Wednesday 31 August 2022

Hoppy days down on the farm

Female hop plant
The 2022 hop harvest begins this week – or at least it does in the Weald of Kent, where Hukins Hops grows East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, Challenger, Ernest, Bullion and other varieties – and where they invited a small group of beer writers and friends to be the guinea-pigs for a trial tour ahead of their first-ever Pick Your Own Hops event. 

Hukins Hops is a 50-acre family farm that’s been growing hops since 1900, although it was relatively recently that current boss Ross Hukins made the decision to focus entirely on hops. As well as dried and pelleted hops for both commercial and home brewers, they also sell fresh and dried hop garlands for decorative use. 

And this week they will also have brewers coming by to pick up the first fresh wet or green hops, which they typically aim to get into beer within 24 hours in order to capture as much as possible of the fresh hop character. There’s several Green Hop Beer festivals coming up, the biggest being in Canterbury in September. 

Poles and wires hold the hop bines up
One of the first things I noticed when we started walking through the hop fields was how quiet it was – our well-informed tour guide Dom, from UK Brewery Tours, said it’s like this for much of the year. Obviously the days of manual harvesting, when Londoners in their thousands would travel to Kent for a few weeks hop-picking, are long gone and it’s largely mechanised now, but it’s also that outside harvest and a few other activities, there is not so much to do. 

Then, once harvest starts, there’s several weeks of hectic activity before it quietens down again. One reason for growing several varieties of hops is that they ripen at slightly different times – for example Fuggles is first, then Challenger, followed by Ernest and Bullion, then UK Cascade, and so on – which smooths the harvesting and processing out a bit, but it is still pretty concentrated. 

Male hop plant
The next thing I noticed was how they grow. The overhead poles and wires are still there, not so different from 100 years ago, then each of the 320,000 plants on the farm has its own metal ground anchor from which compostable strings run up to the overhead wires. Most plants have four strings for four twisting shoots or ‘bines’, and Dom said that some varieties will grow up the strings naturally while others need training – twisting the shoots around the strings to encourage them to climb.

As well as differences in smell and taste, hop varieties also look slightly different on the bine – even before you notice the one in 200 oddities on the farm that are the male hop plants. Challenger cones are longer than Fuggles, for instance, and some kinds are bushier than others – although all were a little thin this year, due to the dry weather. Indeed, this year's hop harvest looks set to be down right across Europe, with Germany predicting a 20% drop.  

A twisting bine

But climate change is impacting hop-growing in other ways too. For instance, Dom says that traditional English Goldings and Fuggles now need irrigation, whereas the newer varieties are more tolerant. 

This adds yet more layers of complexity to the decision of what varieties to grow. Not only must the farmer try to anticipate the upcoming hop fashions, but they also need to think about what suits their terroir, what’ll incur extra costs and so on. Hukins is growing some experimental varieties but it takes three years for the character of a new variety to become clear, and while hops are perennial, the bines need replacing after about 30 years. If you get it wrong, as Hukins did a few years ago with Bramling Cross which didn’t sell, you have to grub out the plants and replace them. 

Anyway, come harvest the whole bine is cut at top and bottom, which only needs two workers on a tractor with a high ‘cherry-picker’ platform on the front. The cut bines go onto a trailer, string and all, and are trucked to a gigantic stripping machine. This separates the vital hop cones from everything else, all of which can go for compost, including the strings. 

Classic 1960s machinery
Although it’s housed in a modern building, Hukins’ stripper is more than half a century old! Sure, a modern computer-controlled one might be faster and quieter. But not only was it significantly cheaper to buy a vintage machine second-hand, it also means most problems can be fixed by a mechanic, without the need to call in a service engineer. 

Barring the small proportion that goes out green, as garlands or is sent off to be turned into hop pellets, the rest of an average year’s 50 tons of hops goes into the three huge driers – diesel-fuelled, sadly, unlike the rest of the farm which is solar-powered. Several hours at 57ºC drop the moisture content right down, leaving the dried hops ready for packing. 

Last on the tour, but far from least, was of course to taste the results. Dom presented us with samples of three different beers, each one made with a specific hop variety from the farm. The two stand-outs were a dank and rich-bodied bitter using Challenger and a smooth, coffee-tinged and herbal-hoppy London Porter made with East Kent Goldings (this turned out to be Five Points’ excellent Railway Porter).  

And with that, it was time to say thanks and goodbye. At first sight, Hukins Hops doesn’t look the easiest of places to get to (it’s an hour by train out of London Bridge, then a taxi) and the tour does involve quite a lot of walking over uneven ground, but it’s fascinating. But if you can drive you can make a day of it, as there's other places to visit in the area. Old Dairy Brewery (a Hukins customer) is not far and there's vineyards around as well, including several smaller ones alongside better-known ones such as Biddenden and Chapel Down.  

