THOUGHT PIECE the carling team

Hops The Spice Of Beer – Part 2

Hop seedlings from the Charles Faram program.

Plant breeding has centred on building in increased resin yield, disease resistance, exotic tropical and citrusy aromas as well as hedgerow varieties that grow to around 2.5m tall rather than the traditional 5-6m. However the hop plant does not breed true from seed, each seedling is unique in its genetic make-up which means a lot of seeds, including half of them useless males, need to be assessed from each cross. Increase for commercial use involves propagating root cuttings. One young plant may allow as many as 400 or as few as 40 cuttings but a commercial planting requires 1500 per acre – you can do the maths but suffice it to say that it will still take at least a couple of years to propagate enough new plants to fill just one commercial acre.

Hop breeding started in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century and early research in the UK aimed at increasing alpha acid content and then improving disease resistance. Wye College in Kent started work in 1904 and the legendary Ernest Salmon took over two years later. Even then American hops, mainly Oregon Clusters, were popular with some 3000 tonnes being used in Britain at that time. Salmon aimed to ameliorate some of the more grunty transatlantic flavours by crossing with European existing varieties as well as North American and European wild hops. It took a long time and it was in 1934 that Brewers Gold appeared (followed by Bullion in 1938) with alphas pushing 9%. Northern Brewer in 1944 had increased European traits and virtually all modern varieties can be traced back to Salmon’s original crosses. Ask a hop agronomist about the risks of monoculture and see what he says!

When Wye started, Verticillium wilt and downy mildew were unknown, both appearing in the 1920s. There is no chemical means of controlling soil-borne Verticillium wilt and so tolerant varieties were sought to utilise the same infected ground. These local disease challenges meant the early breeding programs incorporated resistant strains rather that blindly following alpha yield in plants which would then keel over!

Crop damage can also occur following depredation by insects notably the damson hop aphid and the two spotted spider mite. Spraying insecticide works but what damage is done to the environment and the spraying team themselves. This challenge led Wye to develop Boadicea in 2005, which is a hedgerow variety with total resistance to the aphid.

The effects of climate change are of concern to growers in Slovenia, Bohemia and even the Hallertau north of Munich. Hotter summers and lower rainfall as well as unseasonal storms have affected harvests. Hopsteiner has launched a hop called Akoya which it hopes will be robust enough to cope with the new and ongoing conditions.

Gareth Davies at Dark Farm with his hydroponic hops.

Increasing cone yield and hence the weight of the hops has been less successful as more robust growth leads to demands for expensive higher trellises and increased foliage will shade the cones. Larger cones can break apart while being separated from the leaves. There is also interest in growing hops indoors using hydroponic techniques. Nutrients can be precisely metered and lighting can fool the plant that it is in the Hallertau which can extend the growing season. Insect ingress is limited and plants can be closer together but glasshouses need to be tall and picking at the moment has to be manual. Dark Farm near Lampeter is Britain’s first with 400 plants of twelve varieties. The farm also runs a homebrew shop and encourages a £60 subscription to smaller brewers who get 500g of hops and four copies of a homebrew magazine.

Since those early days, analytical capability has vastly increased as has the use of genetic mapping which has encouraged the breeding of new aroma varieties which had never been very successful leaving many brewers to continue using the tried and tested East Kent Goldings. According to breeder Peter Darby of Wye Hops, it seems that many traditional varieties with interesting aromas were abandoned when mechanical picking machines were introduced as they had large cones which often grew in clusters which broke up or failed to roll on the inclined belts used to separate leaves from cones.

Today the six aroma hops in the Charles Faram breeding program list a multitude of positive ‘new world’ aromas for the brewer to try; apricot, lime, grapefruit, blackcurrant, mango, passionfruit, peach, pineapple, orange, tangerine and grapes! Four of them Jester, Harlequin, Mystic and Olicana have been used by the Buxton Brewery to flavour Brithop, billed as ‘a modern all British-grown IPA’. At 6.8%ABV it is being sold via Tesco.

The initiative, as the name suggests, is to counter the continuing growth in imports of US aroma hops; at around 2000t last year that is more than twice the total UK yield. ‘UK hop growers cannot hope to compete with the States and Germany on alpha yield but they can on developing the aroma hops which the global craft industry is seeking’ says Paul Corbett of Charles Faram.

Worldwide hops are big business. This is the area under the kilns at Bushy Park in Tasmania. This farm produces 600t of hops a year- equivalent to three quarters of the total UK output.

After years of introspection, UK hops are being exported to the craft sector all over Europe and the US as well. The Faram breeding program was initially driven by the cost and availability of the citrus and stoned fruit flavours from the Yakima Valley. Imported Citra and Amarillo costing twice that of local Goldings. Even then supplies are not assured such is the voracious appetite for hoppiness amongst the smaller US brewers leaving less for export. Simply growing those US varieties in the UK is not really an option as the Washington climate is very different, the soil is different, irrigation is practiced so the whole terroir means growing over here is likely to fail. A few years back Tony Redsall tried growing Cascades in Kent, he got a reasonable yield but brewers found they had to add three times the amount to get the same level of hoppiness.

