tasting beers guided by a beer sommelier

Tasting Beer guided by a Beer Sommelier

Tasting beer guided by a Beer Sommelier, Sophie Atherton, what better way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Sophie was the first woman Beer Sommelier. Today there are not only more women beer sommeliers, but women brewers and of course pub land-ladies, this increase of women in the industry seems entirely appropriate, after all hops are female too!

Earlier this year I had been genuinely surprised by the differences between 4 beers, each brewed using an identical Old English Hop Blend. It really highlighted my lack of ability to describe exactly what it was I liked about each brew or at other times the specific character I particularly like about any of my favourite beers. To be set on the right track I decided an official beer tasting would be the order of the day. I have always known exactly whether I love or dislike any beer, but from now on after tasting beer guided by a beer sommelier, I intend to practise putting into words accurately what those qualities are.

Our original small group was joined by a few extra friends and family for this beer tasting, all of whom are connected with hop growing. The oast house was made ready. A working oast was the perfect choice of venue, floorboards and walls percolate a background hop aroma. A rustic atmosphere, like patina on old furniture this effect takes years of drying and packaging hops to achieve.

Sophie Atherton selected a range of interesting beers to lead us firmly but gently out of our usual ‘beer’ comfort zones. Her careful choices showcased different brewing styles, with each beer a good example of its own style. Each beer style has it own characteristics, comparing them is rather like judging a Norfolk terrier against an Afghan Hound. Whilst both are dogs, they are very different in build and type from each other and each has it’s breed standard ideal. It is no different with beers, each particular style had its own specific characters which she explained as we went along.

We were spoilt, our masterclass of tasting beer guided by a Beer Sommelier for this session, were –

Redchurch dry hopped Sour beer,
Brewdog’s Dead Pony Club, session pale ale,
Pig and Porter’s Red Spider Ale,
Gadd’s No 3 English Pale Ale,
Saltaire’s Kala Black IPA,
Boutillier’s Rauchbier and
Harviestoun’s Ola Dubh 12 Porter

harvestouns ola dubh

These represented some of the excellent wide range of beers styles available today. This was a wonderfully diverse mix, I could happily wax lyrical about any of these beers. Palettes were cleansed with crackers and water between each beer, whilst blindfold smelling and tasting worked to focus our attention and heighten our sensory awareness.

The Sour was the first beer style we tasted, it certainly woke us up if some people’s startled reactions were anything to go by! However, after the second sip, this initial zesty shock subsided so it’s qualities could be fully appreciated. Interestingly, in general those who normally liked wine, also favoured this sharp, fresh tasting beer which would happily accompany a white fish supper. Food and beer tasting is of course a whole different ball game, but it was interesting to listen to Sophie just briefly touch on the subject in passing.

tasting beers guided by a beer sommelier

My lasting impression is that between sniffs and the first sip, it’s the second mouthful that imparts the most honest mouthful of flavour in any particular beer. That’s when I best discovered the hidden complexities in any beer. We rounded off the official tasting off with the Harvestoiuns Ola Dubh 12 year reserve Porter. This to me was a beer to savour, to be lingered over with someone you love. Perhaps best shared whilst watching the sun set or on a cold winter’s night by an open log fire, with only an oil lamp burning.

Cheers Sophie, thank you for a wonderful afternoon. Good beer, good company and good food, simple pleasures are indeed the best.

A special thank you to the suppliers who were without exception all very helpful. These beers were purchased from Eebria, Ales by Mail, The Beer Boutique TW, whilst Boutilliers and Harvestoun’s Breweries very generously sent us samples.

hop burr is rapidly coming out

This Year’s Hop burr Is Rapidly Coming Out

This year’s hop burr is rapidly coming out in the hop gardens. Of the main varieties grown here, the Northern Brewer variety is the boldest of these, hence the burr was also the first to appear a couple of weeks ago. With arable fields, the crops are constantly rotated but with hops it is different. They grow in the same ground for decades, a single hop variety can grow for 25 years without needing to be replaced. You get to know their foibles and as this year’s hop burr is rapidly coming out, it is like greeting old friends. I love the anticipation at this time of year,  they are exciting times for any grower.

hop burr is rapidly coming out

hop burr is rapidly coming out

In the hop gardens there are a few odd varieties that I can pick small quantities to ring the changes, for home brewers to try if they wish. The very first of the early hop varieties out in hop is the aptly named July hop. This will probably be followed by Early Bird. I have heard tell of a hop grower called Mr. Lovett who always wore a rather large flamboyant buttonhole of Early Bird hops variety for the Kent Show. The Show was 7th-9th July this year so I do not think there would have been any Early Bird hops ready this year.  Perhaps he grew one under glass as a contingency plan!  Below is the July Hop photographed yesterday –

July Hop Variety

In the grass fields the lesser knapweed is flourishing, a valuable nectar source for insects including bees, butterflies and lacewings. Goldfinch numbers have increased greatly in later years, they also feed on the seedbeds of this knapweed.

