One bine day

Endeavour hops at Stocks Farm

Endeavour hops at Stocks Farm

One of the features that generally distinguishes so-called craft beer is its heavy use of hops. This practice began in the US, home of the hoppy IPA, and was able to develop because of the high aroma and flavour properties of US hops.

On these shores, that basic formula is generally unchanged. Brewers here are generally able to access many American and New World varieties, at a price, and produce very good beers . American hops proved invaluable to Rival as we learned to brew, because something like Citra will almost always give you something you can drink, assess, and improve upon.

These hops don’t come cheap, particularly given the hopping rates, but most breweries can make it work for them. There is one crucial difference, however.

Many US breweries are able to travel to the Yakima Valley at harvest time and pick out the crops they want to work with. Hops are typically picked over a three-week period, and some brewers will prefer week one hops for their beers, while others may want a fresher crop.

Most (but not all) UK breweries aren’t able to do this. Hop growers will usually take their harvest and make a blend from crops picked over those three weeks, and while the quality is not in question, we don’t have that additional element of control. Whether you’re making beer, or steak & kidney pies, or double chocolate cookies, it’s generally accepted that the more say you have in your ingredients the better your final product will be.

When we announced we were working again with English hops, there was some sniffiness among craft beer drinkers. In some ways this can be forgiven. For centuries, English hops have been grown and used for their bittering qualities and, given the high cost of grubbing out and replanting bines, demand is the key factor in what is grown around the world. There is also more recent research that contends that copper used in European but not US pesticides (so crucial to the development of a crop susceptible to a wide range of diseases) may diminish British growers’ ability to match their Transatlantic counterparts for aroma and flavour.

But that hasn’t stopped them trying. Bringing a hop to market takes a surprisingly long time - I’ve seen testing programs and they can take decades. Simcoe - a rock star hop - will be 20 next year. Bearing in mind the relatively short time that hop-forward beers have been popular in UK, and considering growers have to weigh up the permanence of any change in drinkers’ tastes before they take any decisions that involve considerable investment, perhaps that sniffiness is inevitable.

But we don’t think it’s justified. While we’ve almost exclusively used US and New Zealand hops, we’ve kept an eye on what’s happening here and remained in contact with English producers. This led to something approaching an epiphany around a month ago.

Stood in a sun-kissed field just outside Worcester, we pulled Endeavour cones from the nearest bine. We rolled them in our palms, cupped our hands and sniffed in hard the released aromas. What we got was exactly the aromas we want in a glass of our beer. The epiphany was this - if it’s in there, the only preventing it from getting into our beer is us. In other words, if we’re good enough, then so are these hops.

It’s said that if wine is a triumph of agriculture then beer is a triumph of process. This old saying guides and grounds us. To us, it means - just get better. It helps that we can have detailed discussions about what we’re looking for with English producers, to work together in a way that isn’t possible with American hops.

With our latest beer, Manifesto, we get to put our money where our mouths are. We’ll be brewing exclusively with English experimental hops - so experimental that most of them don’t even have names - using modern brewing processes . The first one will be served this weekend at the Great Welsh Beer Festival. Nothing like expert drinkers to make you bring your game!

Duncan Higgitt