Beer traditionally had only four ingredients – water, malted barley, hops and yeast – and hops play a big part in providing flavour, aroma and bitterness to our favourite drink. So last week I visited Stocks Farm in Worcestershire, to learn a bit more about growing hops and to see the harvest in action.
Hops have separate male and female plants, and the flower of the female plant is what we use when brewing. In fact, hops were originally added to beer because of their antibacterial properties – the same acids that add bitterness also help to inhibit bacterial growth. On a brewday, adding hops early into the boil gives us more bitterness, and adding late in the boil gives us higher levels of flavour and aroma. Many beers are also ‘dry hopped’ as well, where more hops are added at the fermentation stage for even more flavour. Today you can get a huge range of hop varieties, and each variety has different properties – and even the same variety can have a different impact on the beer depending on how it is used.
It was brilliant to see the harvest in action; the workers manually cutting down the 3-metre-long hop bines before feeding them into their 1950s hop picking machine, and the sea of crisp green cones ready to go into the kiln at the other end. And it was really interesting to hear about the impact of the climate on the harvest – both the macro effects of climate change over the longer-term, and the micro effects of how this year’s weather will affect what is available for us to brew with (I may need to tweak our lager recipe because of a shortage of a certain hop…).
It was great to see where some of our ingredients come from first-hand, and I have been inspired to try some new varieties in the future too, so watch this space for future recipes…