Local food: Kentish hops

Vanessa Berridge meets the people who are keeping the hop-growing tradition alive in the Garden of England

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You should be careful driving through Kent in autumn. Round any corner, you may encounter a tractor, whizzing past with braided hop bines piled high, while scattered bunches of hops along the road are further indication that this is hop-picking season.
Lofty lines of hops, like green cathedral naves, have been part of the Kent landscape since they were first planted here in the early 16th century. Flemish weavers, attracted by the county’s wool industry, settled in the Weald and introduced perennial hop plants (Humulus lupulus) to give their beer the bitter flavour they preferred to sweet English ale, made just with malt and water. Hops thrived in the clay loam soil of Kent, with its warm summers and cold winters. Members of the Wealden Hops group still produce about 40 percent of English hops over about 2,500 acres, with the fruit also grown in Sussex, Hampshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire.

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Lack of new growers
Hops, like farming in general, has had its challenges, fighting competition from foreign beers and imported hops: in the mid-1950s, there were more than 500 hop farms in Kent and Sussex, reduced now to 35. “No new growers are coming along,” says Stuart Highwood, a fourth-generation Kent hop farmer, “because you need machinery, a picking barn and oasthouse. And hops are difficult to grow, prone to disease as well as aphids and spiders.”
Nevertheless, traditional English brewers, with a buoyant market for distinctive English bitter, support the indigenous industry, while the burgeoning of microbreweries has been a shot in the arm for hop growers. For Stuart, concentrating on hops has proved financially sound.
His great-grandfather bought the 300-acre Crow Plain Farm in 1917. Originally a mixed farm, it has been streamlined over the years; Stuart converted the apple orchards to arable in the 1970s, and since 2004 has contracted out arable work to focus on his 70 acres of hops.
He mostly grows aroma hops, such as Goldings, used for ordinary English bitter. But he also has seven acres of bittering hops, such as Admiral, with the 15 percent alpha acid content required by some brewers. Stuart has also switched several fields to new dwarf hops. Traditional hops reach 4m (14ft) tall, with fruit mostly on the top, and need loading for threshing by hand. The dwarf hops, however, grow in a solid hedge to around 2.7m (9ft) on permanent plastic netting, don’t need re-stringing each year, and are stripped off by a tractor-drawn machine that straddles the hedge. “The yield is lower,” says Stuart, “but hedgerow hops are labour-saving and less stressful.”

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Traditional farming methods
Hop farming has changed little over the years. It’s a seasonal operation: Stuart has three full-time staff, swelling to 17 for three weeks in autumn. In the early 20th century, hop pickers descended from London each autumn, with generations of families going to the same farms. Today, Stuart, and other hop farmers now employ eastern European workers seasonally, with similar patterns emerging. “Many of my workers are friends and relations of people who first came here 20 years ago,” says Stuart. “They stay in mobile homes on the farm and are very much a gang.”
The hops shoot in April, when the tall hops are thinned out to two or three bines per plant. They climb up string (made of biodegradable coir) which is hooked by pole over the wire frame 4m (14ft) above, and are ready for picking from September. The tall bines are pulled down by hand, and taken to a picking barn, where they are passed through a thresher to remove the larger leaves, branches and string. The hops are further sifted by rollers, emerging in a green carpet to be poured into hessian sacks and taken to the oasthouse for drying. The waste is composted and used on arable fields.
Although most old oasthouses have been converted to homes, the new, larger industrial-looking sheds still employ traditional techniques. At Hayle Farm, hops are laid on hessian sacks in the kiln and warmed from below for up to 10 hours until they are dry. Stuart, however, uses a more modern process at his drying plant: there, hops are dried in hessian-based wagons as they inch along a conveyor belt over heat. The hops are then pressed and baled, going straight to the brewer or to a plant to be processed into pellets. At this stage, different types of hops are blended to individual brewers’ requirements.
For most of the year, oasthouses are just storage sheds, but work continues outside. The hop bines are cleared after the main pick, and then cut half-way down, leaving sap to nourish the plant. Then, by Christmas, they are cut down to the ground, and fed with muck when it’s available, and calcium nitrates.
Richard Edmed has 56 acres of hops, a mixture of traditional Goldings, Progress and Target, with dwarf Sovereign and Pilgrim. “Finding the right variety for brewers is a problem,” Richard says, “so I haven’t gone over completely to low trellis, although it would be easier.” Stuart agrees that hop-growers need constantly to be on their mettle. “New generation brewers are looking for strong, zesty hops to make their beers stand out,” he says. “But then the traditional brewers don’t want to change. And they’re very loyal to English hops, so we stick with them.”