National Brewery Centre Opens

After a gap of almost two years, Burton is about to make its brewing history come alive again. Saturday 1st of May sees the opening of the National Brewery Centre on the site of the Bass Museum which closed in 2008.

As well as the hundreds of displays and artefacts on show, the new centre promises more interactivity than before with performers in period costume recreating characters from the town's past. I already pity the poor sod who gets to play Michael Thomas Bass II; I suspect that certain anorak-clad groups will bore him rigid.

The old favourites are all (hopefully) still there - it'll be good to see the 1921 model of Burton, laced with locomotives, actually working properly. New shire horses Major and Trooper will be around at the weekends. There's even a holographic presenter - Pepper's Ghost - to welcome visitors to the attraction.

Let's not forget about the beer, mind. A beer tasting masterclass is included in the price of admission and the Brewery Tap will be serving beers brewed on-site by the White Shield brewery. There will be 'beer bites', too - here's hoping Staffordshire tapas offers adequate soakage for thirsty topers.

I'll pop down this weekend (gardening duties permitting) to see for myself how the Bass Museum legacy has been handled.

The National Brewery Centre opens Saturday 1st of May. Opening hours are 10-6; the Brewery Tap bar and restaurant opens 11-11. Admission for adults, including drinks, is £8.95 with concessions at £6.95. Child admission in £4.95 and a family ticket (two adults and two children) costs £24.95.


Really random beer

Beer style is a fairly crude market segmenter. The beer scene may have evolved around its artisan edges, but marketers loves comfortable labels. Lager for the lads. Bitter for the old boys. Stout for those on the craic. Something implausibly fruit-based for the ladies. Barrel-aged double triple gooseberry hefeweizen for the craft beer aficionado.

So having set up these broad-brush steroetypes, how does the industry sell different styles to contented topers? Do they sing the praises of other beer types? Bearing in mind they've spent millions trying to define whom a drinker is by the kind of beer they choose? Do they tinker with  preferred tipples; assist the drinker to segue between styles without making seismic shifts? "It's a bitter that looks like lager! It's stout, but it's red! It's bitter, but it's sweet and fruity! It's lager, but it's... err... a bit weaker than the one you drink at the moment!"

I'd love to see a pub serve random beer. Because, what often defines a drinker's preference is historical antecedence and the power of brand advertising. How about offering up a flight of five third-pints, served in black glasses; lager, bitter, stout, wheat, fruit. Get drinkers to compare and contrast. Forget prejudice, just experiment instead. I'm not talking about craft beer geek stuff at brewpubs - just regular keg beers in regular  bars for regular drinkers.

I didn't swap Guinness for gueuze overnight. Unbeknownst-to-me beers from well-intentioned friends and semi-sociopathic landlords helped me along the way.  I'd like to see more pubs offer up a random range and see if drinkers' artificially-restricted beer horizons can be broadened.


Ham. Eggs. Chips. Beer

Surprisingly, I'm not much of a Sunday luncher. My wife, her mother, grandmother and god-mother get together to talk about the week's hatched, matched and dispatched over a slab of something roasted. I'm usually in the pub, at the races or not quite on the footpath that I intended to.

So Sunday sustenance for me is usually late in the afternoon, often comprises of sliced pig and is always accompanied by beer. Today it was smoked gammon, splinter-thin fries to poke into runny yolks and a couple of decent British bottles. Marble Tawny 3 had grass and hay glossed over pineapples on a biscuity base; Fyne Avalanche was all soft and citric and floral and just... wow!

As the last of the Avalanche left my lips, it started to rain. And so I needed no excuse to not mow the lawn. And open another beer instead. Hard knock life, eh?


Five Levels of Drinking

A few days ago, pub conversation turned to the gathered topers' inability to last out a late night/early morning drinking session. Perhaps we're of that certain age, given that our round table discussions nowadays are more hip op than hip hop.

At which point, I mentioned Larry Miller's 'Five Levels of Drinking'. And no-one had a clue what I was rabbiting on about. I can't remember the first time I heard it but I do remember beer frothing out of my nose as I tried to laugh internal organs out of my body. The sentiments of the sketch had me banged to rights.

