The Arrival of Aroma

Humulus Lupulus illustration.

The fundamental shift in thinking around hops which took place at some point after the 1970s was reflected in a mid-nineties UK industry competition.

First run in 1996, ‘The Beauty of Hops’ was sponsored and organised by the National Hop Association (now the British Hop Association), Horticulture Research International (HRI) and SIBA.

In its inaugural year, the event took place at the White Horse, Parson’s Green, then run by Mark Dorber, and reflects a strain of thought you might call ‘Franklinism’:

The aim behind the Awards was an attempt to stimulate thought about varietal brewing, to  steal some of the clothes of oenologists and increase understanding of the potentials of individual hops in the same way that grape varieties are assessed and understood. [The Grist, May/June 1996, ed. Alastair Hook]

It seems amazing, in an age when Marks & Spencer has a single-hop beer range, to think that this approach needed prompting as recently as 18 years ago.

Four hop varieties were used in the competition: Phoenix, Progress, Target, and the then-brand-new First Gold. The winners in each hop category were, respectively, Ballards with Nyewood Gold; Rooster’s (Sean Franklin) with Bullseye; and Hop Back with Thunderstorm. The First Gold competition was informal and no winner was announced.

The competition was repeated the following year, this time at Wolverhampton & Dudley brewery, and with a new category open to regional/family brewers: Aromatic Cask Ales.

The task brewers they were set was ‘to brew a beer with any grist of English grown hops — Max ABV 5%’. The gold medal winners were Hardy & Hanson of Nottinghamshire with Guzzling Goose, described by a correspondent for The Grist (Mar/Apr 1997, ed. Peter Haydon):

Here was a beer that was balanced, not too powerfully bitter, which demonstrated a teamwork between the hop aroma and the hop flavour, so that the former gave you a reasonable indication of what the latter was going to provide.

In second place, Wolverhampton & Dudley’s White Rabbit ‘painted a landscape of fruits and spices’.

The winners in other categories were Crouch Vale First Gold (single hop cask), Rooster’s Jerry (aromatic lager), and Freeminer Trafalgar (single hop bottle).

The most entertaining thing about The Grist article, however, is the criticism directed at brewers who didn’t rise to the challenge:

The judges of the aromatic cask ales… were a little disappointed with the standard of the ale offered up to taste. The beers fell into four categories. Oxidised (by far the largest), full of off flavours (buckets of diacetyl and acetone), good beers but either of so malty a character or so lacking in hop character that one was left wondering why they had been entered in a hop competition, or good beers that filled the remit… 

One beer was so bad it prompted Hop Back’s John Gilbert to remark, disturbingly, that it reminded him of his ‘Granny’s pants’, while another wasn’t fit to wash his dog in.

There’s a sense that the regional brewers didn’t understand how the rules of the game were changing — that ‘hoppy’ was gaining a new, alternate meaning that didn’t have much to do with bitterness or Fuggles. In the years that followed these competitions, the gap between them and the ‘micros’ would grow ever wider.

This post was, as you’ll have guessed, based only on a couple of old magazine articles. If you can point us to more detailed information on the Beauty of Hops competitions, or were involved yourself as a competitor or judge, please do comment below.

9 thoughts on “The Arrival of Aroma”

  1. I judged at a couple of these events and very good they were — learnt a lot, remember Sean as one of the judges and how refreshing Yankee was. Still got press releases and results and I wrote a couple of things about them at the time. One of the best persons to talk to about it is Rupert Ponsonby, who organised it (he was also involved in the Whitbread single varietal beers several years earlier) — his contact details are on the beerwriters website.

  2. Interesting and well put. Not to defend the old regionals such, because for one thing, some of them always made flowery beers with great aroma, but there is a good strain in English bitter’s ancestry which speaks to no aroma at all. No aroma at all. Not all pale ale and bitter had aroma, but it did have a decided bitterness. Dry- or late boil-hopping was always optional, it never defined the style. But I take the point they couldn’t see how the landscape was shifting especially under influence of the new American and hybrid hops. If only they could have spoken more forcibly for their part of the history, but they didn’t know how to do it. They inherited a tradition that was old and had lost its rationale by then.

  3. And now craft brewing has come full circle.
    Rather like the BBB of old which became indistinguishable from each other so many new beers are now over-hopped to within an inch of their lives.
    Too many hops are just as bad as too few and so many new beers are so clumsily made that within a couple of sips my allergies sky-rocket,I start sneezing and turn beetroot-red.
    Along with high prices this hops blunderbuss approach to brewing is preventing the so-called craft beer revolution from ever taking off.
    Funnily enough Hop Back, one of the early pioneers, were also one of the first breweries to understand that a link between old and new beers shouldn’t collapse under the weight of all those hops.

  4. Hey if you old fellas can’t handle the hops then that’s your problem, let us young uns go as hop wild as we want, thank you very much 😉

  5. I can handle the hops alright, I’ve been doing not so duff a job since the early 80’s, when it started. It’s a pity though to see grapefruit and piney beer replace the great pale ales of England which took their aroma from fine English varieties or had no aroma (intentionally) but instead a lingering, satisfying, neutral bitterness. When you know both sides of the coin, you don’t want one rubbed out, that’s all. It’s like Jackson said of early keg beer, there is no problem with it as such except when it replaces the very product it should be an adjunct to, so to speak.

    Gary

    P.S. All meant in good fun chaps.

  6. Its a big tent. There is plenty of room for dark and pale, keg and cask, Old World and New World, ale and lager, cloudy and clear, to all be offered side by side with no judgement or predisposition.
    Let the consumer taste them all and decide for himself which he wants to drink. As RedNev said earlier, CAMRA stands above all for choice.

    Its only when certain people start trying to impose their subjective preferences onto others “keg is unequivocably better than cask”, “cloudy is better than clear” etc. that problems arise.

    1. You are 100% right. But one cannot (surely) ignore the importance of advocacy here. This was Jackson’s MO, wasn’t it. It is the raison d’etre of this excellent blog and all the others. It is needed because the flavour of the day has a way of insinuating itself and once people recover and look to the original choices, they may find them severely reduced. B&B are publicizing the issues and their history and this will assist to keep important corners of the tent from folding..

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