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Better news in the hops gardens

The Hogs Back Brewery won the overall silver medal in the competition for Champion Beer of Britain 2000; notes from a 1996 visit to the brewery to taste its Hop Garden Gold

In his honorary position, the Lord Lieutenant of Surrey, Richard Thornton, is charged with welcoming royalty on their visits to his county. In his day job, as a hop farmer, he recently greeted half a dozen brewers to his estate. They wanted to see, just before the harvest, whether his hops this season were sufficiently well-formed and leaf-green, full of aromatic resins and essential oils, to make great beer.

Hops like clay soil, a temperate climate, and shelter. In England, they are grown in Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire, then vault over Wiltshire and Gloucestershire to reappear around Worcester and Hereford. The Lord Lieutenant, proud of his county, is the last grower in Surrey. His two adjoining gardens, densely planted, and boxed-in by tree-cover, are hidden jewels in a cushion of hillside near Guildford. He may also be the last grower in England to concentrate exclusively on the traditional variety Fuggles (named after the farmer who selected and propagated the strain, in 1875).

Last year, he increased his acreage from 12 to 14. This year, when the brewers inspected his hops, they unanimously asked him to plant more for the future. This may yet not represent a wind of change, but it is a straw in the breeze.

Until recently, all the news from England's hop gardens was bad. Hops do not contribute alcohol or body to beer, they impart aroma and flavour; and the trend in the mass market has been toward bland beers, whether lager or ale. Lager is a particular problem for the British hop-grower. Many lagers sold in this country are made with Continental hops, though rarely of the finest varieties, and usually in dismally small quantities. The latter two caveats also apply to mass-market ales, which do use English hops. The finest varieties are more susceptible to pests and diseases, and in consequence require more care on the farm. They are much more subtle and complex in aroma and flavour, and therefore have to be used in more quantity. They are thus more expensive to grow and use.

This would be no problem if a fine beer could be sold much more expensively than a cheaply made brew. That principle is unquestioned in the world of wine, but is harder to apply to beer, though that is changing. As the pub serving only its house lager and bitter gives way to a wider range of drinking places, the notion that "a pint is a pint", and that all should have similar prices, becomes less dominant. In supermarkets, there is an even greater range of brews and prices.

A common misunderstanding is to equate value with alcohol content. Whether low or high in alcohol, a beer can be cheaply made: with 30 or 40 per cent of the barley malt substituted by maize, rice or sugar; with cheap hops, in small quantities; with short periods of fermentation or maturation. These savings are variously applied by big brands of lager especially, and to a lesser extent nationally-marketed ales. At best, these products are simply bland; at worst, they have "dirty" flavours.

It is a paradox that people prepared to above-the-odds prices often spend the money on especially cheaply-produced brews, usually international lagers, but that has at least opened the differential. At the other end of the market, a connoisseur demand is developing for brews in which hop and malt can be detected. Better still, British hop-growers are increasingly finding a market among small ale-brewers in America, despite the massive acreage in Oregon and Washington.

Britain's finest hop varieties are earthier, American more floral and fruity, Continental European more delicate. Each has its own contribution to make. Let us not be narrow and nationalistic about this. If drinkers develop a taste for hoppy, flavoursome, beers, growers of this lovely plant will thrive in all the traditional regions.

The hop is a vine, and the part use to aromatize and flavour beer is the cone-like flower. Its piney, leafy, flowery, herbal, spicy, perfumy, dry, aromas and flavours balance the sweetness of a clean "barley-sugar" maltiness in a great lager or ale.

The plump cones at the Lord Lieutenant's farm aroused a thirst in all of the brewers. Where did they go for a pint? To the nearby Hog's Back Brewery and beer shop, at Manor Farm, The Street, Tongham, Surrey (tel 01252-783000). There, in a 1700s farmhouse, brewer Maureen Rolfe produces a soft, sweet, malty ale called Hop Garden Gold, spiced with Fuggles hops from the Lord Lieutenant's estate Some people think that Fuggles have a flavour reminiscent of aniseed. On this tasting, I agree. Perhaps the estate should be identified on the label.

Published Online: AUG 2, 2000
Published in Print: SEPT 7, 1996
In: The Independent

- Editorial

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