© 1996, Randy Mosher / All About Beer Magazine

In early 1995 I was approached by the legendary Ralph Olson of HopUnion with a proposal: If they financed and arranged a trip to cover the hop harvest, would I be willing to make the journey and write a feature for All About Beer magazine, who had agreed to run it? I jumped at the chance, as I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to visit four important hop regions at harvest time and talk to the people who were making it happen. It turned out to be a fun article.

I was gratified the next year when it won the North American Guild of Beer Writers award for best feature article. It was illuminating for me, and I hope you’ll feel a bit of the spirit of being there.

My everlasting gratitude to Ralph Olson and the small-brewery specialist, HopUnion, now merged into Yakima Chief Hops. The article is serialized here on four pages, by region.

To lovers of great beer, hops are a magical ingredient. Capable of taming the sweet excesses of the most toothsome malts, and of adding an ethereal aroma to lagers as well as ales, hops are beer’s perfect herb. For those of us who cherish the hop, the attachment only grows stronger with time.

For the people who live with the hop, and lovingly coax it out of the ground, the bond is even stronger. Steeped in tradition, hops have long intertwined themselves with the lives of their caretakers. A petulant crop, hops can be at once infuriating, intoxicating, and incredibly rewarding. Growers everywhere imbue the hop with a powerful personality—sometimes sadistic, sometimes beatific, always captivating.


The region of Kent is just to the south and east of London, a rolling green land dotted by ancient villages and castles. Situated between London and the coast closest to France, it has always been washed by foreign influences: Celts and Romans, then the Normans in 1066, and waves of Flemish immigrants in the late 15th century who brought their beloved hops with them, changing the region—and British beer—forever. 

I started my tour on the working side of Kent’s hoppy tourist attraction, the Whitbread Farms. The farm itself no longer belongs to Whitbread as, like most breweries, they have sold off their agricultural holdings. They kept the antiquated oast houses, tall conical hop kilns that look like medieval missile silos. These conical oasts define the Kent countryside, although many of them have been converted into houses, “oast maisonettes,” one young wag called them. 

The working farm is now owned by Richard Wood, the man responsible for consolidating much of England’s hop industry into a collective known as English Hop Products, Ltd. It is a large farm by Kentish standards, and has an interesting history. He is showing off his operation to his banker, so I get the benefit of his best tour. Originally purchased in the 1600’s by the Drapers (cloth merchants) Company of London as an investment, the farm became famous under the stewardship of A. E. White, who farmed it from 1869 to 1919. He was a remarkable man, a pioneer of hop growing technology, fondly remembered for his humane treatment of his transient pickers. It was he who developed the hop we now know as Whitbread Golding Variety, usually just called WGV. 

It has been a very rough year for English agriculture. An extremely wet spring, which made two or even three replantings necessary, was followed by the hottest, driest summer on record there. This sharply reduced yields in many places, but believe it or not, most places pulled through, and the East Kent Golding supply will be better this year than last.

With the enthusiasm of a backyard gardener, Wood continues the innovation of the original owner. Many of his fields are set up for fertigation, an efficient watering system that can add fertilizer as well as water to the plants. That’s been “the difference between chalk and cheese,” according to Wood. 

The plants coming in have little tiny cones on them, but otherwise appear healthy. It is a large picking facility, manned by students at harvest time. Inside a rather old-looking picker has “Big Julie’s baby” scrawled on it, along with a fractured caricature representing someone “after a day’s hop-picking.” The kilns are different than elsewhere, and feature a row of twenty-foot square bins on little rollers, which move along over a fixed bed of kiln heaters. A bin is filled, put in place at the beginning of the line, and the rest move down to make room. This bumps the last box, now adequately dry, off the kiln and into position for baling. 

Since the European Union, the Hop Marketing Board has been dissolved, ending the cozy relationship between growers, and throwing the whole system wide open to competition for the first time in sixty years, driving many out of business. “We’ve now got to the hard core of guys who are really going to stick with this and make a go of things,” Wood says, “We’re just trying to emulate Yakima.”

Later, I get myself over to the tourist side of the farm, constructed in and around the stunning rows of conical oasts. One building houses a museum. The rest is dedicated to restaurants, draft horses, petting zoos, gift shops and other meaningful hop-related attractions. 

I wander through the museum exhibits—clearly aimed at tourists who would really prefer not learn about hops or beer. Glossy, papier maché workers toil happily amid piles of decaying amber hops. The corporate flak is laid on so thick—“It was hard work for us and the kids, but as long as there was plenty of tea, we didn’t mind”—it’s a wonder that some enraged CAMRA member hasn’t torched the place by now. 

Back At EHP offices, I meet with Ben Wright, longtime Hop Factor. He is the chief inspector of hops here. Hop factoring is an ancient tradition which still relies on well-trained eyes and noses. Hundreds of brick-like hop samples come in during the harvest that has just gotten underway. Each is assessed for aroma quality as well as damage from aphids, insects and disease. Alpha acid (bittering potential) analysis is conducted at the laboratory, and moisture levels are checked at the time of weighing-in. Each lot is assigned to one of several quality levels, which will determine its sale price. 

Brewers are invited in to go through the same inspection process, and Wright likes to invite growers in at the end of the season to compare their own hops to others, a process he describes as “eye-opening.”

Upstairs, David Gardner, EHP’s chief technical salesman, explains the large family of processed hop products they offer. Nearly every useful component of the hop is available individually, or combined in some particular potion. There are whole hop extracts which are added to the kettle; pre-isomerized alpha-extracts, which can be added directly to a beer to adjust the final bitterness; special bittering material to prevent skunkiness in beer to be bottled in clear glass, and a wide range of oil extracts, providing hoppy aromas. 

