Thursday 28 February 2013

Changing tastes in hops

Having a side line as a hop history bore it is a cause of some amusement for me when I see fellow beer nerds complaining about boring British hops, and wishing British hop breeders could develop something more like awesome American hops. 

Little do they know that for the best part of the 20th century breeding out American*  flavour was one of the aims of the British hop breeding programme. Recently English hop varieties previous rejected for tasting too American have started being revived in the hope they match modern tastes.

From my research into hop history it would seem the two main goals of hop breeding have been growers calling for more disease resistance, and brewers calling for more bitterness without affecting the taste of their beer. This is quite a different attitude from how many modern brewers and drinkers actively seek out new flavours. Descriptions of new varieties used to be accompanied by notes on what percentage of them you could use before the flavour became unacceptable, and I once spoke to a retired Allied brewer who said he was only allowed to use a maximum of 25% Bramling Cross.

Two of the old varieties currently being revived, Keyworth's Early and Keyworth's Midseason, did have widespread planting at one point, having been rushed in because of their wilt resistance. AH Burgess writing in "Hops" (1964) detailed how they originated and how they were received:

"When progressive Verticillium wilt was threatening the hop-growing industry in parts of Kent, Keyworth, at East Malling Research Station, tested all the ordinary commercial varieties and a large number of Salmon's seedling varieties for their susceptibility to the disease. He found all the ordinary commercial varieties susceptible, but some of the seedlings were 'moderately resistant'.

After further tests had been made on cultural characteristics and brewing values for these resistant varieties, he selected two - OJ47, subsequently released by Salmon, in 1949, 'Keyworth's Early' and OR55 'Keyworth's Midseason'. These were both propagated extensively, under the auspices of the Hop Marketing Board, for planting by growers whose gardens were infected with the disease."

They were descended from a New Mexican wild hop that had been fertilised by "open pollination"

Now being grown again as part of Charles Faram's Hop Development Programme I've recently seen their flavour described as follows:

Keyworth's Early: Lemon, grapefruit

Keyworth's Midseason: Citrus, blackcurrant

These are the sort of flavours associated with modern American varieties and popular with many drinkers today.

They were of a different opinion the first time round. Keyworth's Early was unpopular with brewers "on account of its strong, unpleasant aroma" and farmers didn't like it as it had a marked susceptibility to downy mildew and mould. Keyworth's Midseason fared better, cultivation reaching 573 acres in 1954 but "since then other, more acceptable, wilt-tolerant varieties have been introduced and it is now going out of cultivation."

After their rapid appearance a rapid decline followed. It will be interesting to see how they fare this time.

*I've also heard the word "Manitoban" used, after the Canadian province the wild male hop was used to start the British hop breeding programme came from. And of course "Catty" as some of these hops can smell a bit like cat piss.


  1. 'Catty", of course, is the aroma associated with elderflowers (and a bag of elderflowers left in a room really WILL smell catty, I can tell you from experience), Sauvignon Blanc grapes, gooseberries and - Nelson Sauvin hops. Doubtless someone has identified the chemical responsible ...

  2. Very interesting, was looking info on Keyworth's Early as I have that hop in the freezer. I will put it on my single hop -list, if I get to brew it this summer I'll make it a golden ale hop burst.

  3. Rother Valley Brewing company have just released an ale brewed using only Keyworth Hops grown locally at Chris Nicholls hop farm in Sandhurst, Kent. If you want to sample a drop Anchored in Worthing Micropub has a cask available from today (3/12/2015) as I am sure do a few other pubs.