For all of you who've somehow never seen it, here's Larry in all his glory:


Eight Kinds of Drunkenness

It's been some time since I delved into 'Merry-Go-Down', that essential reader for topers, so I thought I'd revisit it. An extract by Thomas Nashe caught my eye - in 'Pierce Penniless: His Supplication to the Devil' (1592), Nash identifies eight kinds of drunkenness:

1) Ape-drunke; one where the toper "leapes, and sings, and hollowes, and danceth for the heavens".

2) Lion-drunke; "He flings the pots about the house, calls his Hostesse whore, breakes the glasse windowes with his dagger, and is apt to quarrel with any man that speaks to him".

3) Swine drunke; the subject is "heavy, lumpish, and sleepie, and cries for a little more drinke, and a fewe more cloathes".

4) Sheepe drunk; a drinker "wise in his owne conceipt, when he cannot bring forth a right word".

5) Mawdlen drunke; "A fellow will weepe for kindness in the midst of his ale, and kisse you, saying; By God Captaine I love thee, goe thy waies thou dost not thinke so often of me as I do of thee, i would (if it pleased God) could I not love thee so well as I do, and then he puts his finger in his eie, and cries".

6) Martin drunke; "a man is drunke and drinkes himself sober ere he stirre".

7) Goate drunke; one who "hath no minde but on Lechery".

8) Fox drunke; "He is craftie drunke, as many of the Dutch men bee, will never bargaine but when they are drunke".

Rather than something to be revered, Nash warns the reader against the 'slavering brewery, that will make you have stinking breathes, and your bodies smell like Brewer's aprons". Yeah, right.

But I can identify myself lurking on that list several times over. Certainly I've been prone to swine-drunkenness in my time. And I know a few martin-drunk types, who may or may not actually be called Martin and must remain nameless for legal reasons.

Which kind of drunk are you? I'm sure you want to tell the world. We've probably all seen the photos on Facebook, anyway...

Incidentally, Thomas Nashe is credited with the first English usage of the word 'dildo', in his soft porn poem 'The Choice of Valentines'.


Everyone Wants to Shag... the Reluctant Scooper

New colour scheme, new features, new wishlist. Same old attitude, same old rules, same old situation.

Extensive market research has been conducted. Opinions of topers from far and wide were gathered over countless pints. Some ideas were ditched like hot trub. Others have been in maturation for months and are ready to be dry-hopped with heaps of sarcasm.

Expect tales of brewing, of brewers on the piss, of topering along the river. Expect book reviews, beer reviews, cheese and choc and pie reviews. Mmmmm, cheesy chocolate pie.

More A-Zs. More Fifteen Fabulous Facts. More TLAs. More OMGWTFBBQ to the power of eleventy-one.

I'm putting it out and about. I'm brewing, racking and packing. I'm pulling, washing and stacking. I'm selling, buying and flying.

My advice? Count to ten and run for cover...*

* and still no apologies for the musical allusions - this post was brought to you with the assistance of Julian Cope et al played VERY LOUDLY


Review: World's Best Beers

Some say that a beer lover can never have too many books about beers of the world. Well... actually, I can. I've been there, bought them, cross-referenced them, bought an extra shelf for them and later dispactched 90% of them off to the charity shop. Because most of them are the worse kind of self-congratulatory claptrap.

"Look at me! I've drank lots of beer! I've managed to reword the phrase "mid-brown bitterish beer with a clean finish" over a hundred times! And I've included beers in here that a) you can't buy any more, b) you've never heard of and c) you'll never get to drink! All you can do is stare slackjawed at the pictures! HA!"

So, it's with even greater Reluctance than usual that I delved into a new offering. "World's Best Beers" is a weighty coffee-table tome that promised "a unique portfolio of boutique beers to savour, cherish and enjoy ". Was it worthwhile? You bet.

In fact, there are five reasons why it works so well and makes other 'best of' beer books feel lacklustre;

- It's written by Ben McFarland. Funny, passionate; not nerdy, not dry. And he brought us Beer Snob Bingo.

- It does actually look great. There's a keen use of white space, clean photos of pump clips/bottles to illustrate the beers, an uncluttered layout with touches of amber, russet and gold . It's beer-erotica, all those brews clad in bespoke glassware.

