You may have heard rumours about the death of the British hop industry. Happily, in Kent last week, I got the distinct impression those rumours have been exaggerated — or at least misunderstood.
Certainly if you were to look at the acreage given over to hop cultivation in the UK, you could be forgiven for being concerned. It’s been in decline since 1980. But the trend seems to be changing.
“If you’d drawn a straight line of the decline from 1989 there would have been no hop cultivation left at all by 2006,” Peter Darby of the British Hop Association tells me. “But it levelled off, and by 2005 it had stabilised. It was level until 2013, and since then it’s gone down again.
But behind the overall number there are different things happening. Some growers are pulling out due to family reasons. I know one who has stopped growing hops in Kent so he can go and raise elephants in Thailand — but other growers are expanding their operations.
At the moment this is a young industry, and we’re very forward looking and optimistic about what the future holds.”
I’m talking to Darby on an unseasonably warm late September afternoon in the British Hop Collection, a hop garden containing 250 varieties, from some that were first discovered in the early 1700s to the latest, officially recognised in 2010.
Like a ship’s captain, you get the impression that Darby is not quite happy unless he’s here, in his element, at his station. He holds forth like a father presenting his talented children. And maybe the nautical analogy is not entirely random. Surrounded as I am by Challenger, Sovereign, Target and Admiral, it strikes me that hops are often named as if they were ships of the Royal Navy.
There certainly seems to be as much pride.
This is why it pains some people that the brash, widescreen delights of American hops — all big flavours and punchy bitterness — seem to have seduced the palates of the British beer drinker and brewer. Most of our pale and golden ales now seem to favour flowery, piney Cascade or fruity Citra. The more rustic delights of earthy Fuggles or spicy Goldings are sometimes dismissed by the new wave of beer bloggers and craftophiles as ‘twiggy’, common and crude in contrast to the flashy Americans.
I adore the character of American hops. As I’ve written in this column before, they changed my life when I first encountered them. But I don’t see that as any reason to write off British hops. And neither, so it seems, do the Americans. In the gloriously, positively screwed-up world of international beer, while we hanker after the delights of the Pacific Northwest, the flow across the Atlantic is a cultural exchange that goes both ways.
Americans like British
This year, the British hop industry estimates that 50% to 60% of its entire output will be exported to American craft brewers.
Poncy words like terroir don’t sit comfortably with good old-fashioned, dependable beer. But the simple truth is that soil, climate, temperature, sunlight andrainfall together have a greater influence than mere genetics over how a hop will taste or smell.
Hops are about nurture rather than nature — or rather, they obliterate the difference between the two.
Take a Kentish hop to America, or a Washington hop to Faversham, and if it thrives, it will resemble its new home rather than its parents.
This means we (arguably) can’t get those heady citrus and pine characteristics here — we can, but with difficulty — and American brewers have to come to Kent and Hereford to get the subtlety they crave for with their new generation of ‘session’ beers.
This all adds up, not to the demise of the British hop industry, but to a possible rebirth. It will never be the same as it was, and British ales are destined always to have a greater variety of hop character than theyonce had. The simple truth is, we’re now in a global market.
But that cuts both ways.
Many British mainstream lagers are made with imported German hops — or more likely, cheaper hop extract — for bittering. Fuggles and East Kent Goldings are more expensive, more premium, sought for their aroma and flavour by smaller brewers. Far from disappearing, the demand for such hops is growing.
“In the United States, craft brewers brew 9% of the country’s total beer volume, but use half of all the hops sold there,” says Peter Darby. ‘There’s a global hop shortage on the way, no doubt about that.”
The smart money is on forgetting the elephants, and starting to replant the hop gardens of Kent and Hereford as fast as possible.