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28th January 2021

Back To The Future – A Case For “Old Skool” Hops

Brett Matthews, from our associate company V-Brew, gives his thoughts on heritage UK hops and a possible comeback.

Two or so years ago, I was chatting with a brewer from Perth, Western Australia, who had just picked up a few gongs for his fantastic super hopped beers at the Royal Perth Show. His creations were jam packed with new world favourites; Galaxy, Vic Secret, Enigma and were truly great beers. Talking all things hops, I mentioned that I’d been playing around with some old school hops and loved the results. “Oh, you mean like Cascade and Centennial”, he said.

Well, no.

After blasting my palate with highly hopped, super bitter IPA’s and DIPA’s for sometime, out of curiosity and looking for something a little more ‘simple’, I began to create beers using the outliers of the hop world; Cluster, Bullion, Pride of Ringwood* and the like. Simple grain bill, moderate ABV and single hop expressions. Almost like going back to first principles.

These beers were so pleasing due to their simplicity. Earthy, woody, spice, herbal. Malt and hops intertwining. They were ‘beery’ beers.

Fast forward to early 2020 and my family and I move from Melbourne to Leeds. What timing. Leeds has a brilliant craft brewing scene of which I was more than happy to immerse myself in. It’s a scene that has it’s mirror image across the globe; those super punchy, bright tropical hops are front and centre and breweries across the board are banging out great beer. But the beer I keep going back to? My old faithful? Not groundbreaking I know, but it’s Timothy Taylors Landlord. Magnificent in its simplicity. Hops play a solid supporting role. Much like the rhythm guitar. Obvious when it’s not there, not so when it is.

And so I thought I was on my own in this quest to bring back the unloved to hero status, but I’ve recently picked up on a small but growing trend of brewers in the US and back in Australia seeking out more home-grown “noble” hops or looking back at heritage hops. A recent article mentions American brewers “discovering” English hops. So is this the start of a trend or just a blip on the radar?

Like all trends, movements or fashions, it’s all about pendulum swings. New wave hops that hit the craft brewing scene have served a very important purpose; they’ve introduced a new drinker to craft beer, those that may not have been too interested in drinking the stock standard fare pumped out by the big guys. But they’ll start looking for something new. And I suppose they already have, with the keen interest in kettle-sours and gose, fruit (and other weird and wonderful ingredients) flavoured beer and barrel aged beer.

But where to then?

Well, maybe it’s ‘craft’ traditional styles. The craft lager brewing movement has kicked off in the US with the likes of Live Oak, Beirstadt and Prost Brewing leading the charge. Old styles with a modern bent.

Perhaps that’s where it starts here. Perhaps not with lager but with traditional British styles. And there are some stellar examples to be found already. Five Points Brewing have their sensational pale using UK hops in quantities more appropriate for a West Coast US pale. I bet hops growers love these guys!

The punchier, fruitier hops are here to stay and there’s newer varieties in ongoing development. But is there an argument for the development of new ‘old school’ hop varieties? Is this a possible trend that the UK could lead? And much like the resurrection of heritage malt varieties, could the UK cause a stir by giving the Lazarus treatment to Early Bird, Keyworths Midseason and Sussex?

*Pride of Ringwood cops a bad rap, particularly in Australia and I’d say unfairly. It was once said during development that the hop was quite ‘Kentish’, which I think is a stretch, but it is a very expressive hop that works well in traditional English styles.

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