  It is a marvellous contraption of teeth, pulleys, cogs, conveyor belts, and chutes that strips leaves and stalks from the bine leaving only the precious hop cone. It dominates a barn approximately 40 x 20 x 25 metres long, wide and high not only with its bulk but with the racket it makes as it labours relentlessly. Bruff machines were invented and manufactured in Suckley, the tiny village where Stocks Farm is situated.  They are renowned around the world. For such a behemoth, Richard Capper says ‘it handles the hops very delicately and does not damage the petals, unlike some machines in other countries.’  This Bruff is over 50 years old and it is voracious. Every few minutes bines from the field are dumped in a pile in the barn and three workers set to work untangling the vegetation and hanging it from hooks on a moving chain that feeds the fronds into the maw of the machine.  There is no chance to slack, the pace is relentless and any loss of concentration can result in injury or the production line coming to a halt.  Harvesting and processing hops is non-stop physical labour where 12 hour work days are not unusual. 

The workers are so efficient that within 45 minutes of being picked, the hop cones are layered in huge trays ready to enter the kiln.  Depending on how damp they are, the cones will be dried for several hours after which they cool before being packed into bales. They will be despatched to Charles Faram’s in Malvern where they are either sold as whole hop cones or processed into hop pellets for delivery to brewers.

Depending on varietal, hops have citrus, tropical, soft, or stone fruit, spice, herbs, pine, mint, marmalade, treacle, or liquorice aromas and flavours.  Due to Britain’s unique climate and its soils, hops grown in this country are subtle yet complex.  This means that brewers can make balanced beers where the malts are evident, and not least the nation’s celebrated flavoursome session beers.  

50% of British hops are now exported – mostly to the USA.  That’s rather ironic given the tons of American hops that are imported into the UK. Dr Peter Darby, who breeds hops on behalf of the British Hop Association quotes a musical analogy when comparing British and new world hops.  Hops grown in countries such as New Zealand, Australia and the USA have such punchy aromas and flavours they could be likened to a brass band, whereas British grown hops with their delicacy are like a classical symphony. Now I know that, from now on my beer drinking soundtrack will be Ode To Joy!

 Hop Trivia

  • The female (rather than the male) hop flower is used in brewing for the bounteous resin called lupulin which bestows aroma and flavour.
  • Worcestershire and Herefordshire have hop yards, Kent has hop gardens.
  • Kent has oast houses, Worcestershire and Herefordshire have hop kilns.
  • Hops can be used as medicine to treat ailments such as insomnia, migraine, and indigestion.
  • Hops are anti-bacterial and can prevent the growth of food poisoning pathogens and heliobacteria which are believed to cause stomach cancer and gastric ulcers.
  • Hops have the second highest levels of plant sourced oestrogen (female hormone) in nature. Soya is number one.

Jane Peyton is a beer sommelier, events host, founder of the School of Booze, instigator of Beer Day Britain (national beer day), and author of several books including ‘Beer o’ Clock’ and ‘Drink!  A Tippler’s Miscellany’.

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