root crop fork

Hovering Up Hops when Drying in an Oast House

It has been a week of unexpected treats, the foremost is that I have been given a hovering up fork and I am chuffed to bits. This was a super practical surprise gift from a very special friend and I could not be more delighted. This is the fork he had always used for hovering up his hops as they sat on the drying floor in the oast house for their allotted drying time and which he had found perfect for purpose. Hence he thought I might like it! Like it, well I am jumping for joy.

When traditionally drying hops with charcoal in an oast house I do not then have the advantage of the modern oil unit fans which force air through the bed of green hops. With this traditionally method of drying hops you utilise natural draft, so I needed to find a way of hovering up the hops as they sat on the kiln during their designated drying time. Hovering up basically means moving the hops very gently by lifting the hovering up fork through the bed of hops to carefully loosen any compact areas by shifting their positions.  This ensures even drying, hence this gift could not be more perfect or, more perfectly timed. When drying hops in this old-fashioned way, it not only takes longer but I keep the temperature within the lower drying range to preserve the natural oils in the hops.

I had been toying with different ideas of how to make a flat pronged wooden fork for hovering up the hops, but the round ends on this one prevent you getting all in a toe-tangle by catching up the lifter clothes under the hops.
root crop fork

Before my friend upcycled this fork it was not originally made for hovering up hops. I understand it was a root crop fork which would have been used to move root crops like turnips and mangels.  The rounded end simply prevented the roots from being spiked.

The second treat was that the sun shone this week making banding-in a pleasure and still no chilly fingers this year. I think this is a record and we should wrap up the banding shortly.

Thirdly, while not exactly a treat as such, I have finished a seasonal job which is satisfyingly shaving chestnut smrewarding. So with the sun shining I completed  debarking some chestnut poles for the new section of the hop garden. Normally the hop garden would go up before the hop setts were planted but this time, it is of necessity back to front. Then the ground was far too wet this winter to get on it with a tractor to auger in the hop poles prior to planting. So the hop setts went in and as soon as the ground is dry enough these poles can be put in to make the extension. Wirework and hooking for the stringing can then be added to the poles, as I said a very back to front. The Sussex Zig Zag is proving to be unorthodox all round!

Whilst shaving the chestnut I thought how amazing the patterns on the bark were, a close up shot could almost be mistaken as an image of the earth from space.

chestnut bark

Here in the High Weald we are blessed with acres of stunning ancient woodlands and miles of hedgerows, amazing in their variety of species. However, there are huge clouds in the landscape, I cannot say horizon as these problems are already upon us, we have a tree disease which is  affecting our sweet chestnut trees .  This is in addition to the serious Ash and Oak die back diseases, and horse chestnut problems. With that and the huge deer population now ensconced in this area, our beautiful woodlands are seriously threatened.

hop banding in strings

Banding-in The Hop Strings

The first job of the hop growing year is hop stringing and banding-in, it is the true beginning of the growing season. Winter is usually when any wire-working renewal or repairs are conducted, but stringing which starts in late winter or very early spring in this area is one job that is nice to get done, dusted and out of the way before the weather warms and the main season for farm work starts. It is a job where heavy tractors aren’t needed on the land, hence it is perfect for when the ground is soft as only man power is required.

hop stringing

 

Stringing the hops is normally man’s work which goes hand in hand with banding-in which is generally ladies work. This is not for any chauvinistic reasons, it is just that it makes sense that as the men are stringing we ladies can do the banding-in. That way the job gets done efficiently and after all, we are all working towards the same end.

banding-in

It seems it has always been thus! Have a look at the Pathe news clip of stringing and banding-in competition, it is a joy to watch but our men do not move as fast as this! This early season here has more a relaxed, less urgent air.

In fact the whole Pathe news clip series is a wonderful archive of days past. It is interesting that not much has changed in the growing of hops other that the amount of folk that were needed to get the crop hand picked at harvest back then. Thank you to the Pathe team for permission to allow me to include their links in my posts.

