Fields of gold: celebrating British barley and hops

Talk to a customer about wine and you can bet the topics of grapes and vineyards aren’t too far behind. Have a similar conversation about beer, and the natural ingredients that go into a brew, or the rolling British countryside they’re grown in, might be a bit slower to come up – if they do at all.

The microbrewing revolution may have changed that a bit for hops – but it’s frequently the in-your-face New World varieties that get all the attention, while English varieties take a back seat.

Grain merchant Robin Appel, who owns Warminster Maltings in Wiltshire, thinks it’s time things changed, certainly as far as malted barley goes.

“Brewers don’t talk about it nearly enough,” he says, “ and it is a damned good ingredient, full of antioxidants and everything else. It’s a tragedy.”

The problem, says Appel, is that most farmers are interested in low- cost varieties with high yields, rather than producing the best barley for brewers to make beer. More efficient varieties come on to the market every two to three years, but there’s little identity built up behind varieties in their own right as there is with grapes in wine.

“If you look at the New World wine producers they crushed the French by naming grape varieties,” argues Appel. “Wouldn’t it be helpful if every time you went into a pub you had a list naming the varieties of hops and barley in the beers?

“If you ask the person in the street what they’re most interested in about their food it’s what the ingredients are and where they come from.”

Brewers tend to buy – and name in malt bills – the style of malts used rather than the varieties – heavily- kilned chocolate malt for dark beer, crystal malt for sweeter flavours, pale for bitters and golden or blonde beers.

But there is one barley variety which goes against the grain, so to speak, and that’s Maris Otter.

Bred in the 1960s, it’s since proved itself the quintessential variety for brewing beer. “We’ve done tests against a range of other varieties and quite simply it is the one whose flavour profile most closely matches that of British beer,” says Appel.

As such, it’s the favoured variety of many discerning British breweries – and it will even have a beer festival dedicated to brews made from the variety to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.

British hop varieties have been in the shadow of the more intense aromas and flavours of imports from the US and New Zealand, but Ali Capper of the British Hop Association, who farms hops on the Herefordshire/Worcestershire border, thinks things are beginning to change.

Marris Otter is the quintessential British beer barley

“The next new trend in the US is session beer and British hops are more suited to that style because the terroir of our growing regions produces more delicate but complex flavours. We’ve doubled exports to the US in the past three years.”

Capper thinks more smaller British brewers are starting to realise the beauty of home-grown hops over those from the New World.

“There are 20 varieties of British hops and a lot of brewers – both bigger ones and smaller ones – are looking at the whole range that’s on offer,” she says. “They still want flavour but they don’t necessarily want the intensity.”

Regional and local producers of long standing have used the core British hop varieties to shape their traditional ales for years and some are starting to push the boundaries.

Marston’s has included beers made with Endeavour and East Kent Goldings in its seasonal line-up of Single Hop beers, while Tesco is to release a single-hopped Goldings ale under the Home of Hops brand, produced by Shepherd Neame, in January.

The chain will be the first retailer to use the British Hop Association’s “brewed with British hops” logo, launched in 2013 and adopted by a number of brewers for their labels.

Hook Norton managing director James Clarke says: “As consumers become more discerning, helping to tell them where ingredients are from is increasingly important. There are a lot of breweries in the UK now, with lots of very good beers, but there is so much more we can do to inform beer drinkers of what is in the beer.”

The list of UK hop varieties – essentially the seasoning in beer – includes the likes of Target and Admiral, which provide bitterness, spice-led Challenger, Northdown and Bramling Cross, and the floral Fuggle, Progress and Sovereign.

The American variety Cascade is also being planted in the UK – as well as in New Zealand and Germany – but leading to different styles, much as the different terroir of the Loire produces a Sauvignon Blanc grape with character distinct from that of New Zealand.

“The US Cascade is much higher on citrus notes while the UK one is more gentle and complex,” says Capper.

Breeding programmes are also leading to new hop varieties, such as Olicana, developed by hop merchant Charles Faram with Yorkshire micro Ilkley and test-brewed for the first time this year. It gives the citrus characteristic of a US hop such as Cascade but in a home-grown product.

“An important element of US craft brewing has been local sourcing and that was an element that went a bit missing when the trend came to the UK,” says Capper. “Brewers are listening a lot more now.”

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