Thursday, 21 January 2010

Where the wild hops grow

A sunny day, quiet. Let’s go for a walk. The birds chatter, the breeze rustles, the barley moves in a dance across the field, an old car chugs past, the driver smiles. Just a little further up, that’s where the wild hops grow.

Jade green leaves; perfect clusters of gold; thick, rubbery branches; berries behind ready to stain fingers purple. The hops; picked and pressed between the fingers they leave their resin, sticking with the soft, giving skin; fragrant with lemon pith, herbs, wood, grass.

What are they like?

Make a beer just for them. Something light, pale. Something to show off whatever it is, however it’ll taste. Will it be bitter, will it be aromatic? Will it be subtle or not, high alpha or not? Will it be citrusy or earthy, fruity or spicy? There’s no way to know. Not until it’s brewed, not until you can drink it.

It’s the unknown, that’s what’s exciting. There’s no control; it’s leaving it to that secret wild unknown to change the brew, to give its unique quality, to make it; a magic ingredient.

That’s the Romance of it. Not knowing what you will get. A blind date. A shut-your-eyes-and-hold-out-your-hands, I’ve got a surprise. It’s crafted but the result is a lottery and even the maker has no idea. Brew the beer, use the hops, wait.

When it’s ready you get the first taste. It’s pale and alive, the aroma is subtle but dig deeper and there’s strawberries, barley, a light floral quality. Taste it. Sweet, crisp, refreshing, a little dryness at the end. The hops nudge by, not big, not abrasive, but gentle. It’s saying ‘come find me’, it’s saying ‘come get me’. It’s so drinkable; chase it around the glass because there’s a hidden mystery to it. The hops seem illusive but they are there, playful. ‘Come get me’, they say.

Barry Bit the Bullet and made a Münsterlander Wild-Hopped Ale (with the addition of some Hallertauer Perle, just in case – I campaigned for 100% wild, but what do I know, I was just wooed by the idea of the unknown!). From the moment I knew about it I wanted to try it. I felt the Romance of it, the possibilities of the unknown. Thankfully, and very gratefully, Barry sent some over and I’ve now tried it. It certainly Romanced me!


  1. Have always liked wild (or green) hop beers, there was a few Brit breweries making them at one stage but it seems to have tailed back, over here in Somerset Cotleigh do their Harvest beer in September, while Skinners used to do one, not so sure now. Described to me once as difference between using dried and fresh herbs in your cooking.

  2. Very nice, Mark, you captured the essence of my thought processes there, and although the idyllic setting you describe is far better than the reality I experienced, it's close enough to what my son and I did while on the hop hunt. Cycling along the river, along country roads, checking the places I thought I had seen hops growing the previous year to no avail, then happening across a patch of them on the return journey.

    Although I was tempted to use 100% wild hops, I'm glad I didn't as I think they are so subtle, there wouldn't have been enough to get a reasonable bittering, hence using a small amount of Perle for quantifiable bittering, and keeping the wild ones for flavour and aroma.

    Glad you enjoyed it! :)

  3. I picked some wild hops this year but bottled out of using them because they smelled like garlic.

  4. ATJ, interesting that it's similar to dried vs fresh herbs... in that case, why don't more brewers make fresh hop? I suppose it's availablity.

    Barry, thanks! I did fictionalise it a little, hope you don't mind!! Next year just pick more hops and do a 100% wild beer :)

    Ed, for me that would've been a reason to use them!

  5. Well done Barry :), could this be a new angle for beer bloggers?

  6. Mark it’s the availability — harvest time is in September and the majority of hops are dried. I recall a brewer telling me he had to take a van down to Kent to pick them up and then use them within 24 hours. Once found some wild hops on holiday in North Wales and handed them to RCH’s head brewer a week later, saying maybe you can doing something with them…his face was a picture as I handed over these rotten things. You should go on a hop walk next September.

  7. Mark, for you, I'll do a 100% wild batch this year. ;)

    Maybe I'll see if I can time it to use the hops green (I air dried the ones used in the Muensterlander).

  8. Every year for the past few years, I dry-hopped a few casks of my year-round golden ale 'Sunlight' with a handful of wild ones growing all the way up here on Wirral, Merseyside (we called it Betwixt 'BeWilder').

    My profile pic is me holding some of the freshly picked wild hops.

    I think the received wisdom is that cultivated hops have been bred for bitterness, so wild ones would be low in alpha acid, but mine were really quite bitter, even though I was only using them to dry-hop the beer. The flavours were just weird - not fruity/hoppy, citrus etc, but herbal, dry, vegetal & minty - very interesting.

    We have only ever managed to pick a few hundred grams, but I'd like to do a whole homebrew-scale brew just to see what it would taste like.

    Last year we went back to the same secret location only to find out that at some point in the Summer a BT engineer had decided to chop the bines off at the ankles in order to clear his way to get up the telegraph pole, so no hops for us!

    As to Green Hop beers, another cool thing - I think Wadworth's do/did one, and there's an annual festival at The Talbot pub / Teme Valley Brewery, Knightwick hold an annual Green Hop Fest (they're surrounded by hopyards that the family used to tend.

    Titanic did a special bottled green hop beer for Morrison's this year.

    Last September Kilverts in Hay On Wye held a green hop fest too - in conjunction with Breconshire Brewery, including beers from them, Malvern Hills, Teme Valley, Golden Valley & perhaps Wye Valley (basically any 'valley' brewery!)

  9. Adrian, I tried to organise some hop picking in Kent last September (a little blogger event, jumping on the train down from London, etc), but left it too late and it fell through. I will make sure I get it arranged this year and invite people down to Kent for the day. I'm sure some of the homebrewing bloggers could fill their pockets...

    Barry, wild and green?! You know how to push a beer geek's buttons!

    MicMac, the flavour profile of the wild hops is very interesting and in large quantities could create something quite different, even if they aren't high alpha. And a green hop festival sounds great!

  10. I've still got some of previous year's wild ones in the freezer, so who knows I might get round to brewing with them (+ if we get any this year).

    I've been meaning to got to the Talbot's Green Hop Fest for years - I think MJ wrote about it a while back - sounds a cracking affair & one of very few places where you'll find a good few of these rare brews.