There are four basic ingredients to beer, but only three are essential: malted barley, yeast and water. However, beer made with only these three will be sickly-sweet and dull. Throughout brewing history, brewers have added something extra to give their beer balance and depth…
They’ve added heather flowers, spruce tips, borage or bog myrtle. In the Middle Ages, brewers flavoured their beer with a mixture called “gruit” that combined herbs and spices in recipes that varied from place to place.
But by the 15th century, one vigorous weed crowded out all the others as the fourth ingredient in beer: hops. Hop plants are climbing vines (more accurately, bines: vines without tendrils). The plant part used in brewing beer is the hop flower, a delicate, pale green, papery cone full of perishable resins. They give a beer bitterness when used early in the brewing process, and aroma when added at the end. As a bonus, hops are a preservative, and extend the life of beer.
PBS International has been supplying Wye Hops Ltd, a subsidiary of the British Hop Association, with pollination control sleeves for well over 30 years which are used to help to breed new varieties. During a recent visit to Wye Hops, we met with Hop Researcher, Dr Peter Darby, who kindly showed us around their China Farm hop garden to talk about how they’ve developed over 31 commercially available British varieties.
Peter associates British flavour notes as being subtle and balanced. Although hoppiness is distinct, there are also fruity and woody notes present but without any one note being predominant. The effect is that you want to have another drink of the same beer; there is no need to change to another brand. Peter gives the analogy:
‘English flavour is like a chamber orchestra, the hops giving simultaneously the high notes and the bass notes. In comparison, a Czech beer is more like a full orchestra with much more breadth to the sound, and an American hop gives more of a dance band with more emphasis on volume and brass. The recent New Zealand hops (e.g. Nelson Sauvin) are like adding a voice to the instrumental music’.
Here’s a video of our day with the team at Wye Hops where they talk us through their breeding programme and show us PBS pollination sleeves in action. Happy viewing!