- There are honest tasting ratings. After all, it's not merely an illustrated directory. Rather than being overly-analytical, Ben offers ratings based on broad style indicators (such as Dark Side and Hop Head) as well as more emotive collections like the avant-garde ('New World'), off-the-wall ('All The Unusual') or beers best suited to quiet contemplation ('Think While You Drink').

- The articles are thriller rather than filler; sure, there's the seemingly-obligatory brewing/glassware/styles overview but the pearls here are the brewery profiles. The likes of Thornbridge, Mikkeller, Cantillon and Baladin are examined with insight and enthusiasm.

- Beer and food pairings are often deliberately esoteric or a pure lottery but I'm won over by Ben's suggestions. He makes a surefire case for pairings based on a keen understanding of how flavours complement or contrast, albeit whilst still including the cop-out of 'all beer goes with pizza'. But for pairing honey glazed duck with Kwak, the man deserves plaudits beyond his wildest dreams.

In fact, the whole of the food section is outstanding. Having 'guest' articles such as Stephen Beaumont's pairing rules, the El Bulli guide to the science of food and musings by Garrat Oliver makes for a more-rounded read than those books that include a beer-food chapter seemingly for the sake of it.

Best-beer books are an expression of the author's personality. That's why some are overly-factual and dense. Others are glossy and shallow. World's Best Beers is witty, irreverent, passionate and stylish. It's proof positive that beer writing can be entertainingly vicarious.

World's Best Beers: 1000 Unmissable Brews from Portland to Prague by Ben McFarland is published by Jacqui Small and available at all good booksellers, although in smaller stores you have to ask the lady behind the counter nicely to see if she can get a copy ordered in. They can't stock everything, you know. It's bad for their cashflow.

Many thanks to Aurum Press for the review copy.


Bottled Up: Hopshackle Vertigo VC and VF

Hopshackle - possibly the best English brewer that you've never heard of.

I first discovered Hopshackle beers back in 2008 at the Peterborough CAMRA festival, where a bottle of Restoration blew away darn near everything else. Since then, the Reluctant radar has been tuned into wherever they may surface. Luckily, here in Derby the casks are stocked occasionally by the Smithfield and the Flowerpot so I've been able to enjoy some of Nigel Wright's finest interpretations of historic beer styles with a contemporary twist.

Some of my favourite Hopshackle beers have been the IPAs. Double Momentum is a superb souped-up hopped-out interpretation; Resination takes Stateside inspiration with sappy pine and chunky fruit salad flavours. Now Nigel has turned his hand to something that many world-class brewers aspire to - a range of single-hopped IPAs.

The Vertigo series kicks off with two bottlings. VC - showcasing Cascade - offers resinous pine overlaying soft caramel with a segue into lemon pepper. There's an obvious alcohol edge but it  never overwhelms. VF - for Fuggles - was a real surprise; yes, Fuggles can be honestly hoppy. A warm woody toffee kicks it all off, then pepper starts to cut across the palate with enough tickling pine to keep the overt sweetness in check.

At close to 10%, these are heavyweight IPAs that are well-crafted with subtle touches. With Bobek, Chinook, Magnum, Amarillo and Goldings versions planned, the series looks set for a great future. 

Hopshackle beers are available at The Offie in Leicester and Archie Harwicks Deli in Boston, Lincolnshire. Many thanks to Nigel at Hopshackle for these beers.


Nuns don't thrill people, rappers do

I'm still not sure how I came to find out about the Dancing England Rapper Tournament (DERT for short). There must have been one of my slow synaptic shuffles along the lines of 'sword dancers.. in pubs.. in Derby... must go'. As I'm rather partial to an ale or four in the company of Border morris teams and the like, a day of sword-dance spectating seemed an ideal way to avoid the gardening. But first, breakfast.

Which means Wetherspoons. Having savaged a cob full of fried pigbits earlier on, I could skip the mild disappointment that is a Spoons 'cooked' breakfast and concentrate on the beer. Two festival specials hit the spot; Goose Island Honkers Ale was a tad sticky sweet to start with but had a palatable biscuity tinge to it. Maui Coconut Porter was magnificent, all roasty nuts and creamy chocolate. Looking around the bar, there seemed to be an inordinate number of men who'd chosen to wear knee-length socks on the warmest day of the year. No, not tickers... rappers.

