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.
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.