As someone fascinated by the craft beer movement, in particular the remarkable things it does with hops, I had a moment last year when I wondered if my surname, Hopkins, somehow referred to an ancient relative who was known among his neighbours as the ‘Hop King’. That his knowledge of hop production was so treasured that it was reflected, indeed celebrated, in his name. Research (well, Wikipedia) reveals the real root is nothing of the sort, meaning ‘son of Hob’, whoever he was. My fascination with hops remains unabated though, meaning that I really have to share with you the story of my first year as a hop farmer.
Hops are vital to the brewing progress, both for bittering and for adding the aroma. The craft beer movement has led to a huge growth in demand for hops, although last year’s dry summer across Europe hit the harvest hard and led to increases in price for those from further afield. While it is often the hops imported from the US and New Zealand that give craft beers their incredible variety of flavours, there is also a rediscovery of home-grown varieties. And in several places, communities are joining forces with their local breweries to found ‘Hop Clubs’, people growing hops in back gardens and public places to flavour a truly local beer.
I was inspired for some time by the Hop Clubs started in Brixton and elsewhere, in particular by Crystal Palace Transition Town’s ‘Palace Pint’ project, growing hops in many locations across their neighbourhood, including their ‘Tipsy Garden’ in a local pub, and by the Stroud Brewery who do it too. As a founding director of the rather wonderful New Lion Brewery here in Totnes, I was fascinated by us having a go. I called Helen Steer, who has supported the setup of several of these schemes, and met up with her in London to pick her brains.
With the rest of the New Lion team on board we decided to give it a go. We mentioned the idea to our members, and our invitation to people to discover their inner hop farmer made the front page of the local paper (which allowed them to indulge in some dreadful hop-related punning). We made this banner for the website, and this short video…
In the end, 46 people stepped forward for this year’s intake of hop growers, and so we placed an order for hop rhizomes with a hop farm in Kent, a dwarf variety called ‘PrimaDonna’, which only grows 8 feet tall (traditional varieties grew enormously, requiring pickers to use stilts. Delivery day was hugely exciting, as people poured into the brewery to collect their rhizomes and their growing instructions (see below).
As the spring turned into summer, people began to post photos on Facebook and Twitter showing their plants starting to grow, or, as was sometimes the case, not (slugs mainly). My own plant took a while to get going, but when it did it flew up the twine provided for it. I have, over the years, grown lots of different plants, but my hop plant was especially exciting, especially once the hops started to form.
September 11th was traditionally the first day of the Kent hop harvest, so it seemed like a good day for us too. We let everyone know in advance, asking people to bring their hops into the brewery before midday. I picked mine in the morning sunshine, and they smelt amazing. You know they are ready when they feel papery, when they are just starting to turn brown, and when you break them open and can see the yellow lupulin, the pollen-like substance that gives the aroma (it smells AMAZING). I harvested a not too disgraceful 100g, and put them in a sealed box (you have to keep them sealed to preserve the aroma) and popped down to the Brewery.
Our Harvest Day was something really rather special. People brought in what they had grown, even if in some cases it was just 20 cones, lovingly harvested and placed in a sealable plastic bag. Richard brought in the 700g he had somehow grown from just one plant. Anne and John brought in theirs, the rhizome having been a birthday present, thrilled by what they had produced. Luis brought in a harvest just about enough to fill a jam jar, but delighted to be part of the whole thing. Here’s a short video about Harvest Day:
The resultant beer will be available in a few weeks. Next Spring we will bring in more growers, and add to our patchwork hop farm. We’ve a long way to go to catch those more established hop clubs. Here’s the Palace Pint’s haul for 2016, 28kg!:
Greg Pilley at Stroud Brewery wrote to me:
"We harvested, picked and brewed this Saturday 10th September. Of our 40 or so Hop Club members. About 25 brought their crops to the brewery, and we spent the morning picking the cones off the bines. Our pizza colleagues furnished us with chocolate and almond croissants to dip into our coffees, and then we supped beers thereafter. A jazz band serenaded us to the end of the task and beyond. We harvested 50kg if green hops, which we packed into our copper to make 3500 pints if this years Brewers Garden. A 4.2% pale, green hopped beer. The hop plants looked great this year, a massive improvement on last year’s crop, which we hope to see across the UK harvest".
For me, the Totnes Hop Club has been one of my favourite local projects. It brings people to collaborate in the most delightful way, not people who would necessarily to drawn to Transition projects. It connects people to the seasons, to growing, to the creation of a local product. There is a sense of possibility that runs through it.
In, say, 10 years time, the Totnes Hop Harvest could be very substantial, involving hundreds of growers. It could be celebrated town-wide as a major event in the calendar. There could be hops growing up the front of many prominent local buildings. They could be growing on the station, welcoming visitors. Harvest Day could by then be a major annual event, and the beer that is produced could become, like the story of ‘Pliny the Younger’ in Santa Rosa, US, a major generator of visitors to the town. For many people with no experience of gardening, their first hop harvest was the first thing to give them confidence that growing plants could be for them.
Writing on the New Localisation blog, Justin Golbabai writes "it is imperative each place build alternative local institutions to provide people with choices". I like to think of our humble Hop Club as such an institution, created with its roots in bringing people together, creating opportunities to celebrate together and learn new skills, to support emergent local enterprises and craftsmanship, while also creating something with the potential to reimagine so much across the local economy, and to inspire others. It may turn out that although I might not be a ‘Hop King’, it is by reconnecting with the practice of growing this wonderful plant that it turns out that, although we may not know it yet, we all are. Finally, did you know they also do Hop Clubs in Minecraft? Apparently so. There, they look like this…