I’ve been invited on plenty of brewery visits over the years, but never before has the invite come with the request: “Please bring wellies and a spade.” This, however, was a field trip in a considerably more literal sense than normal: to the two and a half-acre field right opposite the Hogs Back brewery in Tongham, just outside Farnham in Surrey, to witness – and take part in – a historic event: the first planting of the Farnham White Bine hop variety in its native soil since the last bines were grubbed up 85 years ago.
This is not just, however, a footnote in Farming Today magazine: this is, according to Hogs Back’s chairman, Rupert Thompson, an important step towards increasing the “localism” aspect of the brewery’s products. Once the new hop ground (the proper Surrey name for what elsewhere are called hop gardens or hop yards) is producing a healthy crop, those hops can then be used to flavour the beer being brewed just yards away: Surrey’s own hop variety, grown in Surrey, to produce Surrey beers.
A century and more ago, Surrey was an important hop-growing area, and for a very long time, up to at least 1850, Farnham White Bines were the most favoured hop variety in the land, described as having “a most delicate flavour”. Richard Bradley, Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge, writing in 1729, called Farnham “the first capital Town for Hops in Britain.” Three years earlier, the Reverend John Laurence, in a book called A New System of Agriculture, said: “The noble Plantation of Hops at Farnham where for Regularity and Exactness the appear like Woods and groves cut into Vistaes is a beautiful Sight.” Arthur Young, the agriculturalist, said in 1798 that “they grow very large quantities” of hops around Farnham, and hop grounds were let in the district “from £3 to £9 an acre, which last price is very great.” In the second half of the 19th century, Kentish hops overtook those from Farnham in favour, but Farnham hops were still ranked second in quality after those from East Kent in 1890, and even in 1909, George Clinch could say: “The Farnham hops have long been famous for their excellent quality.”
In 1886, Surrey had 2,937 acres of hop grounds: half the size of the Sussex hop crop and a third that of Hampshire, but more than either Hereford or Worcester. Disease – to which hops in general and Farnham White Bines in particular are prone, especially downy mildew – hammered the Surrey industry, and the county’s own hop disappeared from its homeland in 1929, to be replaced by more disease-resistant varieties. But even in 1959, there were still 1,879 acres of Surrey hop grounds, which made up 9.2% of all the land then given to hop cultivation in Britain. The collapse of the industry since that time is encapsulated in one telling statistic: the planting of hop bines at Tongham this week doubled the number of existing hop grounds in Surrey.
Before the planting on Monday, Rupert Thompson said: “It will be wonderful to look out from the brewery and see the raw materials we use growing in the next-door field – that’s local! That is part of what makes the craft brewing revival so exciting.” Right now all you can see is a muddy field with, if you look carefully, row after row of angled pieces of metal sticking a few inches out of the ground, all carefully spaced one foot apart. Each marks where a hop plant was planted by a small but enthusiastic squad of helpers, including me. But in a few weeks, once the hops start to grow, the trellising will be going in: and a couple of months after that, the field should be a magnificent sight: two thousand or so hopbines (slightly fewer than half Farnhams, the rest the American variety Cascade), leafy and green, climbing 15 feet or more into the Surrey sky.
It felt good to be part of this literally ground-breaking operation, even if my own contribution consisted of not much more than digging a couple of dozen holes, dropping one hop plant into each hole and filling the hole back up with the rich, loamy, slightly flinty soil (indicating chalk below) that historically made the area so popular with hop growers.
I won’t go deeply into the history of the Farnham White Bine, since Ed Wray has done an excellent job of covering that subject here and elsewhere, except to say that the variety is, effectively, the grandfather of the Golding hop, probably the best known English hop variety, which sprang from Farnham hops taken to Kent around the middle of the 18th century.
Strictly, the hops that have gone into the ground at Tongham are not the Farnham White Bines that were so popular in the 19th century, the ones developed by Peckham Williams of Badshot Place, Farnham, around 1780, but Mathons, from Herefordshire, which are descended from White Bines taken from Surrey to the West Midlands before Mr Williams got going. But Dr Peter Darby of Wye Hops, probably the greatest expert on hops in the country, who looks after the National Hop Collection on behalf of the British Hop Association and provided the original rootstock for the White Bines I helped plant, was there on Monday and said that Mathons (named for the village of the same name near the Malvern Hills) show the same spectrum of hop oils as Goldings, which pretty much confirms that Mathon, or Mathon White Bine as it was called in the 18th and 19th centuries, is a synonym for Farnham White Bine.