Friday 12 August 2022

Beer hunting in Lüneburg

As my friend Paul recently reminded me via his blog, the North German mediaeval Hanseatic town of Lüneburg – where I used to live – remains a popular tourist destination for cruise passengers, coach parties and more. I’m a bit too late to help Paul, but if you’re visiting in the near future and are interested in beer, here’s a few ideas of places to look. 

There’s only two commercial breweries in town these days, both brewpubs. Brauhaus Nolte is quite a way out from the centre, so it’s unlikely a casual visitor will make it there – although if you do, it’s very much a local pub, with a traditional menu (think schnitzels, etc) and usually one light (Helles) and one dark (Dunkel) beer, plus maybe a seasonal special. This range is typical for a German brewpub. 

The bar at Mälzer
Much easier to find is the Mälzer Brauhaus, as it’s just a few metres off Am Sande, the big town square that’s actually a long rectangle. It’s spacious and rustic, with wooden beams everywhere and the brewkit taking pride of place. There’s even a small bar you can sit at if you want, though because the tapster is usually busy filling orders for the waiters, service will be faster if you take a table like everyone else!

As usual, two regulars plus maybe a third seasonal, though the tweak here is that the second regular also changes – a Marzen from October, and a Weizen from April. The first is a Pilsner, of course. It’s not cheap – well, we are in tourist-town here – but it’s a nice place to sit and eat, or just drink, there’s even free WiFi now. Beware though that, like a lot of German places, they don’t take Visa or MC, only cash or a German bank card. 

The 1902 brewhouse
Once upon a time there were more than 80 breweries in Lüneburg, and a few doors up from Mälzer is the only surviving one, now the town’s Brewery Museum. Before it was bought and eventually closed by Holsten, it was the Lüneburger Kronenbrauerei, or Crown Brewery. You can still find very drinkable Lüneburger Pils and Kronen Dunkel at the Krone Bier & Event-haus next door, but they come from Holsten in Hamburg now. 

It’s several years since I visited the museum, but the brewhouse (which dates from 1902) was a very interesting image of early 1900s and inter-war German brewing. It looks like it’s a lot more accessible now too, having been connected to the adjacent Ostpreußisches Landesmuseum* – when I visited, it was pre-booked groups only, and the guide had to open it up specially with a large key… Well worth a look if you have time. 

A five-minute walk from here will bring you to the Altstadt – the old town. Here you can stroll along Ob. & u. Ohlingerstraße (Upper and Lower Ohlinger Street) for the lovely old buildings, but from the beer perspective what I recommend is Anno 1900. It's nominally a traditional German restaurant – their motto is “eat like in your grandmother’s time”, and yes they mean the mythic past, not your actual grandmother’s time which whether British or German probably involved post-war rationing. The downstairs though is a nice pub full of wood, ‘found items’ and memorabilia, and complete with a Stammtisch – a table set aside only for locals. 

Anno 1900
The food was good the last time I was there, and so was the beer – which for a change involves darker beers as well as Pils. Aktien Landbier Fränkisch Dunkel is a regular on tap, and so are (or were) Aktien Zwick'l Kellerbier, Grevensteiner Original and Barre Alt. 

None of which are local, of course, and you’ll have a hard time finding much that is – unless you count maybe Ratsherrn and the various Holsten/Carlsberg brands, which are from Hamburg. There are a few more brewpubs and nanobreweries in outlying villages, but with only limited distribution. 

And while most larger supermarkets keep a range of national brands plus some Bavarians, sadly the pandemic and other factors have hammered the availability of modern German microbrewed beer. The town’s only specialist beer shop closed a few years back, and others have drastically cut back. For instance, I used to recommend Avenir café-deli for speciality brews, but now it has little beyond a few bottles from Kehrwieder Kreativbrauerei – although that said, these are well worth trying, and the coffee is still good! (They sometimes have Wildwuchs beers too, but in my experience these vary a lot in quality, as do those of local brand LüneBräu which you might find in other shops.)

Franconia in Sand Passage
Easier to find, and worth a visit despite also having cut back is Sand Passage, ake Edeka Tschorn, back on Am Sande. Sadly most of the smaller brewery stuff has gone but there’s still a few (eg. Wendlandbräu is based in a nearby village and is pretty reliable), plus a selection of Franconian and Bavarian bottles, some of which can be hard to find up north. Most of these aren't on the main beer aisle though – head towards the deli counter where there’s an extra rack (see photo). 

