These wonderful little things are the female flower of the hop plant and are responsible for the diverse aromas and bitterness that are found in English beer.
Hops are a plant native to the British Isles and can still be found growing wild, scrambling and twisting through hedgerows; every year they appear at the top of Ridge Lane near the Severn Trent pumping station, but sadly overtidy farmers and council contractors insist on cutting the hedges and therefore the hops back before they can flower. They belong to the same family of plants that include nettles, hemp and even the elm tree and also happen to be the favourite food for the caterpillar of the Comma butterfly…yumm, yumm!!
And now we come to the botany. Hops belong to a group of plants that are called dioecious (pronounced dy – ee- shus) which means simply that there are male flowers on one plant and female flowers on another, whereas monoecious plants have both male and female flowers on the same plant. The upshot of all this botanical wizardry is that in the UK hop farmers will grow 1 or 2 male plants amongst all the female ones in order to fertilise the female flowers and thus English hops are known as ‘seeded’ hops. This technique is frowned upon by continental types where ‘seedless’ hops, that is female plants grown without the male, are more prevalent. And the differences between the two? There are many pro’s and con’s but these arguments are extremely subjective and revolve around flavour and hop quality, whereas in practice there is little between them.
Hops are distributed all around the world, in fact anywhere with a temperate climate similar to the UK with a good mixture of sun, rain and warmth. During the growing season, from early spring until late August the plants will coil upwards, supported by strings attached to long poles, reaching a height of more than 5m. Much research has been carried out in to ‘dwarf’ or ‘hedgerow’ hops which are bred to be much shorter and therefore easier to harvest. Some common tall varieties are Fuggles, Goldings, Green Bullet, Nugget and Cascade whilst a hop like First Gold is a shorter variety.
Picking occurs during early September, the timing being dependent of course on the weather and how advanced the hops are in the growing stage. Most hop ‘bines’ are stripped mechanically and then dried before being packed into ‘bales’, ready for sale to hop merchants and brewers.
Look out for beer made with ‘green’ hops in late September and early October. They use freshly harvested hops rather than the picked and dried type; they add a strong, oily resinous bitterness but must be used within approximately 48 hours of picking.