There are dwarf selections as well. Back in 1996, the original varieties Pioneer, Herald and First Gold promised around two thirds of the yield for half of the costs of traditional high grown hops. Sovereign and Endeavour followed. The acreage went quickly to some 25% of the UK total but has since fallen back to around 10% as the farmer cannot get the yield to compete with high wire crops and there is a lack of demand for the varieties grown. As Fuggles and Goldings are still popular amongst UK regional brewers, it is perhaps time that a hedgerow Fuggle appeared but it has to be wilt tolerant and have a high enough yield to compete.

Rows of trial dwarf hops at Claston Farm in Herefordshire and a picking machine in action, notice that some foliage remains to help ensure a good start to growth next season.

The breeders have reduced the internodal distance, that is the space between points at which leaves branch from the growing stem. The idea is to get the same number of cones from a much shorter plant and one which yields cones closer to the soil. The attraction is lower-cost support for the crop and machine picking rather than carrying the bines off to picking sheds which demand high levels of casual labour. Leaving some foliage behind allows natural dieback for the winter and is said to give a better start to the plants next season. Trouble is there is a lot more room for the laterals, which bear the cones, to develop on the high wire.


Researchers in Japan have determined that hop-derived bitterness may be beneficial for the health of your brain and might help combat cognitive decline and dementia. The research determined that 35mg of hop acids (both alpha and beta) per day improved verbal memory retrieval as well as helping combat mental fatigue and improving mood state. Beer has a wide range of these acids from 19 to 210mg/L. Thus between 0.17 and 1.8L per day should do the trick. Sadly the authors point out that excessive consumption of alcohol may lead to cognitive decline, offsetting any positives which the hops might deliver!

Hop pillows to aid slumber have been known for centuries and hops have been used in various herbal remedies for all sorts of ailments including leprosy, smelly feet, liver diseases, constipation, sleeping disorders and blood purification for equally as long. It was noticed that women picking hops in the old days had disrupted menstrual cycles so today there is considerable research into pharmaceutical benefits and a new market is opening up for hops bred with other properties than bitterness and oils.

As well as sedative effects, modern research is exploring prenylated flavonoids and the Czechs have used genetic engineering to develop a variety called Vital with enhanced levels of desmethylxanthohumol which is a direct precursor of 8- prenylnaringenin used in the non-hormonal treatment of menopausal symptoms. Antioxidant xanthohumol has been identified as a substance with a great potential in cancer treatments and has been shown to be a potent inhibitor of Covid19. Anti- inflammatory effects of α-acids and iso-α-acids are also of interest and may offer hope to those suffering from arthritis. Away from pharmaceuticals, a recent application utilises the hop for suppression of pests in stored products.


A two-acre historic hop garden has been planted on the Neame family farm at Faversham with three samples of 70 old varieties each from the national collection displaced when Government funding for the East Malling hop site gave up.

Many smaller breweries have a few hop plants climbing up the side to demonstrate to visitors but Hogs Back has gone a lot further. It planted a hop garden adjacent to its brewery in 2014, growing three hop varieties: Fuggles, Cascade as well as the heritage and local Farnham White Bine. In 2019 the yard with 2000 plants was moved to a larger 8.5 acre plot nearby with another 4000 plants. When fully mature it will provide 50% of the brewery’s hop requirements. Adding a state of the art hop kiln and vacuum packing unit has brought the total investment by Hogs Back to £700,000. During the summer one of the White Bines changed sex! This was possibly due to the hot and dry conditions and while Hogs Back fully respects the right of the hops to make their own gender choices it is hoped the others will continue to prefer to be female!

The hop garden at Hogs Back Brewery in Tongham; CAMRA members help with the twiddling or training the shoots up the strings, an aerial shot of harvesting in progress, the bines reach the picking shed which doubles as a taproom out of season.

The UK hop growers have taken a huge hit recently due to Covid. Brewers have not needed as many hops due to reduced pub sales and beers sold in supermarkets are increasingly US hop inspired. Demand for traditional UK varieties is as low as it has been for many years and brewers are not confident to contract forward.

However there is light on the horizon; there is an increasing realisation from brewers (following Brexit and COP26) that we should be using more locally grown raw materials and in the process support local businesses and reduce the breweries’ carbon footprint. Apart from flavour there is no good argument to ship hops in a refrigerated container all the way from the west coast of the US and burning a lot of fuel in the process. Enter the Charles Faram development programme which started 12 years ago and is starting to bear fruit with new varieties that are very ‘New World’ in their flavours and characteristics. There is an encouraging take-up of these hops and we all hope that the market for locally produced hops over the next few years will grow. Many growers are still teetering on that precipice during these difficult times.