EHP’s Director, Nigel Hubble, gives me a quick course in the hop business. “There really are two separate and distinct crops: aroma hops, which are a food spice, a value-added product unique to each region, and the high-alpha hops, which is just a chemical commodity,” says Hubble. There is much room for improvement in each type. With the current state of affairs, there is much interest in expanding plantings of aroma varieties such as Goldings. A new low-trellis system, with its lowered cost of setting up a field, is exciting English growers into replanting. This system is dependent on dwarf varieties, that plants feature shorter distances between leaf-bearing “nodes,” giving in a more compact structure which fits the half-height low trellis perfectly. Two high-alpha varieties, Pioneer and Herald, plus an aroma variety, First Gold, have been released for cultivation. All seem promising. 

We dash off to visit a farm. This is hop farming the old way, as quaint a country place as you could wish for. The weathered barn and traditional conical oast are still in active use, but perhaps not for long. “It’s a great challenge, hop growing,” the owner tells us. “You’ve got to be a bloody optimist. There’s no sense of being in this business if you’re any sort of pessimist.”

In addition to his hops, he also has 100 acres of corn and 100 head of cattle. It seems a little lonely here, one man toiling against the harvest. “My wife works while I play games with the farm,” he explains. He expects eventually to sell out to one of the throng of city dwellers that have invaded Kent in search of the perfect country cottage. His beautifully rustic spread will command a premium price, I am sure. 

As we drive away, I admire the landscape. Kent is as park-like as the Hallertau, but with a more lived-in look. The English don’t seem to be quite so manic about keeping everything patched and painted, so you actually have a sense that there is a lot of old stuff around you, not always so obvious in Germany. The road we are on has been worn down so deeply in spots as to form a tunnel with the interlocking trees above. 

After passing about a thousand more cone-shaped oasts we arrive in Northiam at the farm of John Cyster. This farm is as quaint as the last, but the outlook is much brighter. Cyster, a cantankerous man in the twilight of middle age, is remolding his operation into a more independent, diverse, and profitable one. Growing hops, barley and dairy cattle became more and more difficult until, he says, “Economic pressures squeezed me until I wanted to fight the industrial food producers. They were becoming my enemies.” His solution was to start a dairy operation, and he began selling milk products directly to consumers. This was extremely successful and “whetted my appetite for going to meet the consumer.”

So when a trained brewer, Martin Christoff, approached him with a proposal to put a small brewery on the farm, he jumped at it, and the Rother Valley Brewing Company was formed. Why not, he thought, “I’m already growing beer.”

He sells 150 tonnes of barley each year to the Simpson Malting Company, and buys finished malt back from them for the brewery. Hops, including Target, Yeoman, WGV and Early Choice, a Golding aroma variety, go directly from the farm to the kettle. The brewery is small, just five barrels at the moment, but plans are afoot to increase to 20. 

The open fermentation here is extremely open. Lidless vats churn with foaming beer in the large room that includes the entire operation, right down to the brewery dog. The beer I taste is called “Level Best,” made to celebrate the hop harvest using a new variety called Phoenix. It is a tawny amber color, made with five percent each of crystal and aromatic malts. It has a nice caramel sweetness and a smooth, round hop flavor. 

This is real ale, not the watery stuff produced by the big breweries. Of them, Cyster is dismissive, “A load of cobblers,” he sneers. 

The next stop is the Shepherd Neame Brewery, in Faversham. The oldest continually-operated brewery in England, it is the only brewery of any real size in the hop growing region. And in the words of Ian Dixon, Production & Distribution Director, they “Play the hop card very heavily.” He takes me outside to show off the deeply carved hop designs that surround the entrance door. This motif reappears on almost everything associated with the brewery. 

Dixon is an interesting character, A Harley-Davidson rider who has championed the restoration of the brewery’s two ancient steam engines. They were powered up that day, hissing in their blazing-hot little room under the brewhouse. Not yet connected to anything, Dixon’s next project is to find some useful work for them to do. 

Up in the brewhouse, the mash tuns are solid teak, five inches thick, still solid after 130 years of daily use. The rest of the brewery is a hodgepodge of different equipment, most of it second-hand, “One benefit of all the brewery consolidations and closures,” says Dixon.

Since 1698 it has been a family owned operation, and Ian Dixon speaks very highly of the Neames. “They believe in beer as well as in business,” he says, adding, “They treat all their brewery workers like part of the family.” 

The beers, while not incredibly hoppy by our resin-crazed American standards, show a firm, smooth hoppiness, that allows the the nutty malt character to peep through. They brew a well-respected range of pale ales and bitters of differing strengths, plus a porter seasoned with licorice, and a special Goldings Harvest Ale. Kentish hop growers couldn’t ask for a nicer brewery to represent them. 

The train fills with uniformed schoolboys as we leave the cone-dotted landscape of Kent, headed for London, then home. Quickly, the half-stripped hop-yards fade from view. Such a small pursuit, really. In the big picture, all the world’s hop fields amount to just a few tiny specks of soil, but this magic herb is cultivated with a passion and purpose equal to any crop on earth. 

So pour yourself a pilsner, and smell the August air of Zatec or of Hallertau. Taste, in that fine pale ale, the earthy kiss of Yakima or Kent. And when you do, be sure to toast the men and women for who hops are not just an occupation, but a destiny.

Below: The classic conical oast houses used to dry hops in Kent, England punctuate the lansdscape.