The combines are ready with a tentative start to harvest being made in this area, just a little nibble here and there, testing the moisture content of the ripe grain. Sunshine and warmth are needed, as soon as the sun comes out it will be full steam ahead. I can hardly believe it is harvest time already this year seems to have flown by.





first year hop platens

Young Hop Plants June Update

This year’s young hop plants are looking good. With the seedlings, I have two different crosses from which just 5 of one and 6 of the other were selected. I only plant a few seeds each year, it would be so easy to be over enthusiastic and plant too many, then be overrun.

Last year, the previous carefully nurtured selections, turned out to be all males. Disappointing, but at least they have not been wasted, they have all been put to good use as seeders in the gardens. Hop growing is a long term process even when buying in the setts, but I am still hoping that this year’s babies won’t be all males again.

Interestingly one of this year’s chosen varieties is from seeds all taken from a single wild female cone, yet half of them have lighter more golden leaves, while the other half are straightforward green.

hop plants coloured leaves

young hop plantsAs any gardener understands, the potential possibilities in all seeds is fascinating. I love the anticipation, nurturing them, their fine cotton thread shoots, wondering whether just maybe ……. this time could one of these young hop plants produce that extra special hop with a unique aroma, that little extra pizzazz ….… mmm we’ll have to wait and see.

It was a huge relief to finally get a good soaking rain. After all as country lore says – ‘A rain in June, puts all things in tune’. The warm weather following these rains has been just what these first year hop plants needed.  They have definitely all perked up, what the difference a month makes.

first year hop platens

Last but certainly not least, today is British National Beer Day

Non-alcoholic Drinks

When you want a choice of non-alcoholic drinks it can be hard to find something that tastes like a treat whilst not being too sweet. A long time ago I tried two alcohol free beers, they were both horrible, hence I’ve never been tempted to try any since. That is until last month when I picked up a bottle of Brewdog ‘Nanny State’ beer to read the label, I assumed it was another in the Brewdog range of craft beers. It was only then that I realised it was alcohol free. Well the name should have been a clue! Certainly an inspired name choice which made me smile as soon as I realised my mistake.

Still not convinced that it could be worth buying, I had skirted around it on the beer aisles for a few weeks, but then determined to be openminded decided to try one. Well it proved to be third time lucky. I was peasantry surprised, the smell was invitingly of ‘proper beer‘ and the taste was certainly craft beery. A nice hoppy bitterness, with none of the yukky flat after-taste I remember.  Since trying Brewdog’s Nanny State I was told about this excellent website – and yes of course Nanny State is on their non-alcoholic drinks list. Such a good idea, The people at Dry Drinker do all the hard work of sourcing for you and only sell what they have actually tried.

There is definitely a need for some more sophisticated non-alcoholic drinks. I was heartened last summer to read an article by Victoria Moore about a new family of non alcoholic drinks, which sound very grown up. More along the lines of non-alcoholic G & T’s, they sound tempting. At the moment finding them seems to be the hardest part, hence so far no luck. Before buying a bottle it would be nice to try a glass to see if we really like it or perhaps which one we would prefer. They don’t seem to be on offer in pubs. but I will keep looking out for them.

Meanwhile this month the hops also had their thirst quenched! Finally it rained, at last they had the good soaking they badly needed, it was getting pretty dire especially for the young ones.  The combination of the dry soil and cold night temperatures including a frost in April had put the brake on their normal rapid Spring growth. However, now that’s all changed, the hops will soon be rapidly climbing the strings.

first year hops

Growing Hops at Home

Growing hops at home is not much different to growing hops commercially on a larger scale, but at home it is just much easier to pamper a single plant.

Here we have had no rain. Nil, zilch, nada, nothing,  nothing at all, not even to lay the dust let alone enough to soak the ground.

growing hops at home

cascade first year hops

The ground is seriously dry.  Our clay loam soil is now badly cracked and unkind for any spring grown crop. The soil was wonderfully friable for planting hops setts this February with one well timed wet day shortly after planting to settle them in nicely. But, since then no follow-up rains have materialised. We have watched the skies hopefully on days when shower clouds gathered, but each time we have had to watch as every shower circled right around us. Hop growing can be a frustrating business.

