The Politics of Hops

Buy British Tea poster.

There’s been a flurry of discussion this week around the impact of last year’s EU referendum on British beer, and what might be yet to come, which has given us a new angle on the old schism.

First, there was this piece in the Guardian in which various figures in UK craft brewing expressed concerns about the supply of equipment and material in a post-referendum world:

‘Everybody’s noticed it and it’s to be expected because you’re importing hops from places like the US and Europe,’ said Andrew Paterson, head brewer at Dark Star Brewing in West Sussex. ‘It’s also the case for steel tanks, kegs, yeast manufactured in Holland, anything that’s imported. We’re not going to compromise on quality so it’s an ongoing cost.’

This isn’t the first article along these lines that’s appeared since last June and this response from our neighbourhood Euro-sceptic is a good summary of the reaction from conservatives (small c):

That same argument was made at greater length by veteran beer writer Roger Protz (disclosure: he’s always been very helpful with our research and we owe him many pints) in a letter to the Guardian yesterday:

The notion that British beer drinkers should have to pay higher prices as a result of rising costs of imported grain and hops is easily countered by suggesting brewers buy home-grown ingredients. It’s absurd to import grain when it’s widely acknowledged that maritime barley – as grown in Norfolk and Suffolk – delivers the finest flavour and the best sugars for fermentation… English Fuggles and Goldings [hops] are prized throughout the world for their distinctive aromas and flavours of pepper, spice, pine and orange. Is he unaware of such new English varieties as Endeavour and Jester developed in recent years that offer more of the rich citrus notes demanded by many craft brewers?

Of course he’s right — Britain does have great brewing ingredients and if hop and malt imports ceased outright tomorrow, life would go on. And, in fact, we would also like to see British brewers exploring British ingredients with fresh eyes and a bit of imagination.

But here’s the thing: it should be a choice, not an unintended consequence. Fuggles cannot adequately replace Citra or Simcoe, and using English ingredients purely out of grim necessity would be, as the Beer Nut suggested, a rather depressing compromise. Woolton Pie in beer form.

At the root of the Buy British school of thought it seems to us there are a couple of wrongheaded thoughts. First, we think some people believe the popularity of pale, hoppy American-influenced beers threatens the very existence of traditional English bitter — that they are the thin end of a wedge which will inevitably lead to total domination. It’s true that some brewers are producing proportionally less bitter and more hoppy golden ale than they used to but it feels to us like a balance, not a battle. If trad bitter really starts to look endangered, trust us, we’ll join you on the barricades, but who can seriously say they struggle to get a pint of something brown and old-school in Britain in 2017? Bitter and best bitter still occupy at least eight of the ten pumps at our local Wetherspoon, for example.

Secondly, there’s the idea that people ought to like beers other than the ones they currently profess to enjoy and that, with some pressure and education, they’ll learn to love the hops they’re with rather than yearning be with the hops they love.

There might be some room to bring people round to old-school flavours — to drink Harvey’s Sussex Best is to love it, after all– but we’ve got no doubt that there are plenty of beer drinkers out there who, if the only option was session bitter brewed with Fuggles or Goldings, would just switch to lager, or gin, or, blimey, anything else. They are interested in beer,  they have tried traditional bitter, and they just don’t like it. Seriously. Honestly. It isn’t a pose.

And there are quite a few brewers who probably feel the similar — who would rather give up altogether than brew with only UK hops. Can you imagine a chef specialising in Asian cuisine whose supply of coriander and ginger dried up getting excited at the prospect of going back to making steak and kidney pies?

You might say, ‘Fine, good riddance, I like steak and kidney pie, I’m alright, Jack,’ but we’ll be left with a less diverse, less healthy beer culture. Much as we love to wallow in the 1970s and 1980s in our research, we don’t want to restore that backup and lose 30 years of work, thanks very much.

Of course we don’t know how serious a worry this really is. Perhaps things will settle down and the C-hops will keep coming after all, or perhaps things will go off the rails altogether in which case we’ll have bigger things to worry about. Frankly, it’s hard to get a read at the moment because any discussion about the impact of the referendum, however thoughtful, is taken to be campaign propaganda by one side or the other and drowned out by yelling.

But while we wait for the dust to settle we’re going to drink as much as Oakham Citra as we can get hold of.

17 thoughts on “The Politics of Hops”

  1. Exchange rates fluctuate all the time. It’s only a few years ago that the pound was at a similar level against the dollar as it is now. And, before the referendum, many people (sometimes the same ones who are moaning now) were saying that the pound was overvalued.

    As you suggest yourselves, a lot of the complaints are basically a reaction to the referendum result, not a studied analysis.

    And, even in the hoppiest New World Pale Ale, what proportion of the total selling price do hops make up? 5%, maybe. And, if the exchange rate has worsened by 20%, that’s 1% on the total price, which honestly is neither here nor there.

    1. The only time sterling has been anywhere near this level is 1984 during the sterling crisis, it didn’t even get down this far in Black Wednesday in 1992. Regardless of anything else that’s happened with Brexit, the decline of our currency this last year stands out as one of the big events in sterling’s history and shouldn’t be played down.

      Getting back to beer, from a home brew perspective for 20 litres I’d look at 5kg of grain for £8 (if bought by the kg), yeast £3.50 (I’ll assume I make two brews out of it) and then 4oogr of hops, which last year might have been 4 x £4 and this year could be as high as 4 x £7.50. So from an ingredient perspective we’re up a total cost of £27.50 (hops 58%) to £41.50 (hops at 72%), or 75p a bottle up to a quid, so a big hop driven jump up on the hoppy stuff. Obviously commercial costs will be a different (although I assume similar ratios between them) and that production cost is just a part of the overall retail cost of packaging, distributing, tax and various parties to the chain’s profits. I’d

      As someone who mainly drinks home brew though I definitely feel it.