As in sword-dancers. Originating from the North East of England, rapper dancing involves five people holding two-handled flexible swords - rappers - to form a chain and dance/jump/somersault along to music without letting go. At the end, a pentacle of swords appears before the team beat their retreat. The music is provided by the fiddle or accordion and the rhythm driven by the crack (rap?) of boots on the floor - wooden floors therefore preferable. And where better to find wooden floors and a readymade audience than a pub?

For the competition, several teams danced at each pub before they all moved round to the next one on the circuit. I toyed with the idea of a rapper/pub crawl but ended up spending the afternoon at the Flowerpot. Being fundamentally lazy played a part in that decision making; the availability of Marble Pint and Hopshackle Resination even moreso. Pint is possibly the finest session beer in the country with bags of grassy, citric, spicy splashes over a light toffee crumble and an ever-drying finish. Resination may hail from sleepy Lincolnshire but it's a shit-kicking IPA; 7% of peppered pine, hot bubblegum and an obvious alcohol hit.

The rappers were great, too. At times they were genuinely scary (particularly when reeling themselves in circles only inches away from the walls), always entertaining, willing to have a chat (and try to recruit me as a Betty) and clearly having a damn good time.

If you get the chance, I highly recommend you watch a rapper team in action. And if you're not close enough to risk your pint being spilled, you're not close enough...

Here's some (slightly shaky) video of Black Swan Rapper in action at the Flowerpot. It's like morris dancing on crack:

and no apologies for the awful Goldie Looking Chain pun. Word.


A-Z of Hops; roundup

Well, some of you asked for it, so here it is- a handy one-page roundup of the Hops A-Z.

The key hop characteristics of Aroma and Bitterness set the scene. Some of the science involved was covered by Humulus lupulus, Lupulin, Oils, Resin and Xanthohumol.

Several hop varieties were profiled, namely Cascade Chinook and Centennial, Dwarf, Fuggles, Goldings, Saaz and Tsingdao Flower.

Key hop producing areas mentioned included Kent, New Zealand and Yakima Valley.

Hop usage was discussed in Eqivalence, Quality and quantity and Utilisation.

The work of Verband Deutscher Hopfenpflanzer and Wye College was also covered.

Despite rigorous hygeine methods, Mildew infested the A-Z at the midway point.

And let's not forget the beers; Pliny the Elder, Jaipur and the ever-wonderful world of India Pale Ale.


Pubs To Love: Sheffield Tap

When poet Philip Larkin passed through Sheffield station, he walked to the platform end and noted how the 'joined and parting lines reflect a strong unhindered moon'.  The end of platform 1b now has greater delights, notwithstanding the Northern Rail service to Adwick. A small bar with tall ceilings, English casks and international bottles, a sense of transience as well as destination. And you may even get to meet Terry Greenwood.

Drinks importer Pivovar and Derbyshire brewery Thornbridge have made the most of this once-abandoned,  Grade 2 listed, first class refreshment room.  The original mahogany bar running almost the length of the room has been lovingly restored and stands resplendent before plate glass mirrors. Cream walls segue to those high green ceilings via a band of ornate tiles. Plump seats, stools and benches wrap around the room and through to a vestibule offering more modern touches; huge painted pumpclips and the nameplate from the brewery's namesake locomotive.

Just as impressive as the architecture is the comprehensive beer range. Four handpulls feature regular Thornbridge beers with another four given over to Thornbridge specials or showcasing a brewery such as Dark Star, Marble or Brewdog. Four taps serve up a range of Bernard beers; eight more offer delights such as Aspalls cider, Duvel Green and a guest beer from Meantime in London. And then there's those fridges, groaning under the weight of 200+ bottles from the finer beery parts of the world.

Despite the Edwardian splendour, the Tap's atmosphere isn't merely painted on the walls. Early doors it can be eerily quiet, perhaps just the chink of glasses as the staff clean, an occasional paper-rustle from a passing toper. I rather like that; a calm pint in quiet surroundings before the storm. Because even if the rest of Sheffield's pubs are quiet (unlikely, I know), returning to the Tap late in the afternoon or evening often tips you into orchestrated mayhem. Sometimes there's barely room to manoeuver to the bar, with even elbow space at a premium. It's the price the Tap pays for attracting topers here as a beer destination in its own right. And then there's the maelstrom of faces changing trains - suits with briefcases, tans with suitcases, on their first or last pints as they pass through the city.

