Blue sky drinking: English hops

Categories: Expert guidance

‘Magnificent’, ‘complex’ and ‘wildly understated’, English hops are gaining a growing US fan base. But isn’t it time we embraced them at home? Brewer and food writer Daniel Tapper thinks so

At this time each year, a group of friends and I embark on a much-anticipated foodie pilgrimage. Starting in the West Yorkshire town of Ilkley we hike 12 miles along the banks of the River Wharfe to the isolated hamlet of Appletreewick set in the heart of the Dales National Park.

Our destination is—quite simply—the world’s best pub: The Craven Arms, a family-owned 16th-century inn boasting stone-flagged floors, two open fires, gas lighting and a snappy menu of locally shot game. The star attraction of this annual odyssey, however, is not the atmosphere, nor even the food, but a pint—or four—of Theakston’s Old Peculier.

This strong, dark and unctuous ale is often considered too sweet, rich and fruit-pudding-like to ‘session’. But here the beer is served not from a standard steel cask but from a bruised and battered antique oak barrel. How often this ancient timber specimen is cleaned, I have no idea, but from its dark, dank depths emerges an altogether more sophisticated and quaffable beer with brilliant, bright, vinous acidity, as well as notes of cherry, wood and fresh tobacco.

This magnificent beer’s greatest virtue, however, is its use of fuggles, a classic English hop famous for its delicate flavours of mint, tea and spice. Other aromas I often associate with this variety are freshly churned earth and the smell of a spumey mineral-rich river—though you’d never hear me saying that out loud at the Craven Arms.

If you find the sound of this domestically-grown hop enticing—as I certainly do—then I’m afraid you’re in a minority. Thanks to the growing popularity of New World pale ales combined with enduring demand for continental lagers, the US and Germany account for more than 60 per cent of international hop production, while British hops—most often grown in Worcestershire, Kent and Herefordshire—account for less than two per cent.

More depressing still, despite having more breweries per head than any country in the world, UK hop acreage has dropped from an impressive 77,000 acres in the mid-19th century to a pithy 2,427.

The good news is that UK hops may finally be getting the respect they have long deserved. In 1998 there were 13 commercially grown British hop varieties, including spicy and citrusy East Kent Goldings, blackcurrant-y Bramling Cross and piney, resinous Challenger. Since then an astonishing 14 more varieties have been developed, incorporating fruity flavours of tangerine, apricot and grapefruit, as well as chocolate, pepper, marmalade and honey.

Crucially, all these hops share a similar terroir, characterised by loamy soils, a mild maritime climate and even rainfall throughout the year. The resulting hop varieties have characteristically gentle and complex aromas that lend themselves perfectly to drinkable session ales. In short: these hops boast many of the famous ‘New World flavours’ but in a more understated fashion. Or, in the words of English hop expert Dr Peter Darby, “It is like the same tune being played by a string quartet compared to a brass band”.

Punchy New World hops
More encouraging still, while British drinkers remain besotted with punchy New World hops, our American counterparts appear to be swinging the other way. Last year, over half of UK hops were exported to the USA as growing numbers of stateside drinkers turn to sessionable English style bitters. And as the number of breweries in the USA rises—and the strength of the pound falls—the volume of UK hops sent across the Atlantic looks set to grow.

While all this is great news for UK hop growers, it does conjure a worrying scenario: that our entire hop harvest may one day be exported to the USA (a country with five times more people than Blighty). Since this is something I hope never to see, I implore those with an interest in English-hopped beer to seek them out ASAP. I for one will be ordering an extra pint of Old Peculier.

Three of the best English-hopped beers from Borough Market’s Utobeer
Saltaire Brewery Triple Chocoholic

The hops: Fuggles

Chocolate malts and cocoa nibs combine to provide a strong chocolate bouquet balanced by ample UK hopping. Complements a cheese board, and of course, any chocolate-based dessert. Try it affogato-style poured over vanilla ice-cream.

JW Lees Harvest Ale 2013
The hops: East Kent Goldings

This big, limited edition barley wine is made once a year from the first hops of the year and the very finest British malt. The ale is then aged to impart excellent keeping qualities, including rich notes of toffee and sherry.

Brew by Numbers EKG Saison
The hops: Styrian Goldings and East Kent Goldings

Bière de saison is a pale, dry and somewhat spicy farmhouse ale brewed in Belgium. South London brewery Brew by Numbers has taken the style to the next level with the use of ultra-floral East Kent Goldings—the only hop to boast an EU Protected Designation of Origin.