Sunday, 28 August 2022

Hopping down in Kent

In my previous post about how, the drought was impacting the hop harvest right across Europe, I mentioned I was off to Haffenden Farm, near Bethersden, to have a look at hops growing in the fields and pick a few for myself. However, when Friday morning dawned, and I brought Mrs PBT’s her early morning cup of tea, she me it was far too late to go hop picking. As a child she had often gone hopping with her mother, and rather like gathering mushrooms, you apparently need to be up at the crack of dawn to pick hops.

This wasn’t quite true in this instance, as along with several other members of the British Guild of Beer Writers, and other interested parties, I’d received an invite from UK Brewery Tours, to spend some time at Hukins Hops. The instructions were to take a train to nearby Headcorn station, where a pre-booked taxi would pick me, plus a handful of others up, at 11.15am. I duly arrived and joined two other beer writers, Bryan B and David Jesudason, each of whom had a child in tow, and after piling into the taxi, we were transported to Haffenden Farm.

Several other guests arrived independently, including one lady who had journeyed by train from South Wales, plus a couple who had travelled down the night before and stayed in nearby Tenterden. Writer, Des de Moore, was also present along with a professional photographer. We were met by Dom, from UK Brewery Tours, who had arranged the visit and acted as our guide. 

After the introductory pleasantries, we walked up to the old oast house, at the top of the site, where Dom explained some of the history behind the farm and its tradition of hop growing. Hukins Hops is a 5th generation family business, now dedicated exclusively to hop growing, and one that is determined to maintain this tradition. The old oast house still houses a vintage hop-picking machine, but one that is no longer in regular use. Hukins have planning permission to convert this old building to house a small brewery, with attached tap room. This project will be in conjunction with an established Kent brewer, although at present, I am not at liberty to name the company involved.

Hops have been grown at Haffenden Farm’s 50-acre site since 1900. The farm is part organic, and is self-sufficient in terms of electricity, thanks to bank of 200 solar panels. The surplus generated is sold back to the national grid. There is also a large tank to store recycled rainwater, including run-off from the nearby road, but given the dry year we’ve experienced, the farm is struggling water-wise at the moment.

A range of different hop varieties is grown, with Fuggles, Challenger, Ernest, Bullion, and Cascade all contributing to the harvest. The varieties above, are listed in the order in which they ripen, so with five different types of hops, the growing season on Haffenden Farm is extended, and by implication the hop harvest as well. The latter point is important, because with harvest time being by far the busiest time of the year, spreading it out, by virtue of different ripening times, does make life a little easier for both the labourer’s who pick the hops, and the family that owns the farm.

Harvesting the hops time is both a busy and stressful time, for owner Ross Hukins and other members of the family. I mentioned before that I’d met Ross whilst acting as a beer judge at the Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival, several years ago, but with the harvest due to start straight after the bank holiday, preparations were in full swing. Ross was rather too wrapped up in them to break off and meet us, which was a shame, but under the circumstances, this was totally understandable.

Leaving the old oast house, we walked back down, taking a look at the aforementioned solar panels and water storage facilities. We continued through several different fields, each planted with a different hop variety, so after starting with a field of Fuggles, we moved onto the Challenger hops, in the adjoining field. Challenger hops have distinctive, red coloured bines, which sets them apart from the green vines of the Fuggles. Hukins are now one of only nine farms left that are still growing this traditional variety, and Dom told us that Paul McCartney’s farm at Peasemarsh is one of the others. 

We finally ended up in a field of Ernest hops – a new variety to me, but quite a well-established one, having first being developed by Professor Ernest Salmon, at the now sadly closed Wye College. I have a personal connection to Wye College, having grown up in the neighbouring village of Brook. The hop is described as having “New World characteristics, producing a complex flavour with predominantly fruity notes, especially apricot, citrus and spice.”

We didn’t visit the fields where the Bullion and the Cascade hops were growing. Bullion were once favoured by Guinness, who grew them on their own hop farm at Bodiam. The variety appears to have fallen out of favour, possibly due to their characteristic blackberry notes. Cascades are THE definitive hops used to produce American Pale Ales, although without elaborating, Dom mentioned something about them being grown “under licence.” This sounded very “Monsanto” to me, but despite intellectual property rights and other legal restrictions, Hukins, along with several other UK growers, have proved that Cascades can be successfully cultivated in Britain.

We then walked along to the new Hop Processing shed, which is a purpose-built facility which allows for greater picking speeds, improved efficiencies, larger drying areas, and increased capacity. This, combines the latest technology with Hukins existing passion for hops, allowing them to grow, pick, dry, press and preserve their award-winning hops to the highest standards. The project received funding from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development; a source of investment that unfortunately is no longer available, thanks those who blindly voted for Brexit, without bothering to check the facts.

