When Greene King extended its IPA brand with new beers earlier this year, head brewer John Bexon was presented with an intriguing problem. One of these extensions was a golden ale — IPA Gold, of course. To be commercially successful, the brief was for it to help tempt lager drinkers into real ale for the first time.
But Bexon was already brewing St Edmunds, a golden ale featuring Cascade hops, as well as Old Golden Hen, which was a similar strength and had similar citrusy New World notes deriving from Tasmania’s Galaxy hop. Bexon needed something to set the new beer apart.
Exotic new hop varieties are the new rock ’n’ roll of the beer world, but Bexon was concerned about anything too experimental or overhyped, fearing an irregular, unreliable supply. So instead of looking for something new, he went back over old brewing books, and stumbled upon a Slovenian hop called Slavinsky Golding, which immediately seduced him with what he describes as its “lemon and tinned peach” aroma.
Several months later, I’m standing on a Slovenian hop farm with Bexon, crushing and rubbing the hops to get at those aromas. If the immense volumes of beer and home-made salami that greet us at successive hop farms is any indication, the farmers are absolutely delighted we’ve come to visit.
It’ll be weeks before I can even look at a slice of cured meat again without instantly having a vivid indigestion flashback. But I’m happy to be here, and so I tweet this, hoping to make the online community a little jealous about my trip to stunning southern Alpine valleys under cloudless blue skies.
But instead of jealousy, the first reaction is resentment. Why am I not touring Kentish hop fields instead? Why is Greene King not supporting the British hop industry? Over the course of the afternoon, learning the answers to these questions turns into a masterclass on the joys of the hop.
The UK is a net importer of hops and has been for much of its brewing history. (When I wrote my last book, I enjoyed disabusing people of the notion that modern IPAs using American hops were not ‘traditional’ by telling them that Bass was importing US hops in huge quantities at the peak of IPA’s success in the 1870s). We have just over 1,000 hectares of hop cultivation in the UK, and we need a lot more hops than that.
Slovenia — a country that has only 8.3% of the land mass of the UK — has slightly more acreage under hop cultivation than the UK, and is the world’s sixth-biggest hop grower. That’s because, just as Burton-on-Trent is blessed with the world’s most perfect ale-brewing water, so the broad, flat valleys of Slovenia have the perfect micro-climate for hop cultivation.
I’d never realised before just what delicate little flowers hops are. During the growing period they need 13 hours of sunlight a day (you can see England’s problem right there). They need just the right amount of rainfall. And they need to be protected from heavy winds that could damage the hop cones. Here, the mountains come in very handy.
The result is that hops grown here acquire a different character from elsewhere. Not every hop likes this micro-climate, but it turns out English hops, just like our holidaymakers, love it.
The aromas in hops come from the essential oils contained in their delicate lupulin glands. There are 300 different components to these oils, which can be measured using a chromatogram plot like the one we were shown at Slovenia’s Institute of Hop Research. Each hop variety has a different plot, as unique as a fingerprint. And when, say, an English hop is planted here, like Kent Goldings were in the 19th century, that chromatogram plot changes. The hop gets a new set of fingerprints. Slavinsky Golding has English parents, but it’s gone and made a very different life for itself on the sunny side of the Alps.
This is not to say that Slovenian hops are any better or worse than their parental English varieties — they just have a different character. And the most exciting part about this is it confirms that the notion of terroir — the effect of geography, geology and climate on a plant’s genetics — is every bit as real and important in beer as it is in wine.
I’ve always wanted to believe this, and now here it is as scientific fact. And now I can’t wait to learn more in Kent and Herefordshire. Just go easy on the salami, guys.