Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Green Hop Brewing Days

It's 7 in the morning and the early east Kent September sun hasn't yet dried the dew off the hop cones that hang heavy on the bines. It's peaceful, peaceful like only a hop garden can be, and all I can hear is the distant rumble of an old fashioned, blue tractor with a couple of small trailers following as it heads up the field towards pickers.

One picker is out in front, slashing at the bines about two feet from the ground, cutting them & the strings they're wrapped around, letting them hang free from the wire work at the top. She has a peaceful job, largely in solitude. Back behind her, by around 50 yards, chugs another old fashioned blue tractor with it's own two trailers, rumbling on at a slow walking pace. Above each trailer stands a picker in a steel nest on top of a short steel ladder slashing with sharp knives at the top of the bines. They cut them & their strings from the wire work, letting the bines fall into great heaps in the trailers below, guided by helping hands. A couple more pickers walk behind, picking up and rescuing missed bines and bunches of the freshest green hops.

Once the trailers are full, the tractor drivers swap over & harvest continues as the laden train shoots off towards the picking shed. Open on one one side, the shed is around the size of a tallish, suburban detached,
built in rough wood & tough steel. As the tractor backs into the shed eager hands grab the bines by the base
and attach them to an overhead pulley system that swings them slowly away, round a corner and into the 1950's built mechanical picker where, shielded by sheet metal walls, unspeakably dangerous looking steel spikes rotate in a frenzy, stripping the bine of hops & leaves and throwing yellow lupulin into the air.

Behind this follows an assortment of conveyors, and such, all arranged with the specific aim of separating hop cone from leaf, bine & string. A cheerful young man darts around with his oil can, proud to be responsible for keeping this old rattling & shaking machine running almost constantly for the whole day, day in, day out, for just three weeks a year.

Out the back, at ground level, sit a couple more pickers on each side of one of the final conveyors. Their well worked hands dart here and there removing any remaining leaves from the fast stream of fresh bright green hops. This harvest is destined for the oast, via one of two big green tipper trucks, for drying over night before conditioning & pressing into bales.

However, it's here, just as they're falling from one final belt to another that we step in with our sacks, to rob the oastie of some of his due. We've checked the hops in the garden, rubbing & sniffing and commenting
on the subtle changes since yesterday, and here we check them again, just for fun & kicks.

The Early Bird's are first in, picked & then collected by us over the first two or three days of harvest,
before we're into Cobb's & the main crop. We enjoy the company of the pickers and share a laugh & a joke
before loading the pick-up truck to the roof with sacks of fresh, green hops destined for the day's brew.

Most days Humphrey the grower will pop up before we leave. Some years he smiles, every day, and we know the harvest will be a good one. Other years he doesn't and I leave him alone, understanding that whilst I may well be happy with the quality, I might not want to get into a conversation about price.

Back at the brewery the early shift have the brew on, ready to take the hops. We unload them & tip them into the boiling copper, 175 lbs into 550 gallons, or 12 lbs a barrel. 20 minutes later the aromas begin to escape and for the next hour the building is redolent of east Kent at harvest the sappy, gorgeous aromas of the finest east Kent Goldings, the very character of an oast house.

And something very special, very elusive is captured in the beer, the soul of east Kent.

Despite repeating this field to brewery to beer exercise every day for over a week it loses none of it's charm, ever. These are the best days in the year for me.

The first brew is in casks, sat in the cellar of my local pub, hooked up and ready to drink 9 days after the hops were picked. Most of the locals have turned out for GADDS' Green Hop Launch Day in anticipation of having a uniquely fresh beer, brewed by their local brewer & neighbour, with harvest fresh hops from just down the road.  The first cask is gone in 65 minutes, the second a further 60 minutes later. I foolishly attempt to toast Kent and the harvest and we all have a laugh at my expense.

At the warehouse stock is all skewed for these next two weeks; very little of our regular beer is held but we have pallet after pallet of Green Hop Ale, and such is the popularity of it that every single one of the 200 casks & many of the 750 cases have been pre-sold, before we've finished making it. From late September to early October it will appear on the bar of pubs all over east Kent. We try & keep it in east Kent but some inevitably escapes.

For the last 20 years I have been asked what my favourite beer is, I used to say it was the one in my hand, now I say it is Green Hop Ale. And it isn't just the spirit of the Kent harvest that makes me love this; this kind of beer is truly unique, and brewed properly it tastes unique too, with a fresh, zingy sappiness and quite particular bitterness that I don't come across in any other styles.

Dr Peter Derby tells me:

The composition of hop essential oil is very complex and over 400 different compounds have been identified, all with different properties. When the hop is heated during the drying process, the more volatile oils, principally the monoterpenes such as myrcene, start to be lost into the air.
Similarly, the oxygenated compounds such as linalool, geraniol and nerol start to isomerise and also to convert into esters, aldehydes and acids.
Therefore, during the drying process, some essential oils start to be lost while others are converted into other compounds. This makes the oil composition of fresh hops very different from that of dried and pressed hops.

So fresh, or green, hops offer those brewers that can get them the opportunity to create a different kind of beer; a beer that can only be brewed during the harvest, so a beer truly of the season. And a beer that should only be brewed by brewers located in hop counties, so beer of true provenance.
Authentic, unique, seasonal and local – that's four essential boxes of the food & drink world well and truly ticked. And if that wasn't enough, beer correctly brewed with green hops tastes fantastic too.

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