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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