There are several different patterns for stringing and not all of the patterns require banding-in. The reason that it is necessary for the more upright ‘umbrella work’ style of stringing is simply to hold the strings back to stop them falling into the centre of the alleys. By banding-in the 4 strings on each hop hill, this forms a tunnel for a tractor to drive down each hop alley once the hops are full grown and more especially when they are heavy and wet.

banding-in and hop tunnel

Banding-in is an easy job, it’s not physically demanding and with a happy companion and a few shared interests to discuss, the days out-of-doors slip past pleasantly. Hands fly on automatic pilot – 1 half hitch, 3 alternating twists and a reef knot, move onto the next hill and repeat, it is a job that allows for easy conversation as you go along.

banding-in close up

If you are on your own, wildlife seem unconcerned by a solitary figure moving slowly through the strings, you can then daydream or think, it’s repetitive nature is meditative. If bored with your own company you can always listen to a personal radio of course!

Those are the pleasant things about banding-in and as with most seasonal jobs on a farm while it may not need much brain power, or work which you may not like, but you can take heart in that it will not last for very long. Extra layers of clothing can be discarded if the sun comes out, but if it gets colder the layers of clothing rapidly go back on and at times we can end up resembling extras from a scene in a film set in deepest coldest Siberia.

frosty hop strings

Downside, well like all jobs it certainly has one and this one is chilly finger tips. Everything else can be covered with layers and you can keep warm, but if the strings are wet with dew or rain and especially on breezy days, finger tips quickly become painfully cold. Frosty strings in the morning are worse! Brr cups of hot drink are needed more for warming hands than for quenching thirst, but so far this year it has been a good one for toasty fingers.

flask to warm hands

It may seem like a ‘nothing much’ job but as with everything to do with growing hops every little insignificant piece is part of the larger jigsaw and the majority of it is hand work. There is something in nothing if you allow yourself to be interested and see the point of the end result.

The string used in hop gardens is coconut fibre made from the outer husks of coconuts, it is collected and spun in Sri Lanka It is hairy and coarse making it perfect for the bines to climb up in their rapid assent to the top of the wire-work. When banding-in we love to spot the occasional bright coloured threads caught in the twine. whilst we are working outdoors in the soft muted palette of an English countryside in winter, the bright primary colours of these threads look incongruous in this setting. These threads allude to women in their colourful saris spinning this twine in warmer Sri Lanka. It is nice to feel that connection, we are all doing a simple job but each is an essential part of the bigger picture.

hop strings

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7VvRP3EqnLk

That is what makes the hop growing so interesting, it’s rewarding that however insignificant your job seems, you know you are a small link in the larger chain of the hop growing year.

First Gold hop Setts being planted

PicMonkey CollageThe First Gold hop variety which Ashley chose in the ‘Be A Hop Grower for a Season’ draw arrived earlier this week.

The laid back feel of the outdoor winter work for the hop grower  suddenly ended, stringing and banding are underway but with the delivery of the new hop setts, its all change and we are up on our starting blocks for the off.  Growing hops should come with an Official Government Health Warning, it can be addictive. Ashley you have been warned!  That withstanding I really hope you enjoy our year ahead and the end product.

Yesterday 11th February was a beautiful February day, an early ground frost then the sun shone, a perfect day to be outside to start planting hop setts – my friend and I even got our jackets off.  The soft golden sunshine of February to plant out the First Gold hops was very apt, golden light on these First gold hop setts felt like a good omen.

PicMonkey Collage

All the hop setts arrived in perfect condition. Thank you to Stephen Wright who always produces such wonderful quality setts.

The First Gold hop setts were planted out second as that was the space I had chosen for them, leaving the Northern Brewer hops needing to be planted first. Ideally of course the ground could have been drier, but although very sticky on top, it was not too bad once underneath that first yukky layer.   Wealden clay makes it easy at times to think wistfully of the lighter Suffolk soil where these hop setts were grown – we are either soggy or like concrete with only brief windows of ‘just right’ in between these extremes!

The other varieties being planted this year are Chinook hops and Bullion hops.  Four very different hop varieties to brew with, seemingly different looking setts and probably four very different varieties with their own quirks to test a hop grower.   Growing hops is never boring.
heeling in First Gold hop sett

 

We are doing a trial run for a slightly different style of design for this new hop garden, it requires a different layout for the hop hills when planting. It remains to be seen how successful ( or not! ) this will be but unless you try you don’t know. However it has also meant working out a new hop stringing configuration, which we have nicknamed the Sussex Zig Zag. A plus for this Zig Zag method of growing hops is that it allows plenty of air around the growing bines. In hop gardens strung using the Umbrella method of stringing, the plants are set out at 6’6”, a coincidence that is exactly 2 metres in today’s metric language. Growing hops on the Zig Zag design each hill is planted alternately with 3’3” spacing up a line. But because they are planted alternately either side of the centre line each plant is at least 6’6” from it’s neighbour. The screw pegs are laid out to mark the planting positions for the hop setts and will stay there permanently ready for stringing.

