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Breeding hops suddenly hip

Peter DarbyThe lead story in the latest issue of All About Beer magazine is titled “Hop Forward: Breeding Tomorrow’s Hops Today.” The current Brew Your Own magazine has an article on “Aroma Hop Breeding.” Earlier this year, Beer Advocate magazine put “The Future of Hops” on its cover.

And yesterday, Tony Magee at Lagunitas tweeted: “Who would u guess 2 be the most important person n US craft brewing? A brewer..? Think again. He’s a Hop grower named Jason Perrault! Word.”

Perrault is the face of Hop Breeding Company, which owns the patent on popular hop varieties such as Citra, Simcoe and the hop-to-be-named-later-currently-known-as-369.

But change is ongoing outside the United States as well (and Brian Yaeger’s story in AABM includes that). Breeders, growers, brokers who sell hops and brewers are having conversations they didn’t before. Sometimes even consumers. “As a breeder and a grower it is fun to talk to drinkers about varieties,” Perrault said last week, following with a story about sitting in a bar and hearing a customer ask the bartender if he had any beer brewed with Simcoe hops.

So meet Peter Darby, who breeds hops in England. That’s him at the top. When the hop breeding program that operated at Wye College for 100 years (1906-2006) closed the National Hop Association of England set up Wye Hops, just outside of Canterbury. There he continues the work started by E.S. Salmon, then carried on by Ray Neve (starting in 1953) and himself (1984).

Heirloom hops kept at Wye HopsWye Hops is actually located on China Farm, one of several operated by Tony Redsell, probably England’s best known hop grower.

Thus shortly before harvest began in August both hops in the Wye “library” (some listed on the right) and those being trialed were surrounded by hops that soon would be ready for beer.

On one side of the path a field full of Northdown hops — with Northdown Hill in the distance, as a matter of fact — and on the other a test field with hundreds of crosses, maybe even the next “great hop.”

“On this side consistency,” Darby said, gesturing with his left hand. “On the other diversity.”

He was talking about genetic diversity, but he still sounded a lot like a modern day brewer to me.

‘Tis the hop harvest season

Hop at the Seitz farm in Halltertau

These hops will be headed from Germany to St. Louis soon enough, although not in this form. More about that below.

Last month Tony Redsell, who is now in the midst of his 63rd hop harvest, interrupted our conversation to answer a phone call. He patiently and quickly explained the basics of hop harvest, both past and present. “We’re coming to the silly season,” he explained after he hung up. “Every editor thinks, let’s have an article on hops. ‘Hopping down in Kent.'”

Redsell is one of England’s best and best known hop farmers, although hops cover just 200 of the 3,000 acres that make up his various farms in Kent, southeast of London. “I’m not known internationally for my cherries,” he said, laughing. He might have added they are consider some of the best in Kent, also known at “The Garden of England.”

Not everybody agrees how romantic it was for Londoners to “hop on down to Kent” each year to live in huts and pick hops until their hands were black with resin. But it makes a nice story and hops are a great visual, including video.

It makes me realize “Romancing the Hop” might make an even better title for a book than “For the Love of Hops.” My Twitter feed is littered with news about harvest (or “fresh hop” or “wet hop”) beers right now – like this. And the stories aren’t just out of traditional hop growing areas. Jeff Alworth did a nice job of summarizing several yesterday. Throw San Diego to the mix, then consider Jeff’s conclusions.

It’s great fun and exciting. Those hops at the top will be pelletized before they are shipped to St. Louis, but freshly cut (thus “wet”) hops will soon by on the way from Yakima. Next week brewers in several small St. Louis brewers will toss them into kettles, producing beers for the Fresh Hop Beer Festival Oct. 22 at Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood.

Just to be clear, I marked the date on our calendar more than two months ago. We plan to be there, but I’m just as excited about finding out what the Urban Chestnut Brewing beers made with Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops from the Seitz farm outside of Wolnzach taste like.

Before winemakers co-opted the word terroir it meant something more general. Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle, Pierre Larousse’s nineteenth-century French dictionary, defines terroir as “the earth considered from the point of view of agriculture.” It describes le goût de terroir as “the flavor or odor of certain locales that are given to its products, particularly with wine.”

Hops bound for Urban Chestnut BrewingNot a month ago Florian Seitz led me up hills and under hop trellises on his family’s farm. His great grandfather first planted hops on it in 1869, and it was a farm even before that. As well as hops they grow corn, wheat and other cash crops, and trees (some become chips, others wood for logs). Florian took over the farm in 2008, but his father still walks the fields regularly and takes charge of drying the hops during harvest.

I’d be a liar if I suggested that in a blind tasting I could say, “This Mittelfrüh came from land I walked on and that one didn’t.” (Heck, Redsell’s East Kent Goldings regularly medal in the Annual Hop Awards and he’ll admit he can’t always tell the difference between his Goldings and those of a neighbor.) But to me it makes a difference that I walked through the hop yards and that the wood beams in the drying barn were hand-crafted in 1904.

I first met Seitz last March in St. Louis. Representatives of the association of German Hop Growers visited Urban Chestnut Brewing after attending the Craft Brewers Conference in San Francisco, Seitz included. It was a good excuse for UCB to throw its first festival, called Hopfenfest. At the time, UCB co-founder and brewer Florian Kuplent contracted to buy Mittelfrüh from Seitz.

Most of those will arrive as pellets, but Seitz is also be shipping a relatively small bale of cones (second photo). “As a grower you are proud when you see what happens with your hops, when the product made from your product is good,” Seitz said.

“For the brewers it is good to see where your products are grown,” he said.

Likewise for us drinkers.


Thanks to Florian Seitz for sending the fresh photos.

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