Usually, with us anyway, first year hops are not watered. Originally it may well have been partly due to logistics of large scale irrigation but mainly because the theory is that their roots will go down deeper after the moisture if they are not watered.

I try to follow that reasoning as much as possible however, this year I had some smaller pot-grown hop setts as well as the usual Grade 1 setts suppled by Stephen Wright. The root systems of these pot-grown plants were naturally not as robust as the hunky soil grown setts.

So yesterday I gave in and watered some of this year’s babies. They were not stressed but I didn’t want to risk leaving them any longer. Watering is one example when growing hops at home is much much easier!

Each plant was given a long slow watering of a gallon each, allowing it to soak in well.  I had mixed in a little propriety general liquid fertiliser to help give them a gentle nudge, then back-filled the cracks with John Innes No3. I feel this helps stop any evaporation post their watering, which makes me feel better if nothing else. A good soaking is the important thing, rather than just damping the surface, giving a little water would do more harm than good by encouraging the roots to stay on the surface.  Hopefully we will soon have a good rain soon to even up soil’s moisture content.

growing hops at home

nurturing young hops

The other larger Grade 1 setts I have left for a while longer, they are growing well and will not be picked this year anyway. Rather than cut 1st year hops for picking in September, by to allowing them to die back naturally, they can continue growing over a longer time span during October. This helps establish their root systems for next season. Maybe this and old wives tale but it feels right.

If you are a home brewer and always fancied making a green hopped beer, it is certainly worth considering growing hops at home.  If short of space perhaps you could squeeze in just a single plant of your favourite variety.   You could then have the pleasure of picking your very own hops with no worries about drying them.

growing hops at home


crab apple blossom

Bramling Cross Hops in April

April is a fabulous month but this year it has surpassed itself. I can understand the homesick yearning described by Robert Browning when he wrote his famous lines –

“Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there”,

This year the wildflowers and blossom trees have been and continue to be exceptional. Each successive show of blossom seemingly trying to outdo the former. Mother Nature has certainly pulled out all her ‘floral’ stops with the sheer quantity and quality of blossom. No wind or rain means individual flowers have remained perfect.

The Cuckoo arrived spot on cue during the 2nd week of April and my first sighting of swallows swooping and diving was on Easter Day. Each bird heralding the end of winter.

Bluebells are carpeting woodland floors with that unique dark blue wash, blue mixed with just a pinch of purple. The only shadow here is of Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides Hispanica) creeping ever closer and threatening our native bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta). I cannot deny the Spanish bluebell is an attractive easy garden plant to grow and was recommended as such a few years ago. Garden grandees like Christopher Lloyd  in his book The Well-tempered Garden
recommended them. They last well in a vase. However, this bluebell has not stayed within garden boundaries. It is a strong grower and cross pollinates with our native blue bells producing hybrids which in turn threaten to invade our woodlands, by elbowing out the native bluebells.

bluebell woods

These stronger growing hybrids are relatively easy to spot, their leaves are a tad broader and their actual bells are paler, broader and shorter. They grow more upright and to me they can resemble weedy hyacinths. Therefore if I see a bluebell close to our woodland, the simple guideline I use is, if it gives any inkling of a weedy hydrangea then I destroy it. ‘If in doubt then dig it out.’  Below our native Bluebells – Hyacinthoides non-scripta

Hyacinthoides non-scripta

The Spanish Bluebell – Hyacinthoides Hispanica

spanish bluebells

Hop twiddling started on 6th April, a week earlier than we have ever known. By comparison hop twiddling started in this area on 20th April last year. The dry mild weather this month has made for an easy first round of training. After my last post the short cold spells this winter have not so far had the effect we hoped for on the Bramling Cross. Whilst the other varieties have been up and away, disappointingly as I write the Bramling Cross remain stubbornly inactive.  Their leaves retain the peculiar heliotrope purple colour,and until they turn a ‘proper’ green they will not start to grow away. Last winter sadly did not have the ‘get up and go’ effect on the Bramling Cross hops we had hoped for.

Bramling Cross hop leaves
This month I had a treat too. It was a day I had been really looking forward to and as a bonus it started with a train journey. More about that will be revealed later this year.

The only downside to this April is lack of rain, the ground is very very dry, this year’s baby hops could really do with some gentle warm spring rain. In the South East we had a dry winter anyway and now this month only one third of expected normal rainfall. ‘March winds and April showers bring forth sweet May flowers’ – well not this year, not one April shower and we definitely need rain for all spring sown crops in general.