This picking, drying, and packing processes are the most important part of the harvest, and with only a four-day window available to ensure the hops are picked in peak condition, this is a very stressful time for hop farmers. Unlike the old days, when an army of itinerant workers from London’s East End would descend on the hop fields, only four full-time workers are detailed to harvest the hops today, at Hukins. The bines are cut down by a worker standing on a platform, mounted behind a tractor, before being loaded onto a trailer and taken to the processing shed.

The bines are then hung on a series of hooks which transport them through the various stages of the picking machine, which can handle up to 1,200 bines per hour. Hukins use a reconditioned “Bruff” machine, dating in part from the 1960’s. Such machines are still in demand, and are said to have been so robust, reliable and so efficient in their operation, that the company went out of business. We met the engineer who looks after the machine at Haffenden Farm. He officially retired in 2009, but returns every year, as he loves tinkering with this mechanical monster.

The machine cleverly separates the hop cones from the bines, and also the “laterals” – leaves to you and me. The waste plant material exits the shed through a chute, and is eventually composted, although to prevent the build up of disease, this compost is never spread back between the bines. The cones enter one of three kilns, each capable of processing 5 tonnes of hops at a time. This is a three-stage drying process, which reduces each load of hops to just 10% of its original weight.

This was almost the end of the tour, and it was interesting to see the picking machine and the kilns being put through their final checks, prior to the start of harvesting next week. Two factors are used to determine which of the hops are ready for harvesting; the first is a scientific moisture reading, whilst the second is the time-tested “scrunch” test. Basically, if the hope cones make a scrunching noise when rubbed between fingers, then the harvest can begin!

Finally, we were able to sample the finished product, after Dom brought us out a few samples. The first was a pale ale, brewed using Fuggles, the second was an IPA brewed with Ernest hops, and finally a porter. From memory I think this excellent dark ale was brewed using Challenger hops, but I had stopped taking notes. Most people agreed that Fuggles provided the best match with the pale ale, whilst the hop used for the porter, was another winning combination.

Our taxi arrived on time to take us back to Headcorn station. As I only had a short journey home, compared to the others, I left them to catch their train, and took a stroll into the centre of Headcorn village for a look around, plus a pint. This diversion is worthy of is own write-up, so look out in a few days’ time.  In the meantime, special thanks to Dom from UK Brewery Tours, for arranging and conducting the tour, and thanks too to Hukins Hops, for allowing us to visit the lovely setting of their farm, and witness, at first hand, how this vital flavouring ingredient for beer is cultivated, harvested and then prepared ready for the brewer to work his or her magic.

Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Lack of rain could bring a less than bitter harvest

According to Reuter’s News Agency, Europe has been experiencing its worst drought for 500 years. Now whilst Reuter’s are a highly respected news organisation, that have been around for a long time, I’m not quite sure where they got their figures from, as 500 years ago, takes us back to the year 1522. The question that has to be asked, is how accurate were rainfall measurements back in the 16th Century, that’s if rainfall levels were even being recorded back then. The other point to consider regards Europe itself. Not only is it a substantial landmass, it’s a continent in its own right, so whilst journalists seem to love generalisations, Reuter’s statement does need taking with several pinches of salt.

That’s my little gripe over, and whilst I do get annoyed by sensationalist reporting, there is no escaping the fact that the lack of rainfall during the spring and summer of 2022 is a cause for serious concern. Forget hosepipe bans, as that is just closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, reservoir levels across the country are at rock bottom levels, and by implication they are across Europe as well.

Lack of rainfall has an adverse effect on crop yields, and this coupled with the ongoing war in Ukraine, is impacting heavily on the world’s grain reserves. I’m not sure whether this affects stocks of malting barley as much as it does wheat, but one commodity the current drought is having a massive effect on, are hop yields across the continent.

Proof of this comes from an acquaintance who works for a hop factoring company.  Apparently, the Czech hop harvest is looking at a 50% reduction, whilst Germany is forecasting a 25-30% fall. Figures for the UK hop harvest are not currently available, but several growers have posted photos of bines that are not looking particularly great. However, as my contact from the world of hops pointed out, last year’s UK harvest amounted to 900 tonnes, whereas the Czech total was 8,000 tonnes. Do the math, as the Americans would say, and Czechia’s potential loss this year is 4-5 times the entire UK harvest!

I will probably know more about conditions out in the field this coming Friday, as I am due to visit Hukins Hops at, at their farm near St Michael's, just outside Tenterden, in the heart of the Kentish Weald. Earlier in the year I received an invite, to try my hand at hop picking, but had almost forgotten about it until I received a text reminder on Monday.

I’m not quite sure how the invitation came about, as it was either through my membership of the British Guild of Beer Writers, or because I was introduced to Ross Hukins, when I did some beer judging at the Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival, several years ago. Whatever the reason I’m looking forward to my visiting the family farm, in a couple of days’ time. Full report to follow, in due course.