  2. A question I have asked elsewhere and never been given a reply to: is it possible to grow US and NZ hops in the British climate? If so, presumably it would be profitable to do so here, wouldn’t it?

    1. My neighbour, a hop grower says it’s possible, but Cascade especially is ‘fussy’. However I think Redsells in North Kent are growing them.

        1. It doesn’t matter. Varietals taste different depending on where they’re grown. Like grapes, hops have terroir. Cascade grown in Lancashire will taste different to Cascade in Yakima, or New Zealand.

          1. we grow cascade, centennial and chinook commercially here in Herefordshire. Citra, Simcoe, Mosaic and Amarillo are all proprietary varieties and so can’t be grown outside the Pacific NorthWest.

            As Joe points out though, the flavour of them is different due to different geography.

  3. Currencies do fluctuate, but they rarely devalue rapidly as the pound has this time. Devaluations of this magnitude are like going out to the pub in shirt sleeves on a warm summer evening, but stumbling out at closing time in a blizzard at -10C. Never mind the cause, this radically affects business models and makes last year’s cost projections meaningless. And as I pointed out on Twitter, the devaluation will also force up the price of homegrown crops, because the lower pound means things like wheat and barley are now more attractively priced for foreign buyers, thus creating a shortage at home. Buying British won’t protect us. Of course, if the pound stabilises roughly where it is now, and intrinsic costs remain more or less the same, the inflation caused by the devaluation will fade, and the headline rate will go back to where it was, but of course everything will stay at the higher price.

  4. I’ll wade in, if I may…
    Tony Redsell grew a trial of Cascade for us from (I think) 2006 and we started using them in our beers from 2009 (Canterbury Jack), we’ve used them in various beer since: Late Red; Brilliant Ale etc. UK Cascade are great, but they’re certainly not US Cascade (we use those too) and nowhere near Australian Cascade and so forth.

    My point on the image problem (quoted above) is this…
    Many ‘craft’ brewers – quite understandably – want to differentiate themselves from traditional UK brewers and mega-brews. Using foreign hops is one of the best ways to do this. I’ve heard many times (from brewers, hop merchants) that you “can’t” get the required characteristics from UK hops that you can get from those grown elsewhere: and that’s true. (There is also a questions mark over quality.)

    However, I’ve had discussions with a certain well respected hop researcher who says that long-forgotten varieties which can be grown commercially in the UK were discounted in the 50s/60s because they didn’t meet the demand for MOR / ‘Fuggleyness’. Back then, no-one wanted these weird citrus fruit and pine characteristics.

    So I think we’re in an interesting situation now whereby, should the worse come to pass and – god forbid – we find the UK bereft of foreign hops, UK brewers might (just might) be forced to work with farmers to develop varieties that deliver what they demand – not poor imitations of Simcoe, but the forgotten varieties that can deliver the necessary punch. But as stated in the blog, that’s a sad situation to be in.

    My point (yes, I am getting to one…) is that it would be great for more British brewers/merchants to get behind British hops more, as it’s in everyone’s interests: environmentally; economically etc. But it’s not happening as foreign hops (particularly US) are a calling card for ‘craft’ and UK hops necessarily belong to the old school British brewers (micros or regionals).

    (Please excuse the sweeping generalisations about craft vs regional/micros, I think the point stands, but I know there are many fine craft brewers using English hops, but arguably not enough to sustain the industry at present.)

    1. I got all excited when I saw Endeavour hops with their citrus flavour and 7/10 strength rating. I thought they might be a good substitute for the citrusy new world stuff so bought a load for an IPA. All I can say is if they’re 7/10 strength citrus flavours, some of the new world hops I’ve used previously 15/10 or 20/10.

      I think lots of folk would be interested to try these long forgotten varieties as using something new (or reborn) is one of the big drivers of the current brewing scene. I wonder what the turnaround is to get these forgotten varieties (assuming they’re stored away somewhere) back in the fields and into beer on a large(ish) scale.

    1. Eh? Thought it was the hot summers driving the oils in a different direction. Like Polaris in Germany, with its (somewhat) hotter summers than in Blighty.

      1. One example, fungicide treatment.

        Is polaris grown in the UK? Latest research shows that more oils in the beer do not necessarily mean more aroma intensity btw.

  5. Secondly, there’s the idea that people ought to like beers other than the ones they currently profess to enjoy and that, with some pressure and education, they’ll learn to love the hops they’re with rather than yearning be with the hops they love.

    Heavens above! That can’t be right – that’d be like suggesting people don’t really like lager and, once they’ve had a pint of Pride, they’ll be signing up to CAMRA quicker than you can say “Wetherspoons vouchers”.

  6. “…who can seriously say they struggle to get a pint of something brown and old-school in Britain in 2017?” But it’s nearly always the same dreary half-dozen or so that you get everywhere else – Doom Bar, London Pride, GK IPA and the like. If you don’t like beer that tastes of grapefruit, that’s what you are expected to drink. Presumably at least some of the newer breweries do produce beers that are the equivalents of Harvey’s Best, Batham’s Bitter or Boltmaker, but in my experience, pubs seem reluctant to stock them.

  7. Depressing that this is immediately cast along remain /leave lines btw. Progressive, flavourful beer using international hops isn’t a fad; it’s here to stay and is popular up and down the country. The crowing of old-school brexiteers about folk having to learn to love British hops is misplaced – most already do, in (well-made) bitters, stouts and even IPAs – Beer Nouveau, Moor and Tiny Rebel are just three examples of modern brewers who use British hops well.

  8. For the record, I live in California and am surrounded by citrus IPAS of every sort you can imagine. And damn it….I love English bitter. English grain is the best in the world!

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