In the backyards of at least one terraced street in Cambridge, wild hops grow. The mature bines outside the back door of our nineteenth-century cottage look well-established, and I like to think they’re remnants from the city’s brewing industry that once centred around this area; less than a hundred metres away the Fitzroy Brewery, rented out to customers for brewing under the supervision of the owner, was one of many that survived into the last century, and at the other end of the street stood a maltings and, to this day, two pubs.
At the beginning of March, the first shoots appear and we trail them along the trellis, towards a well positioned buddleia, which they reach by May before launching vigorously up through the branches, winding over 15 feet to the top, spreading out to cover the canopy within a month.
In September the heaving bunches of hop cones, luminous light-green in the early morning, late summer sun, were almost ready for picking. As we were admiring them and wondering what to do with them, we noticed Adnams brewery had made a call for wild hops
“We are making a plea to members of the public to let us know if they have hops growing in their garden which they are willing to donate, or if they know where wild hops are located… the new beer – which is set to be an amber pale ale – requires hops that are freshly-picked.”
On closer inspection many of the hops were still a bit young, so we left most of them to continue ripening, but nevertheless filled a few bags of hops for the cause. The Suffolk brewery is a two hour drive away, but Cambridge is home to Adnams’ westernmost pub, the Castle Inn, so we arranged to drop the hops off there, to be collected by dray when it next made a delivery.
A week later the hops looked just ripe for picking, and we spent a day pulling them down (our arms shredded by the bines, as if they were protected by an invisible clowder of angry cats) and sorting them so only the finest were selected for brewing – the rest we hung throughout the house, the aroma drifting about, with us lifting our noses to inhale it like Bisto Kids.
The next dray to the Castle Inn would have been too late for the hops to reach the brewery in time for the proposed brewing date, so instead we were directed to another Adnams pub just over the Suffolk border in Great Wratting, about twenty miles east of Cambridge, where the hops were enthusiastically received by the landlord of the Red Lion.
The beer was brewed on September 18th and began appearing in pubs last week. As luck would have it, we had booked a night in Southwold just as Wild Hop was being served in the town’s pubs, so we were able to spend an enjoyable evening in the Lord Nelson drinking a few pints of it.
It was probably wishful thinking, but we were sure we could taste our hops in the beer – the familiar aroma, and earthy hop flavours with hedgerow berries in the aftertaste – even though we only contributed a fraction of the hops (a hat tip to @recentlydrunk who foraged the Cambridgeshire hedgerows and sent bags of hops to Adnams). It seemed remarkable that Adnams had managed to tame so many varieties of wild hops and make a beer that was the “true taste of East Anglia” that they were aiming for.
Thanks to Adnams for making good use of hops that would otherwise have never reached their true potential, to Belinda for co-ordinating our deliveries, and to Louise who endured the wrath of the hop bines to help harvest them. The bottled beer should be in the Adnams shops in November, and in a nice touch of serendipity, rumour has it that an Adnams Cellar will be opening in Cambridge’s Grafton Centre very soon.