Tuesday 22 September 2015

Hop Breeding

Part 2 of my hop series.

I don't care too much for British hops. There, I've said it. I know making such a statement tends to offend some of the die hard trad. fans. The truth of the matter is that to create the beers we want to make, British hops so far just haven't got what it takes to make the grade. The bigger family and regional brewers tend to use British Hops for their mainstream beers. If we did the same, we'd be pushing out beers that were the same, why would we want to do that?

Faram's breading program planted
5,000 seedlings in 2015
each one a new variety cross
On a personal level this upsets me quite a bit. If British Hop growers could manage to grow hops that do the same thing as the massive aroma of American hops, I'd not only be happy to buy them, I'd positively go out of my way to do so. The hospitality we have received at Stocks farm, for instance, puts that big bit of guilt into my head for my reluctance to use British hops. There are some really great people in the British Hop farming industry, they deserve success. I hold out an optimistic hope that they'll produce something really great.

We do have to remember that the hop growing industry in the UK is very much smaller than USA. I haven't got exact figures for the UK, but believe we have around 1,000 hectares of hop yards. In The States they have over 18,000 hectares1. There is a little more financial backing for development of unique, innovative and really stunning hop varieties. This has resulted in varieties like Citra and Simcoe, loved universally by craft beer brewers the world over. Even some of the more "established" new world hops are barely more than a couple of decades old. Cascade, on my brief research the oldest of what we'd consider "craft", was not released until 1972.

Is this the reason the British hop growers struggle to wow us? I think development of new hop varieties is part of the problem. I am lead to understand that there has been no government money put into UK hop breading for over 10 years, and yet EU money is provided for Eastern European hop growers, so my contacts tell me.

Verticillium Wilt
But I worry that terroir has a huge amount to do with it. It may just be possible the the UK climate, that fantastic "maritime" weather will always limit any success to strive towards what New World growers can achieve.

Never-the-less, I want British growers to continue to try. Charles Faram have a breading program, thank goodness, so there is hope.

Hop breeding focuses on one really important requirement - disease resistance. It seems that hops are really quite susceptible to disease. Powdery mildew, downey mildew, verticillium wilt etc are problems. There is no point growing a stunning new hop variety only to find that it is nearly impossible to grow without infestations. I wonder if it is inevitable that a variety that is resistant enough to the British weather will always tend to be more subtle in characteristics.

The problem is, breeding programs take anything up to 10 years to get a new variety from first cross breeding to selection of full commercial crop. Selection of promising cultivars have to go through disease assessment as well as aroma selection. Brewing trials at some point are necessary and if this is done in series, i.e. only after a variety has shown to be resistant, it can draw out the whole process.

Jester - one of the successes
Charles Faram have broken the rules somewhat compared to standard commercial programs. They can do this because they work with the growers sharing risks, and ultimately rewards. They instigate small scale commercial trials long before full disease resistance has been ascertained.

One result is the Jester strain, which seems to have achieved some success, with the down side that it is hermaphrodite; it produces both male and female flowers, only the females are any good for brewing. The proportions of male to female seems to depend on weather during the season.

This radical program can bring a new variety to commercial crop only 6 years after initial variety crosses have been made. There are some 20 or so named varieties due to go into brewing trials either this coming year or next. Many of these varieties have yet to fully pass wilt tests, so there are still some risks, but some of them have fantastic aroma descriptors, so I'm hopeful.

I do hope we eventually get great hop varieties in the UK. The trouble is, I just had a quick look on Ratebeer. I know I shouldn't, but  I did. One brewer who has done a large range of single hop beers, named to give the impression one particular style of beer was being killed off - you know the one. Look at the scores, tells a tale. Universally the American varieties are the ones that win.

Personally, with the bad news coming out of the overall northern hemisphere I think craft brewers need to reassess the mix of hops that go into beers. We are certainly doing that. Craft brewers of course are very happy to embrace any technology that is required to get the result we need. We're working on ideas that might just be able to achieve the same, and possibly even better results by judicious application of new techniques and ideas.

Thanks to Will Rogers for the fascinating talk at the Hop Seminar, and in advance for turning a blind eye to plagiarising his presentation. The pictures here are all stolen from the file kindly sent from Faram to my inbox.

Apologies to Faram, Stocks farm, Ali Caper and The British Hop Association for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies here. Some of the information was stored in my fallible grey matter and is liable to data corruption. Please put any corrections in the comments.


1Source: Paul Corbett's Power Point presentation from the hop seminar 2015 - exact figure given 18,307 estimated. Up from 15,382 in 2014 the increase driven by this so called craft beer revolution.

