Are English Hops “Delicate”? Part II.

In Part I, I considered stages in the history since Ernest Salmon, working in the first half of the 20th century, bred hybrid British-North American hops at an agricultural college in Wye, Kent.

These were later widely used in UK and other brewing. Successive types, considered more successful – higher yielding, better resistance to blight, and/or higher resin content – tended to replace earlier varieties.

Little if any Bullion is grown today, for example, but at one time it had extended use especially in top-fermented beers. Ballantine used it in America for its famous India Pale Ale.

Bramling Cross, originated in 1927 at Wye College, is still widely used. Nick Carr in 2017 gave a neat summary of its history and  rationale in the Kegerator, “Bramling Cross Hops: The English Hop With an American-Type Aroma”.

Here, I want to focus on earlier developments in English brewing and hop factoring that must be seen as prelude to Salmon’s work. I already mentioned that British beer technologists of the late 1800s, Charles Graham was one, promoted development of lager, and other light or running beers, to replace strong, long-stored India Pale and stock ales.

Although it took time for lager to become the default pub beer in Britain –  a few generations – the die was partially cast for the long-term decline of English hop culture. Its varieties were always seen, justly or otherwise, as adapted for English-style beer, with the contrary the necessary correlation.

Another 19th century development had immediate impact to British hop culture, the custom by the late 1800s for many brewers to use some American or German hops in formulations.

Belgian hops were used as well, and yet other imports. This is documented in many sources, including at the level of historic (brewhouse) recipes by Ron Pattinson.

American hops and other imported types were liked for their “strength”, vs. their flavour or aroma, but also their price. There were exceptions, as one always will find in any history survey. No doubt some brewers liked a particular foreign hop for all-purpose use, just as a few British brewers didn’t mind using casks of American oak (pre-World War I) to store pale ale.

But as a rule the imported hops were seen as workhouses in the brewhouse, to bitter the beer. Higher-quality English types were reserved for flavour, aroma, and dry-hopping (“hopping down”).

The latter were East Kent, the Mid-Kent, then others, Worcester and so on, a gradation still above the imported norm according to the weight of evidence.

In my previous post, for brevity I termed the imported use a stopgap; call it what you will, but the totality of evidence as I have gleaned it was for a cost-effective source of bittering power. This was especially important for pale ale, which comparatively, especially at Burton, was longer-aged and longer-boiled.

Putting it differently, if the British brewers could have obtained adequate supplies of English hops with the same properties as imported, including as to price, they would have done so. In 1890 a Select Committee in the House issued a report on hops in brewing, and the hop trade, to understand the steady decline in British hop acreage.

Even then, the trend was in place. It would only intensify under effect of various shocks in the 20th century.

The transcript of the evidence makes absorbing reading. I invite to read for a bird’s eye view paras. 1003 et seq., from William Nethersole who formerly had grown hops in East Kent, and paras. 5246 et seq. from John Norwood.

Norwood owned the largest hop trading firm in Britain, hence both were highly experienced in the hop business. Norwood also owned a hop plantation in Bavaria raising Golding hops (his comments in that regard are most interesting).

I’ll mention two other sources, on the other side of the Atlantic, which can be viewed as complementary although of course an American source would boost more the merits of local production.

In 1891 a British hop firm, E. Norman & Co. wrote a letter to a grower in British Columbia who had sent samples of East Kent hops raised locally. While diplomatic in tone, one can see the ingrained feeling of the British hop establishment that New World hops were constrained by their “peculiar flavour”.



A story in 1902 in the Albany, New York Times-Union reiterates the flavour issue for Britain posed by American hops, while confirming considerable quantities were used when mixed with English hops, a practice by then well-established.

As the story also shows, in 1902 English hop culture had improved, with better weather also a factor, which rendered American hops less competitive than formerly. Such factors change with time of course, and American hops continued to be exported to Britain for decades.

This background in my view is essential to understanding why Ernest Salmon undertook the work he did. If mixing produced a satisfactory result, why not develop a home-grown hop that combined the merits of imported and domestic?  A “twin-hops”, as the journalist called it.

Of course, Salmon did not mean to traduce an English hop heritage. He wanted to improve it, to obtain the best of both worlds: good English flavour, good bitterness potential, hardiness of stock.

I know Bramling Cross, the Ernest I mentioned earlier, and other well-known Wye College hops. In my view, these are quite different from landrace English hops, and closer to the pre-craft American hop taste, Cluster and that type.

And so something different resulted perhaps than many brewers wished for at any rate. Ernest for example was set aside when broached in the 1950s as too strong in American taste. See the compact discussion of Ernest history in hop merchant Charles Faram’s informative website.

Nonetheless a succession of hybrids was widely used, still with traditional English varieties in the brewhouse. Of course too, some hybrids later emerged showing predominant English character. I believe most brewers would agree for Target, released at Wye in 1992, and there are others.

Pre-craft hybridization, taken as a whole, worked for the industry, and can’t be gainsaid to that extent. Still, could things have developed differently?

Until recently to my knowledge, German, Czech, and French hop breeders did not seek to develop European-New World hybrids.* Was the climate that much better in, say, Bavaria to raise a consistent, stable variety?**

Were brewers or beer drinkers in those places more chauvinistic than in Britain, expecting their beer to reflect historic local, or at least regional, influences? Could more intensive UK science have ensured reliable, hardy landrace varieties including older forms such as Farnam White Bine?***

Why the British committed to hybridization and not other countries raises interesting questions of agricultural, industrial, and cultural history.

*Under craft influence there has been some movement, e.g. Mandarina Bavaria. See details in Hop List.

**In his testimony Nethersole said it was.

***According to taste reports of Hogs Back Brewery’s Farnam White, made with the Farnam White Bine, the hop features notes of orange, lemon, and pepper. The hop seems of great potential if the necessary groundwork can be laid.



1 thought on “Are English Hops “Delicate”? Part II.”

  1. See also the references to American hops, mainly late Cluster grown on the West Coast, in Lloyd Hind’s “Brewing Science and Practice”, Volume 1 (1938). He terms the characteristic flavour as strong “blackcurrant” and “tom cat”. He states that typically these hops are “yearlings”. This means not used before a year’s aging, to reduce the strong taste.

    He notes newer Cluster is used with “gypseous” water. This denotes the pale ale classically associated with Burton on Trent, Bass Pale Ale and similar.

    Although he doesn’t say so, I wonder if the characteristically sulphur tang of such beer was considered partly to disguise the tom cat. Or perhaps some odd synergy worked with the duo of strong tastes.

    He states as well, which I adverted to earlier, that some brewers prefer foreign hops for dry-hopping. He cites as examples Saaz and Hallertau, Czech and German respectively. But the tenor of the discussion is similar to 19th century accounts, where the Kent hop and especially Golding was considered primary for this purpose.

    See in HathiTrust.


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