Are English Hops “Delicate”? Part I.

Et tu, Brute?

In my last post I suggested the interchange between food and beer is mainly a one-way street: in favour of food. I gave the example that as soon bakers could replace hop-laced beer yeast with a bitter-free alternative, they did.

Another: beer is little used in food recipes, comparatively. But beer likes food, not just as table-mate but literally in brewing itself, everything from cocoa to name your orchard fruit.

The bitterness issue for beer yeast was irrespective of beer or hop type. Within the beer world though, how hops are used in a given brewing, and hop and beer type, can affect perception of hops in the drink.

To experienced drinkers, some beers seem almost devoid of hops. In other beers, the hops are stentorian, as in a good West Coast IPA. In this regard, English hops, once prized the world over, are the Walter Mitty of world hops.

In contrast, New World hops are seen as robust, florid, big-boned. It pains one to note many Britons agree with this. I needn’t cite evidence, one sees it in beer media every day. A mantra it is, no less. Is it justified?

No. Modern hopping rates for traditional bitter and mild ales are modest compared to earlier eras, certainly the 1800s, so English hops as used today don’t, usually, show to advantage.

When English varieties are used in quantity, e.g. in historical recreations or by the few craft brewers who do so, they show up very well. The big woodsy or garden flower notes are at least as attractive as the citric wonders lauded around the globe today, and I would argue more so.

From the heyday of English hops, shown is a pre-1914 English oast house. An oast house shelters a kiln, to dry hops fresh from the field for storage.

 

 

The Oast House, in Hadlow, Kent had suffered a fire. In retrospect, rather premonitory.

Yet, it must be said: even in the past in Britain, and even in professional circles, some felt English hops were mild. A spokesman who could not be said to misunderstand the English hop heritage was Professor Ernest Salmon.

His work in the first half of the 20th century at Wye College in England is legendary. He was a hop breeder who developed varieties that combined, or so he claimed, the best qualities of English and American hops.

The U.S. hops used were of course pre-craft type, but still showed considerable upfront flavour, not citric or tropical as today but blackcurrant, pine, and forest fruit. They had good lupulin content and resisted well wilts and other blight that famously attend hop culture anywhere.

Salmon’s breeding produced well-known varieties such as Brewer’s Gold and Bullion, and many others. One was Ernest, named after the man. I used it with the Minstrel hop for the last collaboration I did with Amsterdam Brewery in Toronto, for 1870 AK Bitter.

 

 

Both hops were grown in England but the pre-craft American character of Ernest came through clearly, via the wild Manitoba hop in its veins. There was English character as well, from the Minstrel hop which has Golding-like, floral notes despite some non-UK ancestry.

Professor Salmon’s work reached Fleet Street, even in war-torn Britain. A July 1944 story reprinted in Melbourne’s The Herald was headlined “Better Beer for Britons”. This future awaited only the end of the war.

The story noted:

Experiments began when Professor E. S. Salmon, of the Kentish Agricultural College, sought to produce a plant uniting the qualities of both British and American hops. English hops, says the professor, are too delicately flavored and in some seasons actually lack flavor. American hops are coarsely and strongly flavored, but are much more robust.

The journalist, sounding for all the world like a hip modern beer writer, vaunted Salmon’s “twin-hops” as combining “American strength” with “British old-world subtlety”. But it was London 1944, with V-2 rockets from German Europe soon to rend pale English skies.

And so, this idea of English hop mildness – subtlety in positive terms – goes back a long way. The idea that American hops were brawny was not new in 1944 of course. The idea that they offered anything more than a stopgap, was, or at least since the time Salmon started his work 30 years earlier.

After World War One and into the Second World War hop rates and alcohol content were reduced considerably in Britain from pre-1914 levels.

Salmon was speaking in this new environment and in this light American hops exhibited previously unappreciated merits. As well, by 1944 Salmon was professionally invested in American hops, given when he started his work.

Suddenly therefore British hops, formerly pride of world brewing – on a par (at least) with Bohemia’s and Germany’s best – acquired a more nuanced value. It’s not much different to how we view them today.

In November 2020 Beer Maverick told the tale of English hop production, only part of which was landrace to boot (Goldings, Fuggles)*. The farms extant produced 3.7 MM lb. Germany and the U.S. together: 219 MM lb, each representing about half.

Judith Evans and Alice Hancock, in Hop Industry Risks Collapse as pub Shutdowns hit Demand, Financial Times, June 19, 2020, cite two factors to explain a long-term decline. One, the postwar success of lager, with its reliance on non-British hop varieties.

The other, the ever-present risk of disease for what admittedly is a temperamental plant – any hop in any field in the world though.

But questions arise. Was the future of English hops long ordained before World War II? If not, did events between 1944 and 2020, such as the FT noted, consign a formerly great industry to minor status?

Or did the Professor, and the British brewers behind him, let the side down? Certainly no one would fault industry professionals working under pressure of wartime constraints. But Professor Salmon’s work had started long earlier.

The Czech Republic and (primarily) Germany and the U.S. continued to focus on native varieties and developed an active export market that compensated for flat or falling domestic consumption. Britain could have done so, but did not.**

Is the answer simply that its classic landrace hops were not suited to lager, which became the default international style? I doubt it is as simple as that. Was Cluster in the U.S., that feisty early workhorse of American brewing, more suited?***

Countries not previously known for hops have even vaulted ahead of Britain in recent years, China notably. My sense is Britain lost confidence finally in the native product, and everything that made it what it was.

There are yet earlier indices of what seems a long-term trend. British scientists were questioning the value of their top-fermentation tradition in later Victorian times, in favour of the siren lager.

Salmon’s work and the recasting of the merits of both English and American hops was a stage in this process.

In this optic, the post-1960s embrace of lager, and finally of American IPA and other craft styles, alongside a much reduced cask ale tradition, is just the latest in a long train of events.

N.B. The whole point of writing notes like these is, it is never too late. The core of the industry is still there. It needs support from consumers and the beer media foremost, particularly for landrace varieties. The rest will take care of itself.

See our Part II.

Note: First image was sourced from Wikipedia as linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*Small quantities of heritage hops are grown, e.g. Farnam White Bine in a hop garden owned by Hogs Back Brewery. An inspiring example. In an ideal world, White Bine-fuelled ale, or beer informed by similar hops, would be the new IPA.

**In 1910 British hop acreage stood at some 32,000, in recent years it has been about 2,500.

***Long derided by European brewmasters in an earlier period for its coarse flavour. For more background, see this earlier post.

 

 

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