Which is how you get to meet Terry Greenwood. He's the bloke next to you at the bar, wondering which beer to order next as you're both hemmed in by the throng. You'll recommend a beer to him; he'll tell you about those he'd enjoyed today.You'll share a couple of drinks and then go your separate ways. 

OK - you probably won't actually meet Terry Greenwood. He happened to be the random bloke I met one afternoon. But for being the kind of place where passing strangers can enjoy beers they love - and those they have yet learned to love - the Sheffield Tap is most definitely one of my Pubs To Love. Even if they've yet to make room in those fridges for some pork pies...

Their website can be found here. They're also to be found on Facebook and Twitter.


Hops A-Z; Postscript

I've spent a fair chunk of time over the last month reading about hops. There have been frustrations and revelations. And it's left me with six impressions;

1) A little bit of biochemistry goes a long way; my understanding of how hops impart flavour and aroma has been enhanced a great deal by brushing up on my long-lost chemistry knowledge.

2) There's often a great life-in-hops story to be told. Particularly for those research pioneers at Wye College; Salmon, Neve and Darby.

3) Hops have a genuine sense of terroir. That's something to be treasured - and marketed vigorously.

4) Hops have a rich and varied history; here's hoping that, due to progressive research and integrated production/supply chains, they also have a sustainable future

5) The internet is cluttered with crap about hops. You may argue that I've just added to it. I'm hoping that I've introduced some reasoned clarity for those who are looking for substance beyond the haze.

6) I'm mad keen to learn more. The brewers that know me are going to get bored rigid by my technical questions next time we meet. I'm even hunting down technical papers and looking into taught courses to expand my knowledge. Humulus lupulus is getting under my skin...

One last thing for now; if you're interested in finding out more about hops, these are good places to start:

The Barth-Haas Group, the world’s largest supplier of hop products and services, have a wealth of information on their website, including the comprehensive annual Hop Report.

Ian Hornsey's book, A History of Beer and Brewing, has loads of interesting hop history; there's a limited preview available on Google Books

Similarly, the Handbook of Brewing by Priest and Stuart has useful chapters on hop usage and is also available as a Google Book.

The Home Brewing Wiki has a concise overview of hop chemistry that I've found invaluable

Several steps advanced from that is this paper on the fundamentals of beer and hop chemistry that's well worth getting your noggin around.

There's heaps of info about the world hop market; some of the most useful websites I've found are those of USA Hops , the German Hop Processing Collective and Hop Growers Association and the Czech Hop Growers Union. The New Zealand goverment has an excellent overview of their hop industry on the MAF website.

Two sites are worthy of special mention. English hop merchants Charles Faram has long been my handy reference guide to all things hoppy. And if I'm ever in doubt about an beer 'fact', I check with the site that clears out the t'internet trub; Martyn Cornell's Zythophile.


Hops A-Z; Z is for Zeus

And then there was Z. Featuring the most-grown hop in the US although you may never have heard of it; a hop that may feature in a beer that you love though it could be replaced by two other varieties and you'd be almost none the wiser. Z is for Zeus and it's all about the alpha.

There's a reason why Zeus is the most grown hop variety in the United States, making up very nearly a quarter of total production. It's consistently bitter. With alpha-acids in the range of 12-16% of hop mass (sometimes even as high as 20%) this high-yielding hop can provide bitterness by the bucketful.

The hops' similarity to Columbus and Tomahawk isn't accidental. Three varieties of a high alpha hop derived from Northern Brewer were sold to different growers, with Steiner controlling the variety that became known as Zeus. Those other two have since been shown to be identical with Zeus practically indistinguishable from them, giving us what has less-than-lovingly been called CTZ; Columbus-Tomahawk-Zeus.