Hopefully this sketch will this make clearer.

 

new hop garden planting design

 

savedI so love young hops, these new First Gold hop setts for planting now have kicked off that full of promise  ‘spring is here’ feeling!

However, for a hop grower I am not the fastest planter, I confess to rescuing earthworms as I see them, then placing them back on the soft soil afterwards. I know I am not alone in being unable to knowingly chop a worm in two.  On the radio I once heard a remark by someone who said           “I could never be friends with someone who deliberately trod on an earthworm” Hear hear to that. But I do love to be hands on and feel the soil. It’s satisfying to see each hop sett nestled in with just the buds showing.  It is important not to plant them too deeply.  The Northern Brewer hop variety and First Gold hop setts were all planted, then spot on cue last night we had heavy rain to settle them in.

First gold hop sett settled in

A First Gold hop sett planted with buds just showing

Target Hops – An Aroma to Brighten the Wet Weather

February so far is certainly living up to its Country Law reputation of :-

‘February Fill Dyke,
Black or White’

Here the fields are sodden and the dykes are all running brim full and black.

sodden fields

Meanwhile we are hoping for a little respite from the wet. With the expected arrival of this years hop setts, we are hoping that when they arrive we will have a week of dry weather to get them settled out nicely into ground.

I have the 4 varieties ordered which were offered as the choices in this winter’s draw   –  Bullion, First Gold, Chinook and Northern Brewer.

In this area on another hop farm, hop stringing, which is still all done by hand began on nice days at end of January. Flat caps essential!

target hops being strung

Meanwhile indoors our kitchen larder has the delicious aroma from an opened pack of target hops awaiting the next brewing session.

Every time the door is opened we are treated to a mouth wateringly delicious spicy rich fruit cake type aroma – I cannot help wondering why this dual purpose variety is not more poplar for home brewing.

However dull it seems there are signs everywhere that spring is on its way – primroses in flower on sunny banks, green shoots poking up through the soil, the first snowdrops and catkins.

catking on the hop farm

Vintage Hop Press Revamp

Whilst servicing goes on throughout the year on any farm, winter is the time for repairs or any major maintenance jobs. This year the hand hop press, which was a very special gift, needed repairing. This ancient J L Larkworthy from Worcestershire wasn’t exactly broken but when it was used last September for the first time since 1982, it had thrown up a problem that definitely needed fixing before next year.

vintage hop press

The hop press works by using the inherent weight of its stem combined with its gearing. The hop pocket is supported underneath by a sling below, the top being secured by a ring at floor level and when the empty pocket is filled up with loose dried hops, the press is put out of gear allowing the pan to fall utilising gravity and its own weight to do the initial stage of each pressing for you. You then put it back into gear and wind down the handle to apply the final pressure needed on each pressing before winding it back up to repeat the process all over again.

dried hops cooling on the floor

 

You simply repeat this sequence until the hop pocket is full of pressed hops. Each pocket will usually take 8 to 12 pressings to fill, depending on the variety of hops. The pocket is then sewn up and dropped out to the chamber below in a traditional oast and the next pocket put in. In a modern oast, pockets are often pressed into a hole in the concrete floor and then winched out. These days pockets are in fact fast being superseded by square bales which are smaller, easier to lift and move on pallets and more efficient to stack in a warehouse.

What’s to go wrong? Well nothing one would imagine with a hand winding mechanism, all that is needed is to keep the hop press well oiled. However, the out-of-gear initial ‘free fall’ is an important part of the process as hand winding throughout the whole process would make the work painfully slow and tedious, hence you want the press to do what it was designed to do, which is a good percentage of the work for you. The large wheel here weaved out of alignment by an inch, so naturally we thought the cast iron wheel itself was slightly warped. That in itself, though not perfect would have been fine.

