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Surrey’s hop growing renaissance is good news for local beers

PUBLISHED: 09:05 11 November 2016 | UPDATED: 09:24 11 November 2016

Relaxing among the vines at the Hogs Back hop garden (Photo: Matthew Williams)

Relaxing among the vines at the Hogs Back hop garden (Photo: Matthew Williams)

Archant

As craft brewing expands as quickly as the beer shelves can be restocked, hop growing is seeing something of a renaissance in Surrey. Matthew Williams lifts the lid

Packing the hops at the Hampton Estate (Photo: Matthew Williams)Packing the hops at the Hampton Estate (Photo: Matthew Williams)

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2016

***

Back in the late-1500s, Farnham was a town surrounded by hop-yards – 300 acres worth, no less, according to 17th century historian John Aubrey. Not long after World War One, however, you’d have been hard-pressed to find any sign of what was once one of the area’s most successful industries. Finally, though, along with a sudden profusion of local breweries, things appear to be changing for the better…

“Planting our hop garden in 2014 was initially a sort of romantic idea to bring back a forgotten local hop, rather than necessarily a commercial venture,” says the owner of the Hogs Back Brewery, Rupert Thompson, about their three-and-a-half acres across the road from the brewery in Tongham. “Things have worked out well, though, as the early quality has not only surpassed our expectations but also coincided with a rise in the prices in hops – this has been driven by the global demand for heavily-hopped beers and the rise of craft brewers. We’ve learned a lot and are now considering whether to plant more.”

While the brewery also planted industry favourites, Fuggles and Cascade, it’s the local variant, the Farnham White Bine, that has been greeted with the most interest. First grown way back in 1765 at Badshot Place, by 1822 the renowned local commentator of his age, William Cobbett, was writing that Farnham’s hops were “better than any other in England.”

At the industry’s peak, circa 1870, there were 1,592 acres of hops there – around 40% of the land available for farming in the parish. As with so many things, however, the ‘Great War’ was the beginning of the end and by 1929 the last of Farnham White Bine had been grubbed up and the industry all but died out in the area.


Against the tide

Not for everyone, however, as just down the road from Hogs Back, near the village of Seale, the Hampton Estate persevered.

“To be completely honest, we were a bit lazy,” laughs the irrepressible owner Bill Biddell. “Around three decades ago, everyone was saying that farmers should get out of hop growing because beer-drinking was on the wane in Britain. Hop growing is only part of what we do and we just never got round to changing things. You look around at the moment and there’s brewers launching as quickly as the hops grow – we’re fortunate to be in the position we are and to be able to expand.”

The Hampton Estate, who help Hogs Back with the processing of their harvested hops, has 14 acres of Fuggles. Once these have been picked, dried and pressed into bags bearing the emblem of a church bell, which has always signified hops grown in the Farnham area, they are used by the likes of Harveys of Lewes, The Black Sheep Brewery in Yorkshire and, of course, Hogs Back.

“We’re so lucky to not only be able to draw on the expertise of people like Bill and Bridget but to also be able to complement their efforts to keep hop growing alive in the area,” says Rupert. “Historically, some British brewers grew hops for their beers, but it was rare and, much like with vineyards, highly dependent on the location and soil type.

“We have the good fortune to be located right in the heart of one of England’s traditional hop-growing areas and are delighted that the local community, including our Tongham TEA Club, have once again been able to help with this year’s harvest.”

Rejuvenation is in the air, and another enterprise has quietly got up-and-running too. The Farnham Beer Project, an initiative started by Transition Farnham, recently saw a group of around 40 organisations and individuals grow and pick over 40 kilos of their own hops, which was then made into a green hopped beer by Guildford’s Little Beer Company. Watch this space for more on that venture…

So, while we’ve grown used to talk of Surrey’s thriving and expanding vineyards, there’s also now a palpable excitement in the air about bringing a little local provenance back to our beer.

***

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