Investment, imagination and inspiration are needed if the country’s hop industry is to survive, writes Tim Webb.

October sees publication of the third edition of The World Atlas of Beer.  When we began it, my co-author Stephen Beaumont and I agreed it required a complete rewrite, from intro to index, such were the changes to the beer world in the last five years.  Of these, none are more pivotal than the transformation of hops. 

Finishing the book during lockdown, we predicted that Covid-19 would bring multiple challenges, though not that the 2020 harvest would see British hop growers ask the Government to save their industry by buying any surplus crop, as the virus brought yet another gale in what is building into a perfect storm for a 500-year-old agribusiness of great potential. 

Hops past

The global hop business revolves around merchants, all still independently owned and buying stock on contract from individual growers, most of whom run small family farms.  After preparation, onward sale for 99 per cent of the crop is to the brewing industry. 

The advance of industrial brewing in the 20th century brought lean times for growers and merchants alike, as ever larger breweries sought ever cheaper supplies of high yield, low character bittering hops, to add just enough bite for the liquid to taste beery, while keeping it comfortably familiar. 

British growers fared worse than most, as UK brewers determined, almost randomly, to prefer imported hops over British, in the carefully planned lager boom of the 1970s. Then came hop wilt, a soil infection that rendered fields unusable for seven years. Between 1968 and 2018, UK hop acreage dropped by 75 per cent and production by one-third. 

Hops present

Since 2012 fortunes have begun to reverse, as brewers and consumers alike come to appreciate the potential of different hops to impart distinctive and catchy aromas and flavours to most styles of beer.  The expansion of independent craft brewing to over 120 countries has seen a seller’s market emerge, as better distribution allows a small brewery on a remote Pacific island a choice of maybe two dozen varietals from Europe, North America and Australasia, while small-town brewers in a first world country can choose from ten times than many. 

The UK hop industry has seen some of this success, though the difficult years made growers and merchants wary of spending. While some growers have invested in machinery and breeding programmes, to produce well-tended and robust hops that meet the rising demand for greater flavours, not all the team are on side with this.

The main manufacturer of plucking equipment suitable for delicate hops like Fuggle, ceased production, leaving growers nursing ancient machines, like steam trains. Energy-efficient, faster kilns for drying the cones went unpurchased.  The importance of cold-chaining hops all the way from dryer to brewery store went underappreciated. 

At Italy’s first hop farm in a century, an eight-acre smallholding near Modena, the hops are temperature-controlled from the point of plucking, and after kilning are frozen, pelletised and seal-packed within days, a standard practice in most of the world’s longer-established hop-growing regions. 

In contrast, the merchants who contract the crop from the 59 UK growers have few pelletising facilities, sometimes paying farmers to store hops in barns over winter, where they can turn cheesy.  Other merchants send them abroad to be pelletised, re-importing packs for UK sales.  Which brings us neatly to Brexit. 

Hops future

Fresh British hops have huge export potential.  Specialties like Fuggle and Golding define “English” and “British” in numerous ale styles worldwide and newer varietals can cut it with the best.  However, hops exported either to or via the EU must have an Attestation of Equivalence certificate. When the UK leaves Europe on 31 December that certification falls, with no mechanism yet agreed to replace it. A recent deal to certify organic fruit and vegetables leads some to hope that something similar can be done for hops, while others fear that the stale state of “barn-aged” exports might prove a stumbling block. 

Harvest time 2020 finds growers in Britain’s two hop farming regions staring at clouds. 

In the Teme and Frome valleys, between Hereford, Worcester and Tenbury Wells, the growers who produce 55 per cent of the annual crop are working for a future supplying distinctive heritage and new varietals for domestic and global markets that expect high technical standards, though adapting will be costly, as will surviving Covid-Brexit. 

In Kent and Sussex, where the dinosaur count appears higher, wariness of investing in expensive new kit and production methods, appropriate to the pre-Covid trends in beer design, is bolstered by opportunities to sell buildings and land to service the work-life balance aspirations of London office-workers, keen to adopt a rural base. 

Having succeeded in breeding tasty, wilt-resistant and wilt-tolerant English varietals; proposed creative solutions to enable skilled European harvesters to keep coming; found ways to give ministers till mid-2021 to get Brexit sorted for hops; squeezed pockets to invest in new kilns and cold stores; and moved the pelletising imperative forward a decade or two, will English growers survive? The answer may be “yes and no”. 

Tim Webb is a Bristol-based, consumer-focused beer writer, co-author of The World Atlas of Beer (3rd edition out 1 October 2020: Octopus) with Stephen Beaumont, and of Good Beer Guide Belgium (2018: CAMRA Books) with Joe Stange. He has won multiple awards in the UK, Belgium and North America. 

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