However, when using it with hops underneath, it was the first time it was able to be put out of gear to free fall – omg what was that? there was a horrible noise as the cogs on the outside of the large wheel hit the edges of the cast iron casing which hold the gearing, then as the wheel weaved lopsidedly an inch to the other side it touched the main gear cog. Each of these contacts was by only a smidge, but a smidge would be just enough to cause the cast iron teeth to shear off eventually, hence it was top of the list of priority ‘get fixed this winter’ jobs. Oddly it did not hit the sides when it was wound throughout by hand.

The large wheel was removed along with the shaft but it was not the wheel that was bent as we had thought, it was only the very end of the shaft which protrudes from the main press body to hold the large drive wheel, it was barely noticeable at a quick glance.

hop press disassembled for repair

hop press wheel and key-way

This press was built as a hand press around 1900, converted to be used as an electrically operated press in 1970 it was used as such up until1982. The forces are much greater when powered by an electric motor, hence it is most likely that over this 12 year period with these extra forces, this was when the slight bend at the shaft end occurred. This did not show up until it was brought out of retirement and converted back to be used as a hand hop press 33 years later. I do not think there are many or indeed any hand presses being used nowadays, they would simply not be efficient on any large farm.

We took the large drive wheel and shaft to a local engineering firm to be straightened as much as possible and a new key-way was rebuilt.

hop press shaft after straightening and new key way cut

The wheel will always show a very slight weave but this is quite acceptable, the shaft is still original, it is part of its history now and it no longer hits other parts of the frame, so does not matter.

hop press not hitting edges now

Taking things off an old press is one thing but reassembly is quite another, it does not go exactly as you think it should and once the shaft had been straightened it had knock on effect on other bolts and alignment of the metal fixings.  With the wheel off my husband had put on the original handle that had to be cut off when the hop press was electrified.

vintage hop press new handle being welded on

Beautiful, now fully resorted it’s as good as new and rearing to go.

hop press final test to check alignment is all correct before tightening nuts

This wry extract is from a family poem from where the press came from, it was written in 1970 –  this same press gets a mention, as does the nightmare every grower dreads, of having a hop garden down ……

A second hand machine, was the next good buy

It will save us pounds up went the cry.

It came from Cranbrook, all complete

We built the shed and laid concrete.

 

They fitted new rollers and an electric press

whether it will work is any ones guess.

The next year we grew a tremendous crop

The bines went straight up and over the top.

 

One week before picking amidst heavy rain

The anchor wires snapped and down it all came!

Thumb’s up for the ‘brew in a bag’ method for an easy home beer making process

I am now on dangerous ground, as the saying warns ‘Fool’s rush in where Angels fear to tread’,  so this Angel is treading very very carefully!   I fully respect that everyone has their own special method to produce their perfect craft beer at home and I am certainly not giving any advise but will only explain my husband’s beer making process and show you the very basic kit which he uses, should anyone be interested.

My husband is a home brewer, but being a farmer first and foremost with the  ‘make, mend and do’  attitude firmly ingrained into his psyche, whilst he has often looked longingly at the Braumeister style apparatus, he remains stoically loyal to the very basic beer brewing kit he already has.  You don’t need any fancy brew kit to get going with the beer making process.   The main components of his home brew hardware did not start out life as beer brewing equipment at all, but has been reinvented for purpose and he would be loathe to change it –  it works well, therefore he reckons if it’s not broken, don’t fix it!

His beer brewing equipment is –

  • 2 stainless steel redundant ex milk buckets, (one for the brewing and one for the fermentation vessel)
  • An old tin bath, which is topped off by an even more ancient gas stove that lives outside (under cover of course)  A practical plus for this stove is that the steam during the hour long rolling boil, all happens outdoors and not in the kitchen.   Another plus for his beer brewing equipment is the simplicity of cleaning it and how little equipment there actually is to clean.
  • A glass hydrometer was a survivor from years ago, during our brief and very variable sortie into wine making
  • A stainless steel strainer we already had.  This strainer has now been requisitioned by the brewing department.   the kit

New kit purchased was:

  • a thermometer
  • tubing for syphoning
  • nylon voile for the bags.  Bags were actually made from fine mesh nylon curtaining which is perfect.  They are best  sewn up to approximately to fit the container being used.  You just need to make sure the bag is kept off the bottom of your vessel whilst the heat is on,  an upturned colander or similar will suffice.

