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.


Ben Viveur said...

Interesting post.

Nature will do its own natural thing, and I fully understand why brewers may need to adapt recipes because the quantity and variety raw ingredients available has changed over time.

What I do object to, and indeed bang on about fairly extensively, is when different hops result in a beer that tastes completely different, but the brewer insists on giving it the same name as before.

It's lazy, misleading and dishonest, but also bloody unnecessary. If the brewer doesn't want to come up with a new name or pumpclip design etc. just stick a 'II' on the end, or, better yet, specify the hop variety. Keep the tickers happy by distinguishing between the 'Motueka and Amarillo' and 'Motueka, Amarillo and Jester' editions of a beer. Might even shift more of it too.

Unknown said...

Ben, it's certainly true that stickers are looking for something different, and where difference occurs to any great degree it is better to make the most of it.

Mind you, there have been too many times we've brewed beer where the variations are definitely not due to putting in different hops, but rather just different harvests or due too aging poorly, which is why we change what we do, to maintain where we are, and sometimes even make it better.

Of course, we could always do an Azimuth X - only I've already been accused of copying too many times this year.....

Yvan said...

"Charles Faram hop breading program."

Breaded hops? The next big thing in hipster deep-fried snacks?

Unknown said...

Thnaks Yvan! Now corrected.

Yvan said...

I deal with beers that have sometimes changed significantly between batches. Sometimes through forced hop variation due to supply issues, sometimes just seasonality.

The brewers do their best to keep the flavour on target -- but it is difficult and complicated. It happens to flagship beers sometimes... where changing the name/etc isn't really possible.

Mostly the brewers will be open and honest about such changes mind you. It's just a part of brewing hop forward beers and craft brewing in general. Not something to get too get up about. And, TBH, a bit of ticker angst is fun to see. ;) Folk quoting gyle numbers, etc, on RateBeer.

Hell, even the ABVs on the clips hide a deeper complex truth when it comes to most small brewers.

Unknown said...

"even the ABVs on the clips hide a deeper complex truth when it comes to most small brewers" - a truth, although Hardknott are not like "most" small brewers.

Most drinkers just don't realise that sub 5% beers can be ±0.5% and remain out of risk of prosecution by Trading Standards - which makes a mockery of people who say they cannot drink a beer over 4%, then plump for a 3.9%, which might well be 4.4%. It is highly likely that drinkers get bitten by beers that are claiming to be say 4.2% and are actually 4.7%. They then have a night on a 3.9%, which turns out to be 3.4% and feel grand. To my mind there cannot be any other explanation for drinkers' apparent lack of mathematical abilities. They think 0.3% makes all the difference, when in fact it is actually 1.3% that makes the difference. Above 5% Trading Standards allow a full 1% difference. Wow, 1%. So, a 5% beer might actually be 4% or 6%.

Obviously Hardknott strives it be much, much closer than this, and beat ourselves up over a ±0.2% variation.

sujon007bd said...

Thank you very much for your detailed and described article.