According to folk lore this dry spell will continue, the rooks are nesting high in the trees, apparently a sure sign of a warm, dry summer to come. Another old folk lore concerning rooks is if they line up on a fence it is a sign that it will rain. Whatever the truth of that, we will keep an eye open for any rooks lined up on any fence! But for now we are just wishing hard for some last minute April showers, that truly would be the cherry on the cake to make this month just perfect.



Bramling cross hop variety

Bramling Cross Hop Variety

Bramling Cross Hop variety was bred by Professor Ernest Salmon at Wye college then released in 1951 after trials. It’s mother was a Bramling Golding and the father a wild Canadian Manitoban hop seedling. Demure fresh-faced Kent maiden meets wild Davy Crocket look alike! The outcome of this liaison, the Bramling Cross hop variety takes after both parents, this makes for an interesting combination. The aroma is said to be American, whilst it’s neat growth takes after it’s Kentish mother by producing ladylike columns of very pretty hops. In full hop this is a beautiful plant as well as being an easy well-mannered hop variety to pick.

Bramling Cross hop variety

It is one of the best bines to hang up for decoration.

bramling cross hop bines for decoration

The Bramling Cross hop is well thought of with mainstream Brewers being used for both late and dry hopping and known for its good bittering flavours. Brooklyn Brewery and Harvey’s Brewery have both used this variety. Another testament to its brewing prowess is Brew Dog naming it as one of their favourite hops.

That being said it doesn’t seem generally popular with home-brewers. For home-brewers it appears to be very much a ‘love it or loathe it’ variety, and mostly ‘loathe it’, a real marmite hop! I even read one forum comment about it smelling of old trainers. I do not know why people think it would have a bad pong, whilst someone may not like the smell of hops, the actual hops themselves should never smell bad. The only conclusion we can draw is that that particular sample must have been old or had been poorly stored. Once the oils within a hop cone turn rancid, this will make any variety smell ‘cheesy’, indeed any oily food would taste unpleasant if this happened.

bramling cross hop pickingHowever, the fresh aroma of the Bramling Cross hop could not be more strikingly different, it is a spicy dark berry delight. The bouquet is predominantly blackcurrants with added citrussy lemon notes plus a hint of vanilla for good measure. Any whiff of cheesy feet means the hops have gone ‘off’. I do not sell hops from a previous season and can only recommend that they are purchased as soon after harvest as possible. ‘Fresh is Best‘, hence I made a commitment to home-brewers that I will only ever sell hops from the current season. Any left over stock at end of each August is destroyed. However, whichever the side of the ‘marmite’ fence you are on, for Bramling Cross devotees use them while you can, there is every possibility they may not be around commercially in the future.

For growers, the Bramling Cross hop variety is certainly giving us cause for concern. It has thrown up a double conundrum. The theory is that Bramling Cross is particularly sensitive to global warming, it truly does appear to be affected by climate change, and as such it could be a climate indicator plant. Although an old variety the mild, often wet winters we have been experiencing of recent years just do not suit them. Current thinking is warmer winter temperatures mean that the plants do not go into dormancy properly and then simple refuse to grow in the spring. It is a scary phenomena to witness, you cannot force them to grow, therefore growers are basically helpless bystanders, there is nothing whatsoever you can do about it. Some years it has been mid-June when we have trained them for the first time and even then the growth can be very uneven, this alone is never a good sign. It also makes their management more tricky. Other varieties are heading skywards over the top wires, whilst the Bramling Cross hop variety stubbornly refuses to budge. Some growers have grubbed hop gardens as this variety becomes more and more uneconomical to grow.

This past winter 2016/17 we have had periods of frosty weather in the SE, it remains to be seen if this is enough and whether they grow away any better this Spring.

However late Bramling Cross start into growth, being an early variety, ironically they are always the first hop variety to be picked, certainly in this area and therein lies their second weakness. This is the double whammy, it means their growing season is shortened. It is entirely feasible that if this continues year after year, then the accumulative effect will mean that plants cannot replenish their own strength within this pared back growing season. There could come a time as they become weaker and weaker that they will naturally die out. Last year I noticed their bines were much finer than ever before.