Wednesday 16 September 2015


Part 1 in a series (possibly, if I can be bothered with the others)

Don't know variety, but they look nice.
"You know Dave, most people think the way you brew consistent beer is to do the same thing every time" said John Keeling, brewing director at Fullers "Marketing departments don't understand that" The comment was during a discussion we were having on one of my visits to his brewery in Chiswick. It is one of those specific things that has stuck in my mind.

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
Scott and I went down to Worcestershire last week to take a look at a hop farm during harvest, Stocks farm to be precise, owned by Richard and Ali Capper. It is alleged that Richard is the tallest hop grower in the world, nevertheless, he still fails to be able to get to the top of the tall varieties without as ladder.

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.
You see, put basically, the majority of the compounds we want are contained in the Lupulin Glands, which are protected by the bract. Provided these glands are not damaged, things are generally OK. If browning of the cone is due to senescence, it might actually be good as some beneficial compounds can develop as the cone ages. However, mostly this isn't allowed to happen as the cones become friable and difficult to harvest. Mostly browning on the outside is due to physical damage, hail, wind etc. That's all OK. Light is always1 bad for harvested hops, so if the cones have been left in the light after harvest they can quickly develop unpleasant flavours.

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
The announcements of the hop harvest estimates are a major part of the hop seminar and hop walk days. A good bit of detail was given, and I'm still working my way through figures I've gleaned. The good news is that in response to the craft beer thing, most countries have increased the area of wirework2

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
But it gets worse. It seems that although the American hop industry have increased wirework and planted out greater areas, they have not been immune from the impact of the well publicised droughts over the West Coast. We hear the aroma varieties like Centennial, Willamette and Simcoe are down significantly. Moreover, for those really fanatic about Simcoe, the yield per hectare year-on-year is said to be falling. What we are not sure is if this is due to old root stock or reduced disease resistance as a result of genetic mutation of the infestations. This does demonstrate the very important role hop breading programs, which I'll explain in another post.

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
I think it is essential for breweries to do two major things to overcome not only this years crop shortages, but variability of crops in future. The first and most important is to contract with a hop merchant. OK, that can be tricky if you are too small to reach the threshold required to be permitted to contract. However, Faram assure me that they will accommodate small volumes on a less formal basis to ensure breweries can source hops. It helps the hop merchant too, knowing what everyone is likely to use. The last two years we've been late at getting our commitment in, and this has caused us trouble. If you haven't got a contract in place for 2015 northern hemisphere hops you might be in trouble. Start working on your southern hemisphere contract now, would be my advice.

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 are often asked about the hops that go into our beers. It's good that beer drinkers are interested. However, Azimuth for instance, currently has about 9 different varieties of hop due to our constant striving to improve the beer and also due to some shortages we have encountered.

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 breading breeding program.


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.

Thursday 10 September 2015

Signposting Craft

It's tricky for a beer drinker to know what is, and what is not craft beer. Everyone has their view on that, and there are some very definite non-craft people aiming to muddy the water, vis-a-vis Revisionist beers, which for sure fail to rise to the craft beer bar. It doesn't help my view of them when a representative tries to convince me they are a "gateway" to craft. I've heard that sort of rubbish before from big brand managers. If Marstons want to convince me that they are serious about craft then they need to stop trying to tell me that "small batch" is the sort of volume that I can only have dreams about selling. Whilst their estates don't buy from me, and are unlikely to any time soon, their soft soap rubbish is sure to only irritate, rather than pacify. Oh, and they could do with starting to use a few hops too.

Still, most brewers that I consider true craft don't supply supermarkets. We do, and we are absolutely tiny compared to most that do supply these big useful routes to market. This makes our beer a big deal in the aisles of Morrisons. What is really nice is that the people who plan the layout of the stores have decided that craft beer needs to be signposted. This is being rolled out across the stores nationwide, apparently.

Whether you think craft beer is a thing or not, it's certainly considered a thing by these supermarket people, and I'm not going to argue with that. Best of all, there is non of that Revisionist rubbish on show, although not at all sure how Crabbies is either craft or beer.

Thursday 3 September 2015

Crazy Intergalacticness

This post has developed into a rant. You are best advised to avoid reading it and just watch this video. It's daft, I put quite a bit of work into it and despite the effort, I still wonder if it'll hit the spot. I love it if folks watch it, share it, and if you really want to, take the mickey.

The beer is called Intergalactic Space Hopper. It's 5.2% pale and hoppy as hell. We're launching it at Glasgow Craft Beer Rising and Grasmere Guzzler this weekend. Ann and I'll will be a Glasgow, Scott will be at Grasmere on Saturday.

