HOP STOP: ENGLISH HOPS
It’s time once again to point our spotlight at the world of the hop, as we continue the series showcasing their many differing qualities. Following previous illumination of US hops and our Kiwi friends, the New Zealand hops, we move someway closer to home and focus the beam this time on the hop varietals of England. They may not make the same headlines as citrus-pounding US hops, or the vinous wonders from the Antipodes, but that doesn’t make them any less special. Or does it?
Hop To It
According to the British Hop Association – and they should know – Kent was the first part of England where hops were grown in the British Isles, after they were imported from Flanders at the end of the 15th Century. The sole reason for their use in brewing was as a preservative; the bitter flavours they imparted were merely coincidental, and one that at first wasn’t exactly appreciated. Within fifty years though, hop cultivation had spread outwards from Kent and was becoming far more prevalent – and the reason for this was pure and simple: money. An acre of hops could be sold for a higher price than the output of fifty acres of arable land.
Supply and demand was one reason for this – but another (which played into that, of course) was the sheer risk associated with cultivating hops in England. Disease and weather took a heavy toll, with sometimes entire yields being lost to mildew or inclement summers. As technology and husbandry improved, these risks were mitigated slightly, but it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the development of hedgerow hops offered some degree of protection to the flowers as opposed to airy, spindly bines that reached twice as high off the ground. However, this coincided with the peak (or trough) of the lager boom, meaning fewer and fewer home-grown hops were required.
Since then, though, they have made something of a comeback. Our Starky is on hand to explain why he thinks this is so…
English hops are unsung heroes. We use them mostly in dark beers as the spicy/earthy characteristics offer up a subtle balance while letting the malt bill shine through.
Cocoa Psycho is a great example; stick some of the big C’s in there [Cascade, Centennial, Columbus] and you would end up with a beer with far too much going on, it will be too complex which would just be static in your mouth.
Old World IPA is another – that was a beauty loaded with First Gold and Bramling X. When that was fresh it had a fantastic dark Haribo beak*, a real stand out IPA in my opinion.
* This must be a specialist brewing term
Let’s take a closer look at some of our dark-hued beers, and see how these English hops come across on the flavour profile of each beer.
As Starky says, although our powerhouse of a Russian Imperial Stout has a lot going on elsewhere, the English hops Fuggles and Goldings act as a counterpoint. Classic aroma hops, on the final taste their low alpha acid levels provide an earthy, slightly spicy flavour that works against – in a good way – the rich additions from the vanilla and cacao nibs. Cocoa Psycho also contains crushed coffee beans, smoked malt and roasted barley (amongst other things), so the English hops are really required to blend everything together; to act as a perfect backdrop.
Porters and Bramling Cross are just made for each other. The complementary spicy blackcurrant notes just work beautifully with dry, roasty porters. Brixton also contains Challenger –a textbook all-rounder that comes from the family tree of Northen Brewer. More typically seen in Brown Ales, Challenger has a bit more oomph than Bramling Cross, and thus adds a bit of strength and spice to the mix. When we include (the non-English) Bravo as well, Brixton Porter really comes to life – but being a beer born of London, we let those home-grown hops have their day.
First Gold was the world’s first commercial hedgerow hop, and it is also hugely versatile. What we like about it, specifically, is that it gives beers a sharp, bitter citrus background but without utterly dominating like the American citrus-bombs such as Cascade or Citra (not that there’s anything wrong with that, either). In Dogma, we pair First Gold with Saaz. English and Noble hops make for a fairly unusual combination in a Wee Heavy – but then, Dogma is a fairly unique beer. As the complex malt bill comes to the fore, the foundation laid by First Gold really begins to pay off.
English hops might not hit the flavour or aroma heights of their high-alpha equivalents from other growing regions of the world, but that doesn’t matter in our book. They remain one of the fundamental ingredients of any brewers’ armoury. Classic combinations can be deployed in the most full-on of recipes (as in the case of Cocoa Psycho), and not be overwhelmed. They might be hard to grow, but hop farms have stuck by them; and that in itself proves their worth…