CTZ has become US brewery shorthand for an alpha hop addition, nearly always in pellet form. It provides the necessary bitterness for a beer without getting in the way of aroma - that's what specialist hops can be deployed for. American IPAs such as Russian River's Pliny The Elder and Green Flash's West Coast IPA all use copious amounts of CTZ for bittering, letting another showcase hop get on with imparting aroma.

For being a ubiquitous bittering hop, for being dominant in the US market, all beer drinkers should be thankful for Zeus. We need some constants; a consistent malt, a reliable alpha level bittering hop. They provide the canvas; specialty malt and hops let the brewer express themselves. Zeus may not be the biggest hop you've never heard of for much longer - wider recognition is long overdue.


Hops A-Z; Y is for Yakima Valley

This A-Z has travelled around the world and mentioned most of the key hop producing areas. Now it's time to profile the powerhouse of the American hop industry; the Pacific NorthWest, Washington State and Yakima Valley.

Beneath the Cascade mountains, the Yakima Valley has been producing hops since the late nineteenth century. The combination of desert heat, fertile mountain slopes and irrigation from the Yakima river combine to give the valley an ideal climate for crop production. 75% of US hop acreage and 77% of production is based here. And it's not just about the hops – Yakima farms also grow fruit, grapes and row crops.

There are three distinct areas in the valley, each with unique characteristics. To the South, the Lower Yakima Valley is the warmest with crops growing so quickly that yields can be attained in the first year of planting. In the Yakima Indian Reservation, wide open spaces are blocked out with large acre farms growing high alpha hops. Moxee Valley is the most northerly area, colder than the others and renowned for its high density of aroma hop producers.

It's not all about quantity, either, although two-thirds of production feed the lucrative hop export market. A rich variety of hops are grown in the Yakima Valley such as Willamette, Cascade and Mount Hood for aroma; Columbus-Tomahawk-Zeus, Nuggett and Galena for alpha acid.

Major producers such as Yakima Chief and Hopunion offer a bottom-to-top hop service, not just growing and harvesting them but managing the processing, storage and logistics of whole flower and pelleted products. Here's where I believe Yakima's real success stems from; the marriage of ability, opportunity and sheer belief. Although I'm inherently dubious about vision/mission statements, I love Hopunion's - "To have our hops in every craft brew kettle in the world". After all, why aim low?

When we talk of Yakima hops such as Simcoe, Warrior, Amarillo, Columbus, Tomahawk and Zeus, we're talking about the products of experimentation and research. Of continued development and investment, borne of a desire to ensure reliability whilst still innovating. Those are Yakima qualities to be admired as much as the aroma and bittering of their hops.


Hops A-Z; X is for Xanthohumol

I touched on xantholhumol in an earlier article and I think it deserves to be discussed at further length. Mainly because I can't think of anything else to write about related to hops that begins with the letter X.

A prenylated flavonoid (that is, one insoluble in water, I think), xantholhumol (herefafter 'X') is only found in hops and is attracting much attention from both the brewing and medical professions. Flavonoids in general have antioxidant characteristics; studies of X have shown it has more antioxidants than Vitamin E.

A whole host of medical benefits have been ascribed to X, such as slowing/stopping tumour growth, being anti-viral and anti-inflammatory. Discovered in 1913 and identified as a potential anti-cancer agent in the 1990s at Oregon State University, X is seen by some researchers as a 'golden bullet' that could form the basis of super-drugs or diet supplements.

Not that it's easy to make the most of it, mind. X makes up around 1% of total hop weight. Like many hop products, up to 90% of X volume is lost through the brewing process. And when it isomerises (to, you guessed it, iX) it's less effective - although recent studies suggest that the anti-inflammatory effect of iX may be greater than X itself. As for the amount of X left in beer... estimates differ widely, but conservative figures suggest an individual would need to drink in excess of 25 litres of beer per day to ingest enough X to make a difference. By which time, they'd have more medical issues to worry about.

Perhaps the future of X in beer is concerned with optimising its level. Studies show that X is found in higher concentrations in darker beers such as stouts and porters, possibly as roasted barley may inhibit X's isomerisation. Test brews in Germany have achieved ten times the usual level of X in a beer but still has 'normal' calorie and alcohol levels.

Or maybe the future application of X lies outside of beer altogether. Rather than bolster the X level of beer through X-rich supplements, why not just use the supplements in other foodstuffs and/or medicines? That's something that Hopsteiner are keen to promote with their X-derived product Xantho-Flav.

