Thursday, 20 October 2011

Hops and Glory

I am just reading Pete Brown’s light-hearted history of India Pale Ale, which he interleaves with the story of a barrel of beer travelling the old fashioned way by ship (well most of it by ship) from Burton-on-Trent to India. There is little about hops but it is a good read. 

What an extraordinary year it has been, weather-wise. The marvelous March sunshine advanced the spring but that was followed by a drought in April, May and June. This lasted 43 days in North Norfolk and was devastating for the elderflowers. They shrivelled and turned brown and blackberries didn't flower as they should either. When the drought broke and summer progressed many trees and plants flowered a second time. Magnolia for instance came back into flower in high-summer, Bergenia too. The drought had sent them into suspended animation and on re-awakening they thought spring had arrived a second time.
Wild hops at Upper Sheringham, Norfolk

Whatever it has done for other flowers, this summer has been great our local wild hops. I noticed them all over the place in September and I eagerly anticipated the harvest. For the past couple of years I have gathered wild hops from the hedgerows at Upper Sheringham and used them as an adjunct to my home brewing. Cultivated hops are expensive but these are free. I like the idea of using wild hops, even though their flavour and bitterness can be unpredictable. I reckon if I get to know their properties, then using local wild hops promises a truly local, zero kilometre ale. As I am using North Norfolk malt from Branthill Farm, adding North Norfolk hops seems only natural.

One thing I have noticed: you don’t see hops out in the open countryside. They are most commonly found in or around old villages, especially those with ancient pubs. Furthermore, here in North Norfolk many villages have monastic ruins and I have often found hops close to the old priories – at Walsingham, Binham, Weybourne, Beeston Regis, Castle Acre and Newton by Castle Acre to name a few. What’s more, several of these hop bines boast cones up to 50mm long; their aromas are good too, so these are clearly not the pure wild variety, but cultivars. I gathered several kilograms in late September and early October, keeping careful note of where each batch came from. I air-dried them in the embryonic Poppyland Brewery, bagged and froze them, ready for use through the winter. I shall be brewing with them soon.
A golden hop variety at Binham, Norfolk.

In the medieval period monasteries such as Walsingham Priory grew rich on receiving pilgrims, who came to worship at the shrine. Other monasteries offered food and shelter to travellers and the monks brewed beer for guests and for themselves. So it is quite likely that some of the hops I have gathered are descended from plants that escaped from the monk’s hop yards. Others may be from the days when hops were not available by mail order and publicans were brewers, so they grew their own.

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