Last Friday finally saw the back of the beer ordering process for the Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival. I can’t say I’m sorry it’s over now, as it was quite a long drawn out process with several selection meetings to sit through, numerous enquiries to send out, replies to respond once details were received of which beers were available, and at what price. Part of me can’t help thinking the whole process would have been a lot easier if we had just gone to a couple of beer agencies and, after making our selection, placed the order with them. Instead we went down the path of dealing direct with the individual brewers, fully expecting to make significant cost-savings. However, after looking at one particular agency that we were obliged to use in the end because a few of the breweries weren’t able to deliver direct, there wasn’t that much difference in price after all.
I say “we”, because there was supposed to be two of us involved with the selection and ordering, but as things turned out it was me who ended up doing virtually all the ordering and most of the chasing. Such is life, but at least it's done and dusted and all we have to do now is to wait and hope that our suppliers deliver what they have said they will, and on the various days agreed. Obviously a lot of work still needs to be done, but two of my colleagues have agreed to produce the festival programme, and put together the various tasting notes. Then a couple of days in advance of the festival, a group of volunteers will assembly at Spa Valley’s headquarters at Tunbridge Wells West Station for the delightful task of getting the beer racked up on the stillages, ready for tapping and spiling.
Hopefully our volunteer group will be a large one, as lifting the beers up onto the stillages, especially when they’re arranged three high, is back-breaking work as anyone involved in the past with running a beer festival will testify! Then there’s the weekend of the festival itself and the same question again – “Do we have enough volunteers?” It got pretty manic last year, especially on the Saturday during the late afternoon/early evening session. We’re hoping we’ve got this vital area covered much better this year, but there’s always a danger that not everyone who promises to turn up and help actually materialises on the day.
Going back to the beer order for a moment; this year we’ve decided to make a feature of “Green Hopped Beers”, bearing in mind there will be a lot of these beers available in October. Kent and East Sussex are traditional hop-growing counties, so it is only fitting that the vast majority of brewers in the area have decided to produce one or more Green Hopped Ale, meaning we really will be spoiled for choice in respect of these beers.
For the un-initiated Green Hopped Beers are produced using hops that have been freshly gathered, with sometimes a little as a few hours occurring between harvesting and brewing. The normal practice of course, is to dry the hops to reduce their water content in order to preserve them. After drying they are traditionally pressed into large hessian sacks (plastic sacks are often substituted these days), which has the advantage of keeping the air away from them and ensuring a long shelf life. After all, they will have to last for at least a year until the next season’s harvest is available. Modern variations on this practice include pulverising the whole hop flowers, and then pressing them into small pellets. Pellets take up far less space than traditionally pressed hops and, as they can be stored in airtight containers, this gives the added advantage of an even longer shelf life. Some hop merchants take things a stage further, and produce a hop extract whereby the active resins and flavouring compounds are extracted from the hop flowers, and then concentrated into a syrup-like gloop. Beers produced using hop extract though are often lacking in taste, aroma and character, and the use of such extracts is frowned upon by traditional brewers.
Because “green hops” are used straight from the hop gardens, and are not dried or processed further, they are bursting with attractive hop flavours and aromas. This means that a beer brewed using this type of hops will be very clean tasting, superbly fresh and wonderfully hoppy. They can also be somewhat unpredictable, primarily because the growers and brewers will not have had much chance to assess bitterness and aroma levels on a properly scientific basis. This, for many drinkers, only adds to their appeal. The other attraction is their seasonality, with only the limited time during the month of September available for green-hopped beers to be produced.
With the seasonality aspect in mind, for the second year running now, the vast majority of Kent’s 30 or so brewers have got together to hold the “Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight”, which kicks off this coming weekend in Canterbury, as part of the highly successful Canterbury Food & Drink Festival. The organisers’ claim that as some Kent are brewing more than one green-hop beer, there will be approaching 40 of these beers available. A group of us are heading over to Canterbury on Friday to sample as many as we can, but we can always catch up on those beers we miss at our own festival, at the Spa Valley Railway, next month.
The Canterbury Food & Drink Festival takes place from 27th to 29th September in Dane John Gardens, Canterbury. Opening times are 10am to 6pm Friday and Saturday, plus 10am to 5pm Sunday. Admission is free, and as well as the Green Hop Ales, there are all sorts of other lovely goodies on sale from picnic fayre, tapas, fine dining, hog roast, wines and ciders all provided by award winning local food producers from throughout the south east. The event also features live music and a vintage funfair.