A family friend has taken a punt on a waiter’s dream to grow hops. Ben Barnett heard their story so far.
There are just over 50 farmers growing British Hops in the country today, according to the British Hop Association.
First grown in the South-East, more than half of British hop production is now centred in the West Midlands, but a Hull waiter and his farming friend are defying tradition with a venture all of their own in the East Riding.
Matthew Hall, 30, and Chris Bradley, 61, have gone into business as Yorkshire Hops on Chris’s arable farm in Ellerker near Brough, and are the county’s only hop farmers. What started out as Matthew’s obsession with home-brewing has become the beginnings of a commercial venture at Whinneymoor Farm.
Their first hectare of hops will be ripe for harvesting towards the end of the summer and already several Yorkshire brewers have taken a sponsorship option to secure first dibs on their green hops.
Hops are sold in two forms – dry or green. Green hops are less commonplace. They need to be added to the brewing process within 24 hours of being graded to capture their distinctive aromas and are typically used in limited edition seasonal beers.
Dry hops can be stored and used months down the line. To retain the freshness of green hops, the whole crop needs to be harvested within a five-day window.
Matthew got started by growing 12 plants on a small trial area of land in the nearby village of Elloughton in February last year and selling the crop to Big River Brewery. Buoyed by his initial success he was in the market for a bigger plot to expand the project and that’s where Chris came in at the end of last summer.
With his dad’s friend as business partner and a five-figure sum invested in transforming the hobby into a commercial success, the pair have 227 plants growing in 16 rows next to Chris’s farmhouse.
Planted in February, already, four rows have attracted sponsorship from breweries, including Saltaire Brewery, Brass Castle and Big River – a tactic Matthew has adopted from vineyards. The plot should generate between 1,200kg and 1,500kg of dry hops each season.
“Going from 12 plants to a hectare and potentially the next hectare next year and seeing it build up and the interest there is in our hops – it’s fantastic,” says Matthew, who balances farming commitments with shifts at Cerutti’s Restaurant and family life with wife Emma and baby Dylan.
It took a huge effort to turn a hectare of grassland into a hop garden during three weeks in February. Friends and sponsors turned out to help erect 470 wooden posts and affix them with 11km of wire, and cut and remove more than 300 tonnes of turf.
In what was a busy month, Chris and Matthew also visited hop growers in Germany to scope out appropriate grading machinery. A customised machine is due to be delivered soon.
While nurturing their crops, the pair have been no slouches when it comes to marketing. Matthew drives the brand’s social media presence, using Twitter and Facebook to reach out to brewers and establish business leads, while Chris is very much the practical help, with the farming knowledge to go with the theory, having farmed in the village all his life.
Together they’ve visited some of the region’s most popular beer festivals to introduce their product to key contacts.
Chris saw the venture as too good an opportunity to turn down. “After Matthew showed me the figures I decided I would have a go. We looked at various parcels of land and decided on this one by the house. I’ve got fired up by it. I’m one for trying something new anyhow.
“I looked at it carefully before I went into it and I’m 99 per cent confident it will work. If you’re interested in something and excited by it, you’ll do it well. It’s not just for commercial gain, we need it to pay, but you have to believe in what you’re doing.” It’s a step into the unknown for both and a step they couldn’t have taken without expert advice. They’ve been on scouting missions in the South of England to see how established hop growers operate. Matthew took a lot from a two-day stay helping out during harvesting at Richard and Alison Capper’s hop farm, Stocks Farm, in Worcestershire.
Camra (the Campaign for Real Ale) and the British Hop Association have also offered crucial advice.
Chris says: “It is been a very steep learning curve, from deciding what plants we wanted and the whole agronomy that goes with it, to choosing the machinery.
“I had never done anything like it before. Only by going down South and seeing how they were doing it and how we could improve on it – and being non-experts it wasn’t easy – have we cobbled it together between us and now we have a smart looking hop garden.”
The reality is that the British hop industry is a declining one, Chris explains, and he hopes by becoming successful, the venture can inspire others.
“Hop growing in Britain was at a peak at the turn of the last century. In 1878 there were 71,000 acres dedicated to hop growing. Now there are 2,700 acres and about 50 growers.
“The Romans used to grow hops up to the borders and the monks used to put hops in their ales in the abbeys so there is no reason why they shouldn’t grow in Yorkshire. Hopefully, at least in this area, we can stimulate an interest back in the traditional brew varieties.
“We thought we could make it work as there’s lots of micro-breweries in Yorkshire.”
At the moment four different varieties of hops are being grown under the Yorkshire Hops label: First Gold, Sovereign,
Challenger and Progress. Matthew says the flavours are traditional, earthy and subtle, and the feedback from potential customers has been positive. He adds: “The feedback has been absolutely brilliant. Breweries can source everything else locally – wheat, barley and water – but not their hops.”
For more details about Yorkshire Hops, visit www.eastyorkshirehops.co.uk who can also be found tweeting @YorkshireHops