BEER: Why can't a fine beer be sold like an expensive wine?
In his honorary position as Lord Lieutenant of Surrey, Richard Thornton is charged with welcoming royalty on their visits to his county. In his day job, as a hop farmer, he recently greeted half a dozen brewers to his estate. They wanted to see, just before the harvest, whether his hops this season were sufficiently well-formed and leaf-green, full of aromatic resins and essential oils, to make great beer.

The Lord Lieutenant is the last hop grower in Surrey. His two adjoining gardens, densely planted and boxed in by tree cover, are hidden jewels in a cushion of hillside near Guildford. He may also be the last grower in England to concentrate exclusively on the traditional variety Fuggles. Last year, he increased his acreage from 12 to 14. This year, when the brewers inspected his hops, they unanimously asked him to plant more for the future. This may yet not represent a wind of change, but it is a straw in the breeze.

Hops do not contribute alcohol or body to beer, they impart aroma and flavour; and the trend in the mass market has been toward bland beers, whether lager or ale. Lager is a particular problem for the British hop grower. Many lagers sold in this country are made with continental hops - though rarely of the finest varieties and usually in dismally small quantities. The latter two caveats also apply to mass-market ales, which do use English hops.

The finest varieties are more susceptible to pests and diseases and, in consequence, require more care on the farm. They are more subtle and complex in aroma and flavour, and, therefore, have to be used in more quantity. They are thus more expensive to grow and use.

This would be no problem if a fine beer could be sold much more expensively than a cheaply-made brew. That principle is unquestioned in the world of wine, but has been harder to apply to beer, though that is changing. A demand is developing for brews in which hop and malt can be detected. And British hop growers are increasingly finding a market among small- ale brewers in America, despite the massive acreage in Oregon and Washington.

Britain's finest hop varieties are earthier, America's are more floral and fruity, continental Europe's more delicate. Each has its own contribution to make. Let us not be narrow and nationalistic about this. If drinkers develop a taste for hoppy, flavoursome beers, growers of this lovely plant will thrive in all the traditional regions.

The hop is a vine and the part used to aromatise and flavour beer is the cone-like flower. Its piney, leafy, herbal, spicy, dry aromas and flavours balance the sweetness of a clean "barley sugar" maltiness in a great lager or ale.

The plump cones at the Lord Lieutenant's farm aroused a thirst in all of the brewers. Where did they go for a pint? To the nearby Hog's Back brewery and beer shop, at Manor Farm, The Street, Tongham, Surrey (01252 783000). There, Maureen Rolfe produces a soft, sweet, malty ale called Hop Garden Gold, spiced with Fuggles hops from the Lord Lieutenant's estate. Some people think that Fuggles has a flavour reminiscent of aniseed. On this tasting, I agree. Perhaps the estate should be identified on the label

Top Hops

In the Weald of Kent, Harper's Farm, at Goudhurst, supplies an early- blossoming strain of the Golding, the most aromatic of English hops, for the Harvest Ale of the King and Barnes brewery in Horsham, Sussex. The vines are taken to the brewery so that the flowers can be picked at their freshest and the beer should be available now.

The new season's Goldings from Robert and Diane Thomas' farm at Risbury, north of Hereford, go into a similar seasonal brew from Wadsworth's of Devizes, Wilts. This beer is called simply Malt and Hops and should be available this weekend or next.

The "fresh air" aroma of the Saaz hop from Bohemia can be detected in Enville Ale, made on the estate of the Earls of Stamford, near Stourbridge in the west Midlands. The orangey-tasting Styrian Golding from Slovenia imparts a refreshing character to Timothy Taylor's Landlord, from Keighley, Yorkshire. In Newcastle I have tasted a distinctly grapefruity American hop in Legion, from the Hadrian micro-brewery.