A Visit to the Hop Gardens
It seems a distant memory now, but back in September we were invited to Ian Strang’s hop farm on the
Scotney Estate in Lamberhurst. Ian has been a tenant farmer in this sprawling National Trust estate for several years now. As well as some arable and livestock he also grows some 60 acres of hops.
On arrival at the Oast, which is a magnificent 4 kiln roundel, we were met by David the Oastman/Drier/Presser. “Sorry, Ian’s had to pop out to repair a puncture on one of the picking trailers” David informed us. “Shouldn’t be long”. Now with my extensive experience of hopping I knew that “shouldn’t be long” could be 5 minutes or 45! No matter, we thought, so David began our tour of the oast house, working the process backwards as we went in true hop pickers style! Starting at the press, where the dried hops are put into bales so that they can be sent to the merchants for further processing, either to be broken down into smaller manageable packs for us Brewers or isomerised into a liquid for use in many other industrial and pharmaceutical applications.
Onwards, up to the cooling floor of the oast, via a very steep wooden staircase. Here, the hops are allowed to cool after being taken out of the kilns before being pressed. The floor, beams and walls have a yellowish green hue to them from years of use and decades of sticky hop resin coat the floor. The heady aroma of hops drying is even more apparent; it is a smell that still excites me every time I visit a working hop farm. Looking out of the North East window you have a spectacular view of the Teise Valley, the hop gardens and, not far in the distance, the village of Goudhurst, sitting like a citadel on the hill.
Now, it is over to the kilns themselves and as David opens the door on Roundel 3, you suddenly are hit by a massive wall of heat blasting up through the drying hops from the oil fired burners some 8 feet below the floor of the Kiln. David climbs into the hops (which are very evenly loaded to about 3ft deep) and shuffles round checking here and there for remaining moisture in the cones and gauging how much longer they will need to dry before they’re ready. I took a sample myself and gave my opinion. “About another hour or so?”, I said, hoping in my limited experience that I may be close. “Yes, maybe 90 minutes”, David replied. How very pleased with myself I was! At this point, Ian finally comes back from the tractor repair and continues our tour whilst David gets back to prepping bales for the next load to be pressed. Ian is very passionate about his farm, emphasised by the acceptance of how much hard work it is to process so many hops in such an old building. This is very clear when most hop farms now have modern, purpose built kilns that can accommodate all 4 of Ian’s kilns in 1. It is a real step back in time with this oast house being only one of two that I know of that still use the original buildings as they were designed for some 175 years ago, as opposed to being converted to private dwellings or offices.
We move out to the gantry where the hops come off the end of the picking machine to be bagged into pokes (hessian sacks that have holes to prevent the hops getting too warm) before loading into the kilns. This bagging off area is the same height as the drying floor for ease of moving the green hops inside.
We then look at the noisy, massive hop picking machine. It is some 60ft long with pulleys, fans, motors and belts and conveyors all with a specific job designed to strip the hop cones from the bines and remove as much leaf and twigs in order to leave a clean hop cone at the end of it. Ian’s brother
explains that it is in fact two machines; mostly a Bruff along with bits cobbled together over the years in Heath Robinson style in order to make it more efficient . The oldest part of the machine is some 60 years old.
Ian then takes us away from the noise of the picking shed to the hop gardens, a short walk down the hill. The unpicked hops tower above us 12 to 16ft. His commercial varieties include Kent Cob (a Golding cultivar), WGV, Target, and one of my all time favourites, Bramling Cross. We walk through the garden of Target to several rows of Ian’s trial hops. Now here is where things get exciting!!
For the past couple of years, Ian has selected random hops that were found growing amongst the commercial ones. They stood out as being not of the same, not only for aroma, but also shape and size. Growing new varieties is very much trial and error and it can take years for one to come to the fore which is not only commercially viable, but also one that brewers want to use. Ian has taken a risk with these 7 very different hops by laying over land, which could have been used for known hops, in the hope that at least one will be worth growing more of. As it stands we do not know if these hops are old varieties that managed to hold on, or simply a wild seedling. Ian had had some interest from other breweries but I think my enthusiasm was quite apparent and so offered us enough of each hop to do a full brew with. They are simply named as variety 1 to 7 and so over the next few months will be incorporated in our Single Hop series of beers. The first one we have brewed with is number 7. It is probably one of the most unique hops I have ever used. Fresh and on the bine it had a huge aroma of coconut. Now it’s in the beer, this flavour of coconut is still there to some, but we have other notes of seville orange, coarse marmalade, hazelnut or even almond. AVAILABLE IN CASK, MINI-CASK AND BOTTLE THIS WEEK so we would really like your opinion as well to feed back to Ian.
We cannot thank Ian, David and all the other hoppers enough for our afternoon’s visit. We hope we will do Ian proud with the trial hops he gave us and look forward to go ‘Opping again next year.