Bramling Cross hop being loaded for picking

On that gloomy note and still on the subject of blackcurrants, I had heard that blackcurrant leaves make an excellent tea. Last summer I tried it – a handful of fresh young leaves into boiling water. I don’t much like fruit or herbal teas, preferring good old fashioned builders tea, however, this time the advise given was quite correct. The leaves alone smell inviting, Blackcurrant leaf tea does make for an excellent cuppa and apparently very good for you too! I’ll end with the counsel given by the Abbé P. Bailly de Montaran in 1712, “There is nobody who, having a garden, shouldn’t plant a great number of black currant bushes for the needs of their family,” Hear hear to that you can use the leaves and berries.

This Year’s Hop Setts Have Arrived

This year’s hop setts have arrived just in time to coincide with the arrival of storm Doris tomorrow!  That will probably delay planting for 24 hours, but we planted several out today and the rest are now safely bedded-in until Doris passes.  I love baby hops and as always these setts from Stephen Wright are superbly grown.

We have the more popular varieties already growing which we wanted to bulk up, but also 2 ‘brand new to us’ varieties for the home brewer to try. Hopefully these new additions to our range for 2017 harvest will whet a few appetites; well certainly enough to give them a try in a brew.

There should also be 2 Heritage varieties on offer this year. But I will wait until closer to harvest to select which two will be listed.

This year’s 2 new additions to our range are Willamette and Perle. I am now really looking forward to seeing how they grow  this season.

Snow drops are out, a few early daffodils along sunny banks and the hellebores are as stunning as ever. This year’s hop setts have arrived, hurray Spring is not far off.




A New Hop Growing Season Begins

A new hop growing season begins. In this area hop stringing has just started. I love this fresh ‘new-page-in-a-note-book’ feeling, with the accompanying expectation that as a new hop growing season begins, this is it, this year there’ll be a perfect hop crop! Of course we know reality will not be like that! Each season always turns out to be very different to the last one and just when you think you have things sorted, along comes a completely different set of problems to keep everyone on their toes. But just for now we can dream a little, it will all be perfect!

Hop string soaking before being put on wet. If it was put on dry it would stretch when it rained.

hop string soaking

Bines have been cut off and burnt up, winter wire working is complete, allowing this tentative beginning to hop stringing. This job is weather dependent therefore can continue in fits and starts over the next 3 months. Banding follows on as soon as each garden is strung. Below the first strings silhouetted against a wintry sky.

A new hop growing season begins

Stringing at A Bushel of Hops will not get underway until after this year’s new varieties have been planted. The screw pegs will go in as each hop sett is planted, each screw peg is needed to be in place before any string can be put onto that garden.

screw pegs
What makes this crop so exciting is within 6 months these plants will emerge from the bare soil, they will grow to 16 foot and be harvested. Zero to hero!

Fresh pea shoots are a tasty salad addition

Fresh Pea Shoots Are A Tasty Salad Addition

Fresh pea shoots are a tasty salad addition at any time of year but especially during chilly grey winter months when fresh salad greens are at their scarcest. These crisp shoots with their fresh pea flavour instantly transport you to summer days with memories of picking peas and eating them straight out of the pod.

dried peasHaving seen them available on supermarket shelves I found it was super easy to grow them at home and have them ready to cut as required. Simply buy a pack of any dried marrow fat peas normally used for making soup*, I soak a good handful for about 5 hours, then sow them thickly onto fresh compost in any handy sized flower pot. They want to be just below the top of the pot and by having the seeds touching each this seems best for a good density of shoots. But really adjust to suit your own preferences. Cover with a thin layer of compost and tap the pot on the table to settle the contents and that’s it.

Water the pot, then stand indoors on a window ledge, it does not matter if it is north facing and gets no sun at all. Unlike planting seeds which are to be grown on in the garden, you actually want these shoots to draw up to be tall and leggy.

pea shoots are a tasty addition

Keep an eye on the pot so as not to let the soil dry out, I leave it close to my washing up area so it is easy to see, then once the shoots are growing turn the pot regularly. That way the shoots will grow straighter and not make a horizontal dash for the window pane! I like to leave them until they get their first curly tendrils, there’s no difference to the flavour but they look pretty. That is all there is to it, green fingers definitely not essential!

Next bit is the best bit and even easier, just cut as required, a quick rinse and that’s it, a little bit of summer on your plate. Let them grow back a second time after their first hair cut. They are not as tall or perfect this second time around but that is fine, they still have that wonderful fresh pea flavour and crunch. Delicious!

*Caution – use only peas sold for cooking, DO NOT use peas that are sold for sowing in the garden, these may have protective chemical dressings on the seed.

fresh pea shoots are a tasty salad addition