It may just be that, if its medical potential is fully realised, xanthohumol could become the primary driver for world hop production. There's something to think about the next time you have a beer... if the medical demand corners the hop supply, will brewers be left with a gruit future?


Hops A-Z; W is for Wye College

Wye College has become synonymous with English hop research and development. Which makes its recent decline seem ever more bitter.

It has an impressive academic pedigree. It was formed as a College of Secular Clergy in the mid fifteenth century. In 1894 the South Eastern Agricultural College was established there and soon became a beacon of agricultural science with the staff's publication of research papers and seminal textbooks. By 1896, Wye had become part of the University of London and began its first research into hops ten years later.

Through the pioneering work of staff such as Professor E S Salmon, Doctor Ray Neve and Doctor Peter Darby, Wye made both critical and innovative advances in hop development. The wild Manitoban hop known as BB1 was cross-bred with English partners to produce seminal hop varieties such as Brewers Gold, Bullion and Northern Brewer. Bramling Cross, Challenger, Northdown, Target and Yeoman all trace their roots back to Wye.

The college was also at the forefront of research into dwarf hop varieties. Seen as a way of revitalising the English hop industry through the flexibilities of scale they offer, early varieties such as First Gold and Boadicea were developed there.

But recent years have not been good for Wye College. Having lost its college status in 2000 it merged with Imperial. Financial shortfalls and an abandoned bid to build a science park at the college followed. In 2004 the agricultural sciences department was marked for closure, ending almost a century of hop research on the site. When management courses ceased in 2009 as student numbers collapsed, five hundred-plus years of education at Wye came to a close.

Still, Wye's hop legacy lives on. With land and buildings donated by Tony Redsell at China Farm and local brewers Shepherd Neame at Queens Court Farm, Doctor Peter Darby continues to innovate. A new dwarf variety, the first result of the National Hop Association's breeding programme, featured in a beer presented to members of the Society of Independent Brewers earlier this year.

The college itself faces an uncertain future. A covenant stipulates that part of the campus can only be used for academic purposes; the University of Buckingham is rumoured to have expressed an interest. Meanwhile, whilst some of the farmland and property has been tenented, the historic college buildings lay empty.

It's taken barely ten years to dismantle a resource that thrived for a century. It seems that plans to rekindle learning at Wye are serious - the phoenixwyecollege initiative looks to be moving in the right direction. Here's hoping that agricultural research at Wye can look forward to a new chapter rather than the Imperial years becoming an ignominious postscript in the college's proud hop history.


Hops A-Z: V is for Verband Deutscher Hopfenpflanzer

It's taken me until the 22nd letter of this A-Z to include them. Many readers have questioned their omission so far. Truth be told, I could have dedicated the whole project to them, several times over, such is their impact on the history of hop production. Their hop growing association is the VDH; the country is Germany.

The problem with discussing the German hop industry is that it's hard to know where to start and where to end. Perhaps we start right back in ninth-century Hallertau, said by some to be the cradle of commercial hop growing for beer production. Perhaps we ought to look to the fact that the Hallertau region alone was responsible for 30% of the world's hop production in 2008.

How did the region - indeed, the country - come to dominate? Specialist knowledge developed over centuries. Evolving production methods. Innovative research facilities. Highly competitive marketing structures. Great adaptability to the requirements of the global hop market. And, perhaps, the work of their Hop Growers Association.

For over 125 years, the Verband Deutscher Hopfenpflanzer (VDH) have represented the interests of German hop growers. Their headquarters is in the 'House of Hops' in Wolnzach, shared with the regional associations and the State Institute for Hop Production. Here, the umbrella organisation for the nation's hop industry is involved with hop supply contract negotiation, market regulation, sales and marketing promotion, tax and legal advice for members, publicity and representation of the industry at national and international level.

I'd argue that Germany's position in the hop hierarchy is in no small measure due to the resources expended in such associations as the VDH. There's so much detail that I could explore here, but I'm limited by space and my tangential grip on the German language. I feel another series of articles coming on... looks like I need to add German language lessons onto the self-study guide alongside biochemistry :)


Hops A-Z; U is for Utilisation

It's one thing to have heaps of sticky lupulin to cram into a beer. It's something else to get the right amount of bitterness in there - and keep it there.