Whatever, the planting of the first new hop garden in the immediate vicinity of Farnham for more than 50 years, on land that grew hops for almost 200 years, is a terrific story to tell, and sell. The Hogs Back brewery is a popular tourist halt with an almost perfect score on TripAdvisor for its brewery tours: 35 “excellents” out of 38 reviews, with the other three being “very good”. Soon visitors will have the hop ground as an additional attraction, and eventually, when they buy beer in the brewery shop, they will be able to feel they are genuinely taking away the taste of Surrey, with beer made from hops grown literally on the brewery doorstep.
Localism, in the context of the British pub, currently pretty much only means the Localism Act of 2011 and its introduction of the idea of “assets of community value”, through which campaigners have been trying to preserve pubs under threat of closure. But could “localism” in its rather older, more internationally understood sense, of local purchasing, sourcing what you consume as locally as possible, have any prospect of influencing the pub customer? The idea of the “locavore”, defined as “a person interested in eating food that is locally produced”, was invented in California just under a decade ago: but California is a place that can pretty much produce all the foodstuffs anyone would wish to eat, unlike rainy, frequently cold Britain, and locally sourced food is much more easily found in Los Angeles than London. However, with initiatives like Hogs Back’s, the “locaboire” – a word I just invented, meaning “a person interested in drinking beer that is locally produced” – may suddenly have a much easier time.
According to Datamonitor earlier this year (talking, admittedly, about the United States), “knowing where a product is from instils a sense of comfort and security for consumers. Origin and localism are strong consumer pulls in craft beer, which comes through in ingredient selection and product marketing, with origin and provenance featuring heavily in the sub-sector’s imagery.” I’m not sure that’s so true in the UK, but initiatives like Hogs Back’s, if taken up more widely, could help make local provenance much more important if been fans start to feel that drinking local offers a genuinely different taste experience, rather than just the warm glow that comes from pushing one’s money at neighbours, not international conglomerates.
Right now, however, Hogs Back is one of, as far as anyone seems aware, just three of Britain’s 1,100-plus breweries growing its own hops, the other’s being Iceni in Norfolk and, unsurprisingly, Shepherd Neame in Kent (Update: John Humphreys, communications manager at Sheps, tells me: “I’m not sure we could claim to grow our ‘own’ hops. We own the land that is home to the National Hop Collection (which we hope to brew with this year), but Dr Peter Darby does the leg work there, albeit with our financial – and moral! – support. We do, however, source 95% of our ale hops from Kent.”) Growing your own hops won’t be for every brewer, and it may be that in terms of added value for the consumer, it will turn out to be meaningless – the looked-for “locaboire” market could likely be a figment of wishful thinking. But I’d love it, personally, if the British locaboire really turned out to be a thing.
And if any brewers reading this are interested in growing their hops, but wonder if their part of the world is as suitable as Surrey, according to HS Corran’s A History of Brewing, “Hops were cultivated in no less than forty English counties, eight Welsh and five Scottish by the 1850-70 period.” Since there are, in fact, only 39 traditional English counties, I think this total must include Monmouthshire, which was often regarded as part of England, but still, the implication is that every county in England grew hops, two thirds of those in Wales, and, I’m guessing, most or all of the southernmost historic counties of Scotland. In other words: pretty much all of the island of Great Britain has seen hop-growing in the past: William Cobbett in 1832 found hops growing near the banks of the Water of Aven in Aberdeenshire, and was told of a hop garden in Lanarkshire that had been in operation “sixty years ago”, that is, about 1772.
Mind, the five hop-growing counties of Scotland in the middle of the 19th century must have been quite recent, and quite short-lived, since a publication by the Board of Agriculture in 1814 called General Report of the Agricultural State: And Political Circumstances, of Scotland declared: “There is no instance known of hops having been cultivated as a crop in Scotland except perhaps a few in gardens,” and according to Corran the Scottish hop-growing industry disappeared in 1871. (Welsh hop-growing ended three years later.) English hop growing survived outside the core areas of South-East England and the far West Midlands for rather longer: George Clinch in 1909 said Essex, Suffolk and “nineteen other English counties are recorded as having, at various times towards the latter part of the 19th century, small areas under hops.” So get growing …