He brews 10 litres at a time rather than what I understand to be the more normal 20  litres. The theory behind these 10 litre brews is that the buckets are easier to lift and recipes can be tweaked or a completely different home beer recipe tried without any concern that you may have lot of beer you do not like.   This has only been the case once so far, he over-hopped a brew that made American IPA’s look insipid!   I thought my hair would curl, but it did make an excellent shandy.

When he first came across  about the Australian ‘brew in a bag’ method   he thought it sounded rather corny, but after trying it, this method is no gimmick.     The basic rules for all brewing are simple – have scrupulously clean equipment and bottles, good quality ingredients, accurate temperatures, accurate timings and in this case careful removal of the bag of malt so it can drain naturally.  Resisting the temptation to give it a squeeze.

I am sure everyone has their own very personal preferences to technique, hence my caution writing about this but if the proof of the pudding is in the eating (or drinking in this case!)   then this method has a full 10/10 and big thumbs up from me.

I am shortly to have a tentative foray in to the world of brewing but using hops and no malt!  But that will be for another time.

Quick guide to the easy home beer making process ‘BREW IN A BAG’ method with one of my husbands recipes

NB -To end up with approx 9 litres to bottle you need to start with 13 litres of water

Ingredients for his American Light Bitter

1.5kg pale malted barley

75gm crystal malt

130gm Polenta

2ozs Goldings hops

1oz Cascade hops

Halfera packet of S-05 yeast

Method

*Bring 13 litres water to 67C

*Put malts and polenta in the voile bag, gently lower and prod carefully down to wet grains (you do not want to introduce any air at this point) Tie top of bag securely to top of the brew vessel.  Steep for 70 mins at 67C.       You can turn off heat if needs be to keep temperature level.

*Remove bag of malt and allow to drain into the vessel. Do not squeeze, it is very tempting! but DON’T DO IT!

allowing the malt to drain- do not squeeze

*Bring wort to a rolling boil for 1 hour in total, adding 1oz golding hops immediately boiling point is reached.

After 30 mins add 1oz Goldings hops then for the last 10 mins of the boil add the Cascade hops.

weighing t he hops

* Strain hops from wort and immediately cool as quickly as possible to 25C.   The old tin bath is perfect here.   To help wort oxygenate at this stage the wort can be strained to and fro between both stainless steel vessels a few times. This also helps speed the cooling.

straining the hops off

coolin gdown

watching the temperature

*Once at 25C stand vessel in warm environment to ferment and add yeast.  My husband uses the open top method with this vessel, covering it with a nylon cover then a clean cotton cloth.

Bottled when hydrometer shows it is ready or after about 10 days.

all done only the wait now

If you are interested to see  this home beer making process of  ‘brewing in a bag’ this lady has it down to a fine art.

Meanderings through Apple Orchards to get to that Glass of Beer!

It was a while ago that this little sequence of events began.  At the beginning of October a friend came to help me pick all the apples that were not to be stored this year .

apple pickingI am only talking about small quantities here as it is not a large commercial orchard, but as I hate wasting the fruit this was the perfect solution to use all the excess apples.   The trees are a naturally grown mix of eaters and cookers, a miss mash of varieties,  the theory being that every year at least one variety should do well.

a mish mash of all sorts

I had already collected a large crate from Ringden Farm  so to make life easier we were able to pick directly into this in the back of the pickup and duly delivered the harvest to Ringden Farm.   Then the wait to receive the bottles of apple juice.  Ringden give an excellent service – they press, pasteurise and bottle for you.   Apple picking time is their peek rush hour time, consequently it takes about 5 weeks before you take delivery of your juice.

apple juiced 2

At the recent visit to the West Dean Apple Affair early in October I had joined a guided tour around their orchards to listen to the talk about their different old varieties.

all sorts of varieties

bloody ploughman apple

apple tastings were available

One of my favourite apples is the Keswick Codlin which my husband’s Grandparent’s grew.    It’s early, does not need very much sugar and turns into a white puree when cooked.   It has a distinctive scar line in its skin running down one side.    Apparently the Keswick Codlin was  originally found growing on a rubbish dump in Keswick in 1793,   so when our tour guide passed a Keswick Codlin tree and told us that this was the apple of choice in ancient times for ‘Lamb’s Wool’ my ears pricked up.

