British Hops – Use them or lose them?

October’s Industry Insider article in CAMRA’s ‘What’s Brewing’ newspaper is brought to us by hop farmer Ali Capper, and it’s discussing the state of the British hop growing industry.  You might say that the content is a rallying call to British brewers “…celebrate the beers that British hops produce to help stop the decline of the British hop growing industry“.  This blog post is a layman’s response to what is unquestionably a complex situation that the British hop industry finds itself in.  Having said that, I’m British, I love beer and brew beer at home so I do have an opinion, albeit a rather ‘write as you think’ kind of approach.

Threats to the industry:

  • EU trade rules and the resulting uneven playing ground due to the different levels of government support hop growing nations receive.
  • The domination of lager sales in global and UK markets.
  • High Alpha New World hop varieties.

Strengths of the British industry:

  • A growing number of British breweries.
  • Resurgence in brewing full flavoured beers.
  • The importance of provenance.
  • 20 British hop varieties to choose from (inc. High AA hops like Phoenix, Pilgrim, Target & Admiral).
  • Environmental efficiencies of production e.g. development of disease resistant hop strains.
  • Export.  American brewers brewing American style beers using British hops.
  • Development of new hop varieties, notably Endeavour.
  • Perhaps most importantly of all, the National Hop Association has re-branded itself to make new ground in the export market.  The British Hop Association will be championing British hops through partnership working with hop merchants, as well as a marketing campaign to gain the attentions of brewers who may not currently buy British.

The information above is paraphrased from the What’s Brewing article, but I do have a few thoughts to add:

As a homebrewer I use very small quantities of hops relative to the commercial brewers, but am I naive in thinking my actions as a homebrewer have no impact on the British hop industry?  I brew beer made predominantly with the New World hops that Ali talks about.  American and New Zealand hops have featured heavily in my recent beers and while my spending power is unlikely to directly affect the industry, maybe I/we do so as part of the larger network of British homebrewers?

More importantly, commercial brewers currently brewing beers with hops that boast a large carbon footprint, need the confidence to brew with British hops, this is their livelihood after all.  Established recipes and loyal customer bases will make this a difficult transition, but there is nothing to say that brewers shouldn’t / couldn’t do both to meet demands?  Also, I think from a personal point-of-view I would hate to see some breweries change beyond all recognition, I can think of several that provide excellent American style beer as well as much needed CHOICE, which is what most consumers love.

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Looking in from the outside on the commercial industry, it looks to me as if there is serious competition for New World hops.  As this becomes more competitive some brewers are either unable to brew certain beers from their existing range, or they are having to adapt and substitute or blend hops to get as close as possible to what their customers will expect to taste.  I’m told that the NZ Riwaka variety is no longer exported due to its popularity?  I’m guessing this is an example of a government or an industry body taking steps to protect the interests of domestic brewers? It would be a disaster to think that a New Zealander or a visitor to the country couldn’t drink a beer brewed with their home-grown hop varieties.  It would be a defining moment for our domestic industry if a British hop variety was to do the same!

Finally, consumer attitudes need to be trained and awareness raised to enable an informed choice to support British beer brewed with British hops. But lets not forget those breweries abroad who are doing the same.

Ali Capper and Co. are developing their campaign to promote British hops.  Follow their progress on Twitter @BritishHops and for news of their website which is due to launch late autumn 2012.

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