Well, that’s about it. To be honest, if you have time and transport then the beer range is far better in Hamburg, which has several specialist shops. But you can still find something good to drink in Lüneburg, even if it’s not brewed especially locally. 

*East Prussia went to Poland after WW2, with its German population mostly exiled, which is why you'll find this museum of East Prussian and Baltic German history here in Lower Saxony instead.  

Sunday 7 August 2022

The Ram Brewery, Sambrooks and the secrets of ancient brewing

It's been a busy week. It started with my first visit to the new Sambrooks Brewery, which is inside the old Young's Ram Brewery site. Much of the production brewery is out of sight in what was once a tun room full of porter tuns, and then later - if I remember rightly - Young's cask washing area. But there are also several vessels visible inside Sambrooks grand new taproom, which occupies two floors and has huge picture windows overlooking the plaza and beer garden outside. 

Tim describes Ajon brewing from East Africa 
The first reason to be here - apart from sampling Sambrooks' new and rather tasty session IPA, Sidekick, and its brand-new and excellent Oatmeal Stout - was a presentation from fellow Beer Writers Guild member Tim O'Rourke, on his research into surviving ancient brewing traditions, including meeting and in some cases brewing with traditional brewers. 

It really was fascinating for anyone into brewing history. He went through brewing traditions from all over the world, including the maize beers of Central and South America, millet, sorghum and banana beers from various parts of Africa, the Sake-like rice brews of Southeast Asia, and more. He then linked them to historical, archaeological and artistic evidence of ancient brewing. 

The two things that stood out for me were first, you know that story about women chewing the maize to make Chicha? It's a wind-up, a hoax, and one that generations of beer writers have eagerly swallowed - more eagerly than the Chicha, probably! Of course, if you think just how much grain is required for brewing, and how dry the special brewing maize is, you would not want to do anything other than mill or grind it - but chewing made for a more picturesque story, I guess...

Different malted grains
And the other was when Tim reminded us that, although every human culture has had alcoholic drinks of some sort, there's a big difference between beer and the likes of wine and cider which is that, despite the wishful thinking of some archaeologists and others, beer does not happen spontaneously. Fruit will ferment, and sometimes animals get drunk on it, but a bucket of wet grain will simply rot and go mouldy. 

The difference is that beer requires processing. Typically this means malting, which converts the starches to fermentable sugars, with the milled or ground malt then mashed in warm or hot water to extract those sugars. And this is almost certainly why burnt grains turn up in certain archaeological features, which were formerly assumed to be something to do with baking or cooking, but are now increasingly recognised as malting sites. Indeed, there's a growing understanding or recognition among archaeologists and historians that it was as much beer brewing as bread baking that encouraged humans to settle down and become farmers rather than hunter-gatherers. 

John Hatch shows us the tea-urn's new home
After the talk - and quite a bit of discussion among the beer historians present - I was fortunate enough to join a group touring both the old and new breweries. Our tour was led by John Hatch who, after working for Young's, was the one who kept the site's brewing tradition alive for several years while it was awaiting redevelopment, The consequence of his stalwart efforts is that the Ram Quarter retains its crown as the country's oldest verified brewery or brewing site. (It's not the country's oldest brewer - that's Shepherd Neame.)

His nano-brewery, built around a repurposed tea-urn, is still in use as a test brewkit for Sambrooks, although of course the old laboratory building that housed it and his little bar when last I visited, several years ago, has long gone. As well as seeing parts of the new Sambrooks Brewery, which moved here from a much larger site in nearby Battersea*, we also got to see parts of the old Ram Brewery which are now a brewing museum. These included the gleaming old coppers, an ancient well, and lots of breweriana.

Amongst the latter were photos of both the late Queen Mother and a youthful-looking Prince Charles pulling pints of Young's. Needless to say, she looked a lot happier and 'into' the task than he did. In fact, he looked downright nervous - here's hoping he has had a bit more practice since then, especially since he has his own Duchy beer range now.

After the tour it was back to the taproom for the Beer Writers Guild party, with pizza and more beers, both from Sambrooks and from various generous corporate Guild members, including among others the aforementioned Shepherd Neame, Timothy Taylor with Landlord and its fruity pale Hopical Storm, Salcombe showing its new Atlas SIPA, Krombacher UK with the eponymous classic Pils, and Hogs Back with its gorgeous but dangerous A Over T barleywine. 

My thanks to all of them - and yes, a good time was had by all!

*I understand that the old Sambrooks brewkit went to SEB (South East Bottling) in Broadstairs. Rumour has it some Sambrooks beers are now brewed there under contract.