Creating growth in the Yorkshire hops industry
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 November 2014
Micro breweries 'sponsor' their own hop crops on a farm in East Yorkshire. Terry Fletcher reports
When they fancy a pint most people just wander down to the pub. Not Matthew Hall. He prefers to brew his own even if it does take a little longer. But even he admits things may be getting a little out of hand now that he has started growing his own hops too. Thousands of them spread across five acres of East Yorkshire. ‘You could say that it has become a bit of an obsession,’ he concedes.
Matthew began growing his own hops in the garden to improve his home brew. Now he and his business partner, family friend and farmer Chris Bradley, think they could be on the verge of something big, riding the boom in micro breweries which have been springing up all over Yorkshire, producing tastily individual beers from local ingredients. Even Matthew is getting in on the act, having given up his job as a waiter to become a brewer with the Malton-based Brass Castle.
In the Middle Ages abbeys all over the North grew their own hops but in more recent times the industry has been concentrated in Kent and Worcestershire. ‘That was because it was very labour-intensive to harvest the hops,’ says Matthew. In Kent they could rely on families coming out from the East End of London to help. The pickers viewed it as a working summer holiday to get some fresh air away from the smoke of the city. The same was true in Worcestershire when they had people from the towns of the Black Country to help with the harvest.
At the peak of hop-growing there were more than 70,000 acres under cultivation with hundreds of growers but imports and a lack of labour helped to kill off many of the farms and now it is estimated there are less than 2,500 acres of hops left in the whole country with Matthew and Chris’s Yorkshire Hops at Chris’s farm at Elleker, near Brough, the most northerly outpost.
Chris admits that moving into an apparently declining industry may not seem the most astute business move but he and Matthew believe British hops are ready for a revival thanks to the micro breweries and a taste for different ales. ‘British hops are becoming a bit of a niche market so we hope the numbers will stack up,’ says Chris. And it’s not the first time he has taken a chance on an unusual crop. The farm was once fairly traditional, growing wheat and oil seed rape but now half of the 250 acres are given over to growing biofuels for Drax power station, near Selby.
Hops added early in the brewing process are what give beer its bitterness while other varieties added at later stages provide the distinctive aromas and flavours that lend personality. Listening to serious beer drinkers these days is like eavesdropping on wine connoisseurs as they chat about different strains providing everything from hints of ginger marmalade to spicy blackcurrant, chocolate and molasses undertones to their favourite tipple.
‘It’s amazing the variation you can get from different hops,’ says Matthew and he and Chris are adding new varieties as they expand their crop. They started off in 2012 with just a few plants but last year they scaled it up to a hectare (2.5 acres). It was a big investment because the tallest varieties grow up to 16ft high and need to be supported. They had to put in 500 wooden posts and almost five miles (11km) of wire supports plus netting. And this year they have added another hectare of bines, which to the untrained eye look like giant hedgerows.
Luckily part of the cost has been offset by a dozen or so micro breweries each ‘sponsoring’ their own rows of hops which they can see through the growing season and incorporate into their brews. So far all but one is from Yorkshire but there is already one Lancashire brewery on board with another from Cheshire also showing an interest in joining.
‘It works well for both sides,’ says Matthew, ‘It has helped us to offset some of the cost in the early stages and lets the breweries try out the new varieties for not too much outlay. It seems to be working well as all the breweries who joined last year are still with us and are coming back for more.’
So far all the hops have been sold fresh as soon as they have been picked but Matthew and Chris are now hoping to invest in drying equipment which will give the hops a longer shelf life and allow them to be packed and, in theory at least, exported to anywhere in the world.
‘We’ve a 10 year plan and we know that in the first years it will be a question of reinvesting to produce more hops and then to process some of them instead of having to sell them all fresh but we think hops have a big future in Yorkshire,’ he said.