Hops – they are one of the key ingredients of beer. And I can’t believe that I haven’t written about them before.
Beer is one of the oldest prepared drinks, dating back thousands of years to when humans first started cultivating cereals. Over the centuries, the biscuity-sweet drink produced by fermenting the dissolved sugars derived from grains has had numerous flavourings added. A wide variety of herbs, flowers and fruits have been used, including dandelion, marigold, heather and dates.
Hops, which are the flowers of the hop vine, were first mentioned as an additive to beer in the 9th century. Germany started exporting hops for brewing in the 13th century and, in 1516, the German purity law limited the ingredients of beer to just barley, hops and water.
Hops were first grown in England in the 1520s, when they were introduced to Kent as an agricultural crop by Dutch farmers. Before that, hops were imported from France, Holland and Germany.
Hops provide a bitterness to beer that balances the sweetness of the malt. They can contribute floral, citrus, and herbal aromas and flavours. Chemicals in the hop oil aid head retention – that is the length of time that a foamy head created by carbonation will last. The acidity of hops acts as a preservative.
Hop production is concentrated in moist, temperate climates. Today, the global hops market is dominated by Germany and the United States. British producers, based mainly in Kent, Sussex, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, produce only 1.5% of the world’s hops. Surprisingly, half of the UK crop is now being bought by small, independent craft brewers in the US.
At the end of the 19th century, there were as many as 70,000 acres of hop fields in the UK. From this peak, the British hop-farming sector was in decline for decades. However, since 2012 there has been a revival, and last year saw an 8% increase in hop growing. Some of the increase is made up of traditional British hops such as Goldings and Bramling Cross, but newer varieties are also part of the rise.
According to the British Hop Association, the unique combination of our “dull maritime” climate and the soil in hop-growing areas produce hops that ripen slowly, creating their mellow, spicy flavours and delicate, complex aromas. They are perfect for pale ales, India pale ales, porters and stouts.
All the beers in Wetherspoon’s recent real-ale festival were brewed with British hops. However, if you missed that and you want to check out the flavours produced by our home-grown varieties, you won’t go far wrong with a pint of Black Sheep Best Bitter (3.8% ABV). Produced in North Yorkshire but widely available, it is a classic English bitter brewed with Fuggles, Challenger and Progress hops.