Keswick Codins showing line down their lengthKeswick Codlins showing line down their length

He said that these apples would be roasted over a fire until they foamed and frothed, (knowing how they bake this makes perfect sense) this froth was allowed to drip into the warmed ale beneath.  While a spit could be easily improvised over our fire, sadly all the remaining Keswick Codlins had already gone for apple juicing to Ringden Farm a few days previously!   This could be another interesting thing to put on the ’to do’  list for next year.

The name ‘Lambs wool’ I thought most likely stemmed from the froth resembling lambs wool floating on top. However, after some quick research I found this article  –  according to Richard Cook in 1835, it seems it was most probable that it derived from the Celtic pagan festival of ‘La mas ubal’, The Day of the Apple Fruit, and this gradually became corrupted to ‘Lamb’s Wool’.

Another recipe printed below from 1633,  may be good for you but mulled beer and eggs?!   Mmmm I don’t think so.  I would rather have an omelette, followed by a spicy baked apple, accompanied by a decent glass of unadulterated beer!

LAMBS WOOL RECIPE FROM 1633 – UNATTRIBUTED SOURCE

Boil three pints of ale; beat six eggs, the whites and yolks together; set both to the fire in a pewter pot; add roasted apples, sugar, beaten nutmegs, cloves, and ginger; and, being well brewed, drink it while hot.

Read more about Lambs Wool here

 

  

tea cosy from hop fabrics

Sewing with Hop Fabrics

Since my daughter & son in law, Nova & Andy emigrated to live in Australia 15 years ago, Nova has always said she has got used to the hot Christmases and other key dates except for September. Having been brought up on a hop farm September is and always will mean only one thing…… ‘hop picking’ and heralding the start of autumn. So with this in mind I sent Nova some of my new ‘hoppy’ fabrics to play with hoping she would have fun with them and a mini hop picking celebration of her own.   This is what she has made with the bits and pieces in the mixed bunch of hop fabrics.

hop fabric tea cosy

book pincushion, with hop fabricshop fabric book pincuhion open

hop fabrics pincushionThe t-cosy made me smile and the little pincushion so sweet.   Thank you Nova for sharing!

Hop fabrics available here & the book pincushion pattern is available from Patchwork Pottery.

load of cascade hops in the kiln

Traditional Charcoal Drying of Cascade Hops

In preparation for this first traditional charcoal drying of the Cascade hops,  locally made charcoal had already been sourced and collected during the summer.     All other hop varieties had been picked  and dried with an oil fired drying unit in the usual way used by growers today.   The late variety Cascade hops had been ear marked for this initial trial drying traditionally with charcoal.

When the hops were picked last weekend, the weather turned out to be perfect for this first trial drying, it was a dry and clear day with a light breeze running.     After the preceding wet week this felt like a good omen.

cutting the hop bines

There is only so much you can pick up from old books and hearsay from the very few remaining people who can remember  cascade hops being dried with coal and charcoal kilns. Basically it had to be a practical hands on, ‘go for it’ , learning on the job experience.   Of course it will take several burns before I become familiar with the many aspects of the furnace and the nuances of how the new oast behaves in different atmospheric conditions.

levelling the load of hops in the kiln

The hops were loaded very shallowly compared to their oil dried counterpart loads but carefully raked level in the same way.   I use a solid fuel rayburn to cook with so was hoping that this would stand me in good stead here.   The fire was lit and because this was a venture into unknown territory, the size and heat gradually increased until the correct temperature was reached.  Literally testing the temperature!  It was a surprise how quickly the temperature in the kiln responded to any alterations with the draft.

keeping watch of the charcaol kilnAs the hops were approaching being dry the fire was allowed to die down before unloading them onto the cooling floor then as for any other load left for a time before being pressed.

dried cascade hops cooling on the floorHave I already learnt masses?  Yes of course and would I try things a little differently next time?    Well again yes, I will make a few small changes,  but certainly nothing dramatic especially for another year yet.   And as for the finished article I am very happy with how things turned out with this initial trial drying.

pressing dried cascade hops by hand

If you’d like to try some of these traditionally dried Cascade hops in your next brew, visit the Hop Shop now as we only have a very limited quantity this year.