The isomerisation of alpha-acids we've talked about earlier isn't a straightforward equation. In fact, it's a fairly inefficient process. If a brewer achieved 50% utilisation - that is, 50% of the alpha-acids present in the hops were isomerised and made present in the beer - that would be outstanding. A utilisation rate of 25-40% is more usual.

There are a whole number of factors that a brewer has to consider when trying to optimise the utilisation rate:

Type of hop product used?
- pellets and shredded cones utilise better than whole flowers

Rate of hopping
- More hops lead to less utilisation

Length of boil
- a vigorous boil for 60 mins at 100c helps disperse the alpha better, but eventually the longer the boil, the more the alpha-acids degrade

Nature of the wort
- higher gravity and lower pH worts reduce utilisation

Fermentation conditions
- a flocculant yeast reduces utilisation as it drags iso-alphas from the beer

Maturation and filtration
- the time and temperature of maturation, twinned with the level of filtration, will affect the level of iso-alphas surviving in the finished beer.

What fascinates me about utilisation is the coming-together of science and art. There are a whole host of tables that analyse the utilisation rate in terms of bitterness units, boil times and original gravity. Knowing the utilisation rate and the alpha of the hops used, you can calculate the bitterness of the beer. Knowing the bitterness level you want, you can do the maths backward to understand the utilisation rate needed and therefore the boil time required for the beer's gravity.

But there's a touchy-feely side to all of this that I didn't fully appreciate until I worked with commercial brewers. How the equation is changed by the shape of the copper, the combination of hops, fluctuations in the crop, tired yeasts, which side of bed the brewer got out of that morning...

If it was all about the maths, utilisation would be easy. Brewing would be easy. Thankfully, there's enough organic stuff in the equation to make the process far from predictable. As macro-brewed, numbers-driven beer proves all too often, exacting maths can lead to dependably boring beer.


The best American beer in the UK?

I've just tasted the best draught American beer that you can buy in the UK.

If it were the product of a West Coast brewpub, said establishment would enter into brewing folklore and be rammed whenever this beer was tapped.

If it were bottled once-yearly, fans would drive all night to queue all morning for the chance of buying a case.

It's riven with sticky, dirty citric hops. Not polished and effortless and fragrant hops. Big, fat, in-your-face, on your gums and down your throat hops. An aroma and flavour that sticks in you like actual resin would.

It's an American Pale in style. It's overflowing with American hops. But it's brewed in Derbyshire. Now, strictly speaking, you may say that it's not actually an American beer. But I'd say it is American in attitude, approach and execution.

It's not going to get the wider recognition that it deserves. Brewed infrequently, distributed narrowly, it's a here-today-gone-later-today beer. Which is just the way I like it. As good as any limited-release US hop bomb, without the hype and overwrought expectation...

Reader, I drank it. A quiet lunchtime I had: my pint and I, the landlord and the chef, were alone present. When I got back from the pub, I went into the chatrooms of the internet, where an old pal was surfing, and I said -

"Mr X, I have drank That American Style beer this morning."

Mr X said only -

"Have you, Scoop? Well, for sure!"

(and before anyone asks; no, it wasn't from Thornbridge. We do have other great breweries in the county, you know).


Westvleteren to release cask beer in UK

In a move that's rocked the beer world, revered Trappist brewers Westvleteren have announced that they're producing a new brew - exclusively for the UK cask market.

The monks are renowned for their high quality beers which are usually hard to obtain; their beer isn't sold commercially for profit. However, with the abbey's expansion plans finally approved (to house the Gareth Prescott Institute of Crystal Malt Research), the abbey decided that only a special cask beer could generate the necessary funds.

Brewed today only and then matured for a year, the high-ABV Double Tripel Smoked Hefe Porter is said to offer rich candied toffee flavours, topped with preserved fruit aromas with just a hint of anchovy.

Due for release exclusively in J D Wetherspoons pubs on April 1st next year, Tim Martin could neither confirm nor deny that he'd already commissioned a Flemish translation of 'coming soon' for the commemorative pumpclips.