|Don't know variety, but they look nice.|
That very general comment can be applied to many areas of brewing. Yeast management, grist formulation, fermentation control, but most specifically to hops.
Hops, they are very important to brewing. OK, it's possible to brew beer without them, but in reality very few beers that are brewed without hops have any sort of real commercial future. Us brewers depend upon them for our existence. Right about now there are hop farms all over the northern hemisphere harvesting hops, kilning them and sending them off to market.
|A dwarf variety - easier to harvest but less yield|
The event is well known by brewing types as the "Hop Walk" and is run by that well established and jolly nice purveyor of hops, Charles Faram. We buy most of our hops from these people, and they provide excellent service. If nothing else the Hop Walk is a great chance for a free feed, a catch up with brewing friends and a look around a somewhat picturesque farm close to The Malvern Hills. We are generally told some salient points regarding the hop harvest and the likely yields that might occur.
Faram's run a seminar the day before the hop walk giving some really useful insights into the hop industry. Peter Darby, who leads much of the development of new hop varieties in the UK, gave a fascinating talk on hop damage, and the impact of various effects that cause hops to turn brown. It seems that there is something of a misnomer that suggests that any hop cone that is not very green is somehow inferior. Peter fairly clearly states that often brown hops are not a problem, and on occasions can even be good.
|Sorry, this image was "borrowed" from Wikipedia.|
Evolution is a thing that fascinates me. I ponder from time to time the evolutionary purpose of things we humans use for our own end. Much plant matter we eat has nutrients and energy stored which has the original evolutionary purpose for the propagation that the species as an energy store for the next generation. Fruit is more complicated in that it's purpose is often as a temptation for animals to consume the fruit and spread the seeds further, often through excrement. But why on earth does the hop plant produce lupulin glands in it's flowers? The pungent and bitter flavours tend to repel if anything. Only the hardiest of creatures get into the hop cone, and then they pretty much spell disaster for the plant and subsequent growth on the same plot. They can't be a food store for baby hop plants.
I was pleased when one delegate to the conference asked Peter that very question. What is the biological reason for the lupulin gland? Apparently it is to protect the seed once it is shed from the plant. The gland protects physically and it's antibacterial properties, which helps preserve beer, also helps protect the hop seed from attack prior to germination.
|We don't know what variety this is, either|
However, what seems to be the case is that central Europe has been very badly hit by drought. Saaz hop variety for instance could be hit very badly indeed. Bad news if you rely on that for some sort on light lager style beer. Various other varieties from Germany, Czech Republic etc could be very hard hit.
So, that's OK for us, isn't it? We don't depend on that variety. For that matter we are not very dependant on much from central Europe. But hang on, what about any knock on effect? Clearly general hop shortages are going to impact across the board as substitutions are made.
|Tall variety - more difficult to maintain but twice the yield|
We think the rows on the left are first year
I am told that as the harvest is coming in there are some surprises that makes it likely that things might not be quite so bad as we previously expected. When I was at the hop walk they were 10 days into the harvest. It's a week later already, so it's fast moving. None-the-less, I'm more than a little worried about our continued supply of economic hops. We are also told that due to significant investment in the American hop grows farms they are demanding higher prices for hops. We already spend an eye watering amount on hops.
|Cool depth of field - but we don't know what these are either|
But the other major thing, in my mind, is to remain flexible with beer recipe formulation. Going back to John Keeling's point, even if you can get a solid supply of the hop you need, year after year, it's characteristics will vary depending on the growing conditions. Even on the farm, leaving the hop a day or two longer before harvest with some varieties can change the alpha acid and aroma oils significantly. Weather, machine malfunction and many other factors can influence the harvest, not forgetting human judgement.
|See, told you it was picturesque|
We want to make absolutely stunning beer. We will do what it takes to make that stunning beer, and if that means changing the ratios of hops in a beer, or even substituting or augmenting varieties then we will do so, and regularly do.
I expect my next post will talk about the Charles Faram hop
1Always? Well, that can't be true, they grow outdoors, where the sun shines. Sometimes even in the UK. No, I can only assume a live hop plant constantly repairs damage caused by light on its hop cones.
2Hops grow on wires which are held up by a fairly simple post arrangement. I say simple, when you see the expanse of wirework even on a fairly small hop yard you can appreciate the work and investment that is put in by the farmer.