And so, to the rant.

Promoting beer is an interesting job. It's certainly getting trickier to make oneself heard with so many breweries out there now. Makes me kind of frustrated when some people seem to feel that it isn't simply great the choice you beer drinkers have. The choice out there is fantastic, there is just a huge amount of cask beer everywhere now. Microbrewer keg beer is becoming much more popular than to be honest even I thought it'd become. Choosing just how bright or murky the beer you buy is all down to walking into the pub or craft beer bar you know and trust. If you want it cheap, go to Wetherspoons.

For the poor brewer it does mean putting in extra effort to get noticed. We know we don't always get it right, but we try, and it's pleasurable when we get noticed, there's no doubt about that. Sometimes the reasons for being noticed aren't exactly the way we planned, but getting noticed in an ever increasingly crowded marketplace is almost always a good thing, even if the attention gets a little uncomfortable.

We are releasing a beer this weekend. It's a good beer, stacked full of bright hop aromas and a good punch of complex hop flavours. I'd say stunning. Considering we've had some problems this year getting the hops we wanted, partly due to our own inability to accurately predict growth combined with administrative cock-ups both at Hardknott central and at hop merchants. It didn't help that some hop harvests were short last season.

Despite the brilliance of the beer, that just isn't good enough to generate sales all by itself. So, I do what I do to try and promote the Hardknott brand, and if I were honest I'd say it's getting tougher to get it right. When we started Hardknott it almost seemed all we had to do was write a few blog posts and everything would be alright. We were actually saying to people that we hadn't got enough beer. So, we took the risk and took out some fairly eye watering loans, by my modest standards anyway, and went for expansion.

We've made some mistakes, worked hard, put out some marketing projects, on next to no budget, and had some success.

"O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!"

Indeed, it is something I consider all the time. How is Hardknott perceived? How am I perceived? We work very hard, make a meagre living out of beer. I imagine much like most people in the beer industry we are driven by a passion1 for beer. I do wonder just how much the diversity of beer out there is so great because a huge number of people are working very hard for very little financial return. Yes, some breweries are doing fantastically well. We're stuck just a little bit far away from the metropolises to make it quite as well, but we do OK, partly because I refuse to wind my neck in, and give an outward impression of having limited self awareness.2. The reality is, as Jeffrey Bell is well aware, I consider frequently how both myself and my business are perceived.

So, if I were honest, I'm not entirely happy with the video I post here. I've put a huge number of hours into it. Learned a lot about animation and syncing it with music. I had some fun trying to get the right feel to the sound track. I am sure it'll get some people going WTF? Whatever, it's here, and so is the beer. Go ahead, talk about me, I'll cry into my beer tonight, but so long as it gets the Hardknott name out there, on balance I'll feel good about it.


1There you go, an example of a word that we become afraid to use, because it has to some extent become a cliche. But I believe there are many people, working their fuckingi socks off to make fantastic beer, driven not by greed, or sinister capitalist intentions, but by passion. Let us say that we do exactly that, eh? without taking the god damn piss.

2Stonch has returned! I give himii two links to his blog in this post. That should please him. But then, despite his reasonably successful attempts to wind me up, his blog has given me good mention this last few weeks, so I can't, in reality, complain.iii

iYup, that's out of character for this blog. But, right now, after going to bed at 4am to get this video finished, and now being up with fire in my belly, determined to get the beer to Glasgow, I feel it's justified.

iiOr should it be them? Seems there are four of them contributing now. Geez, that makes it all the harder for me to keep up with blogging too.....

iiiYup, you are right, in a way I'm complaining. But whatever. What leaves me slightly confused is what on earth Mr Bell is actually playing at. His comments seem directed at suggesting I should stop doing what I do. My persona, and that of my brewery are organic and from the heart. We're still an incredibly an incredibly small brewery and to be honest I absolutely have no intention of winding my neck in. To stay afloat in this new and incredibly busy craft beer scene we simply have to work hard with limited resources. So stick that in your pipe Stonch.


I quite like the music for this, although it could do with a fair bit of mastering to get it better. Time, you know. Anyhow, some of the complexities of the piece are lost due dipping it to hear voice overs and the like. If you if you are daft enough to want to hear it unadulterated and with the sound synced animation too, it's here. Ann say's I should issue a epilepsy warning as the animation is quite flashy light by itself.

Intergalactic Space Hopper just the music and sound to motion stuff. from Hardknott Brewery on Vimeo.