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Hop to it – let’s hear it for the beer

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Extravagant costumes are enhanced with garlands of hops

Beer is the national drink of the Britain, but how well do we support it?

Burton on Trent is one of the world’s great brewing towns, yet get off at its station or even drive into the town and few would realise the significance of the place to beer, not just in this country but worldwide. It is even home to the National Brewing Centre, which has barely scratched the national consciousness.

However, in the Kent town of Faversham, on the first weekend of September is held a raucous celebration of the hop, which spills over the town’s streets and pubs.

Morris dancers are adorned with hops

The two day festival, which I attended yesterday, was a vibrant celebration of beer and its natural roots. The festival is a celebration of the hop harvest and the heyday of hop picking, when thousands of Londoners came down to the Kent Hop-Gardens every September for a so-called “country holiday with pay”. Life in London was probably pretty tough if people found picking hops a holiday. Many families returned to the same farms, generation after generation, to be joined by every available local worker to form the largest agricultural workforce this country has ever seen.

Children get in on the act too

But a row over funding has threatened the future of the festival, as thousands of visitors thronged the town’s streets. It would be shame if the festival is lost – it provides a link between one of the natural raw materials that makes beer and of course the pubs where people drink it. Street corners and pavements become theatres for dance groups and musicians. Vendors sell bines of hops and many people wear garlands of hop cones. Pub gardens become rock gardens and crowds move from pub to pub to hear their favourite bands or look for something different.

Even the dogs join in the hop celebration

And of course there is beer – beautiful beer. I tried Shepherd Neame’s Master Brew Bitter. Not too strong at 3.7 per cent ABV, and full of rich robust citrus aromas, a deep bitterness and long, lingering finish from the use of the Kent grown hops.

The hop has bought the area much employment and wealth and the festival helps cement the link between the town’s brewer Shepherd Neame, farming, the harvest with its influx of workers from London and the impact that beer has upon our culture.

Pearly kings and queens from London sing out their songs

The festival costs a lot of money to run and of course there is a good argument that says why should a local council fund it?

But beer has shaped our culture – our art, literature and music. Taking a sip of beer is much more than just drinking alcohol, to understand the importance of beer we need to keep its links with the past. We lose these bonds at our peril.

www.thehopfestival.co.uk

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Written by timhampson

September 6, 2010 at 8:41 am

Wadworth goes green

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Fresh, green, plump and full of citrus zest, fresh green hops.

For the last 18 years, at the start of England’s hop harvesting season, a van has left the Wadworth brewery in Devizes to drive to a hop garden in Herefordshire. Its mission is to collect a vital ingredient for the Wiltshire brewery’s Malt & Hops seasonal beer– fresh green hops. The quest means an early start for someone from the brewery, as the hops have to be harvested and transported back to the brewery in time to be put into the first brew of the day.

Wadworth head brewer Brian Yorston has been making the run for the last three years, continuing a tradition started by his predecessor Trevor Holmes. “We think we were the first brewery in Britain, to produce a green-hopped beer,” said Brian.

Hops are normally dried before use – reducing the water content from 70 per cent to 10 – importantly they are analysed so the brewer knows more about their aromatic or bittering characteristics.

Brian Yorton assesses the hops as they grow on the bine.
But fresh hops beer are undried, crisp and full of the season’s flavours and are something of a flavour lottery when added to a beer.

This year I had the privilege of travelling with him to collect the hops – an aroma variety called Early Choice a member of the Fuggles family of hops. Brian is looking for enough hops to brew 270 barrels of beer –some were picked yesterday and lightly dried, while the rest was picked this morning as the dew lay heavy on the hills, which surrounds the Newham Farm hop garden, owned by Ian Ibbotson. Suddenly summer seems to be ending and autumn is rushing in. “We use the same mash each year, and the same quantity of hops but what the beer will be like will be a complete surprise,” said Brian.

Inside the hop back, the ripe hops are spread out before they are covered by boiling wort. Brewing beer in this way is hard physical work.

“I have no idea what the beer will taste like,” confides Brian. I do not know what the alpha content of the hops is.”

The amount of alpha present in a hop is what contributes aroma to the hops. Analysis of the hops to find its alpha levels will take five days, but waiting for an analysis of the hops to return from the laboratory, will be too late for the hops to be used and still be fresh and green.

“You can look at it, you can smell it, but that only hints at the surprise to come,” says Brian.

And what of this year’s harvest – as I smell it I am assailed by wonderful fresh citrus aromas and a zesty tangerine flavours. To brew the beer he uses 500lb of the hops together with 6,500kg of Optic malt – comprising 98.5 per cent pale ale and 1.5 per cent crystal. We taste the hot, sweet wort as it runs out of the mash tun. It is sweet and sticky, with an overwhelming nose of rich Horlicks. Then we try the hopped wort as it comes from the cooler. The tart bitterness of the hops has subdued much of the sweeter flavours.

But what will the beer taste like? I will find out on 16 September, when this year’s Malt & Hops is tasted for the first time.

“Last year’s was very bitter – said Brian, “It is quite different every year he says as he promises to see if he has any previous brews left so we will be able to do a comparison.

But with rich, ripe barley delivering sweet malt, hopefully balanced by the tart, zesty hops it should be a winner.

Malt & Hops, at 4.5 per cent ABV, is available in bottle and on draught.

www.wadworth.co.uk

Written by timhampson

September 2, 2010 at 3:49 pm