Country & Garden: Hopping mad for it

Once every cottage garden sported a few hop plants for beer making. So why not revive the practice on your own patch?
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The Independent Culture
ALTHOUGH IT is not unusual for private gardens to contain a grapevine or two, the tradition of growing hops with a view to a spot of home-brewing seems more or less to have died out.

Once upon a time, every cottage garden, at least from the Midlands southwards, would have grown a row of hops. Then as commercial hop-growing became concentrated in Kent and Herefordshire, where there was plenty of manpower for the labour-intensive harvest, the domestic habit faded, although Britain still has about 200 hop farmers.

But there is no reason why the hop could not be reintroduced into our gardens. True, the Golden Hop is available in most garden centres, but in terms of beer production it does not count; although it is a variety of humulus lupulus, the traditional hop, it does not produce many cones and so is no use for brewing purposes. Stephen Wright describes it as "that bloody yellow thing that always looks horrible". He grows hop plants commercially - about a million a year - and sells them on to farmers, so he may be biased view. Certainly, I am happy enough with the Golden Hop in my garden, even if I will not have the bonus of a drink at the end of the season.

Wright recommends would-be home-brewers to try one of the traditional varieties, such as Fuggle or the different types of Goldings. They may not be the highest-yielding, but they are very resistant to disease. Since each plant will produce a pound of hops, not even the most serious beer- drinker is likely to go thirsty: a big commercial brewery would turn that into 100 gallons of beer.

Hops used for making beer are chosen for their bitter component, which comes from alpha acids, and for the aroma profile, which gives the individual flavour to each beer. Fuggle and Goldings are classic components of aromatic beers. If you want something with a higher bitterness level, but still disease resistant, then Target is a good choice.

Disease resistance is important, since hops are very susceptible to pests and diseases, which can be difficult to deal with in a plant growing as high as 25 feet. For this reason, the new dwarf varieties, such as First Gold, which produces a combination of aroma and bitterness, comes highly recommended. They can be grown on low trellises, and will reach heights of no more than eight to 10 feet. Not only are they easier to tend, but natural predators prefer them; unbelievable though it may sound, ladybirds, which can be so valuable in dealing with garden pests, get vertigo above about 15 feet.

Hops are hardy perennials that grow so fast you can almost see the shoots getting longer, and they climb vigorously. They are ideal for growing through an old tree, over a shed or along a fence, but this makes harvesting the cones a rather tricky operation. Stephen Wright recommends the old- fashioned method of planting a hop and sticking a 10 to 12ft pole into the ground for it to climb up. When the hops are ripe, which will be any time now, lower the pole, and pick the cones as they lie on the ground.

The plants are easy to grow, and will tolerate most soils. Unlike vines, the richer the soil, the better they like it, so it is essential to dig in some manure before planting. But like vines, although they need plenty of water, they will not survive if their roots are water-logged. The young shoots, which are known as bines, appear in early March; remove all but about four or five of them so that they will grow stronger and train them to wind themselves up the pole. As the shoots get taller, the lower leaves should be stripped off and the plant earthed up.

Although you should get a few hops in the first year, it will usually take three years before the plant reaches its full cropping potential. If the cone is damp to the touch, it is not completely ripe; ripe hops are almost papery in texture. They also have a distinctive smell, which will cling to your hands, so when you can smell beer on your fingers, the hops are ready for picking.

Hop growers are surprisingly cagey about the recipes they use for making their own beer. Take a handful of hops, they advise, boil them up in some water and add a bit of yeast; but this might sound a bit too casual for most people.

If you want something more exact try this. Boil up 4oz hops in eight gallons of water for about 45 minutes; add 1lb of brown sugar and let it dissolve; then strain the liquid, add four tablespoons of yeast, and leave it for 48 hours. Skim and strain it, and put into bottles.

Stephen Wright sells hop plants by mail order in mixed variety packs of two (pounds 15) or five (pounds 25). Plants will be despatched from November until March. Contact him at Inghams Farm, Little Blakenham, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 4LR; telephone 01473 831523