Sunday, 2 November 2014

In Praise of Green-Hopped Beer

For the past two years running I’ve written a post or two about Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight .  For those who haven't been paying attention, Kent Green Hop Beer is beer made with fresh, or green Kentish hops, rather than using hops that have been dried, as is more traditional in brewing. The resulting beers have a characteristic fresh taste because the green hops used contain oils and other aroma compounds that are normally lost when hops are dried. The brewers make sure the hops are as fresh as possible by using them within 12 hours of being picked.

Hops are used as the ‘seasoning’ rather the main ingredient in beer, and impart tanginess, bitterness and aroma. When beers are brewed with green hops, the fact the hops are fresh and un-processed means they are an unknown quantity. This combined with the influence of the weather, and other seasonal factors, on their growing period ensures the flavour of the resultant beer will be different each year. As brewers are normally at pains to ensure their beers taste the same every time, these factors add a variety and interest which would not normally be present.

Almost every brewery in Kent makes at least one green-hoppedsome make several, and with over 20 breweries in the county that’s a large range of beers! In fact more than 30 were brewed this year, and with each brewer creating their own recipe, they were all different as well.

In order to showcase these beers, and bring them to the attention of the public at large, the Kent breweries have banded together to set up Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight. This officially begins at the Canterbury Food & Drink Festival; held this year on Friday 26th September 2014. This is the only occasion and location when all (or nearly all!) Kent Green Hop Beers are available in the same place at the same time. Select pubs throughout the county also stock Kent Green Hop Beers throughout the two week period following the festival, ending just before the middle of October.

Of course green-hopped beers aren’t confined to the Garden of England alone; brewers as far distant as Ilkley in Yorkshire have brewed their own versions, as have brewers in the Thames Valley and  those based in England’s other main hop-growing area – the counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire. It is therefore worth noting that the Teme Valley Brewery, who are based at The Talbot at Knightwick in Worcestershire, run their own Green Hop Beer Festival which is of a size to rival that of the Kent one. This year’s event featured around 35 green-hopped beers sourced mainly, but not exclusively, from local brewers.

So do green-hopped beers taste different to more conventional ones? The short answer is yes, but the difference is perhaps rather more subtle than that between green tea and normal dried tea. Green-hopped beers have a definite resinous taste which is almost certainly due to the abundance of hop oils and other flavouring compounds. These are elements which are either diminished, or lost altogether during the normal drying process. Friends have commented on a distinct mouth-feel to the beer, and I have noticed this too in the form of a slight furriness on the tongue and the roof of my mouth. Whatever the difference, the fact that brewing with green hops can only be done during harvest, creates a very special beer with a truly unique flavour.

.The idea of green-hopped beers has now spread far beyond these shores, with brewers in New Zealand now producing their own version of these beers. A number of American brewers also produce what is known as a “Wet-Hopped Beer”; sometimes referred to as a “Harvest Ale”. As far as I can tell, these are beers brewed using fresh, un-dried hops, so to my mind, at least, they are equivalent to our green-hopped ales.

The very first green-hopped beer, certainly in the modern era, was surprisingly not brewed in a hop-growing area, but was instead conceived by Wadworth of Devizes, in Wiltshire. The company’s Malt & Hops was the original, and some would say, still the best, green- hopped beer. Somewhat surprisingly, the beer has been brewed on an annual basis for the past 22 years; the first batch having been brewed as long ago as 1992! In view of this achievement, the name of the beer has now been changed to The Original Green Hopped Beer.

Wadworth brew this beer in their traditional old Victorian brew-house, which particularly lends itself to the green hop brewing process. The malt used is a pale ale malt with just a hint of crystal, and the main hop used is Earlybird Goldings. Once brewed the beer is stored in casks for a few days to obtain natural conditioning and can be drunk almost immediately the yeast has settled out.

Some might dismiss the whole “green-hopped” thing as just another publicity exercise; with a few people going even further, comparing it to the media circus which surrounded Beaujolais Nouveau, a decade or so ago. However, unlike the marketing of an immature and, at times, rather thin red wine, which incidentally the French thought we were crazy to go chasing after, green-hoped beers are all about the heritage and future of Britain’s hop-growing industry.

This isn't just about grabbing a seasonal product while you can: English hops are in desperate need of a boost. Hop acreage has dropped from a high of 71,189 acres in 1878 to around 2,500 now, and this decline has continued in recent years by the increasing popularity of hops from places like America and New Zealand. The demand for the citrus and tropical fruit flavours imparted by these hops shows no sign of abating, and is side-lining the earthy, floral, hedgerow fruitiness of traditional English varieties. Anything which helps reverse this trend, by encouraging an interest in our home-grown varieties, has to be encouraged and is surely worthy of the support of every English beer drinker.

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