Let's go to the hops: The micro-brewery boom is making hops an attractive proposition for this farmer
At the turn of this century, the farming of hops - used by brewers to give beer aroma, bitterness and flavour - had almost died out. But the current boom in microbrewing enterprises keen to reduce their reliance on hop imports and sell their customers a wholly Irish beer means hop growing is on the brink of a comeback.
The number of production microbreweries in Ireland jumped to 62 last year from 48 in 2015 and has quadrupled since 2012, according to a report published in 2016 for the Independent Craft Brewers of Ireland and Bord Bia.
Indeed, Irish craft beer had a 3.3pc share of the domestic consumer market by the end of 2016, compared to just 0.5pc in 2012, the report said.
Brewing is an ancient tradition in Ireland, and at the start of the 19th century, every town had at least one brewery of its own. Historically, most Irish breweries produced ale, fermenting it without the use of hops, a plant that is not native to Ireland. Likewise, Arthur Guinness started out producing ale at St James's Gate in 1759, until he turned his attention to stout a decade later and began importing hops to make the porter.
But by the 1960s, the number of independent breweries in Ireland had whittled down to eight as Guinness, now part of Diageo, and its rivals snapped them up, leaving behind a brewing landscape dominated by mass-market beers. During the same decade, four farming families in Co Kilkenny, where beer has been brewed for hundreds of years, took the advice of a horticultural adviser and started growing hops for Guinness.
One of those families was the Mosses, who farmed 38 acres of hops in Bennettsbridge. But as Guinness increasingly sought cheaper global imports, growing hops in Ireland no longer made financial sense for the behemoth brewer or the farmers, and by the late 1990s, Simon Mosse, the last commercial grower, had ceased the practice altogether.
The absence of commercial hop growing means an increasing number of craft brewers are turning their hand to farming their own hops, in a bid to satisfy consumer demand for local, sustainably sourced ingredients, according to Simon Lynch, the co-founder of the Wicklow Wolf Brewing Company, whose brewhouse is located in an old bakery in Bray. Lynch, who trained as a horticulturist at the National Botanic Gardens in the early 1990s, oversees the brewer's 2.5-acre hop farm in Roundwood and is the largest of its kind in Ireland, Lynch says.
"This is all consumer driven, because people want choice in their food, coffee and all their beverages," he says. "They want to know where the ingredients come from."
Like wine, hops - the flowers or cones from the female hop plant - taste different depending on the weather that year and the soil the plants were grown on. The plants even resemble vines.
"Our idea is to try growing seven varieties of hops and see which one works best," Lynch says. "The hop rhizome likes a really cold winter: we are 1,000ft above sea level, and mildew is less of a problem because the farm is on an east-facing slope where the wind can blow through."
Lynch and co-founder Quincey Fennelly called the company Wicklow Wolf because the Latin for hops is Humulus lupulus and lupulus means "small wolf" - and the last wolf in Ireland was believed to have been killed around the Wicklow border with Carlow and Wexford in the 18th century.
Wicklow Wolf harvests the hops by hand every September and the fresh cones are used for the company's specialty beers, such as Locavore, a 2015 pale ale. Because harvesting without machinery "is very, very labour intensive", the company still imports most of its hops, usually from the UK and US.
"At the moment, we use hops for fresh hop ales, and if they are not used straight away in the kettle they will go off," he says. "But in commercial situations, hops are dried in kilns and then vacuum-packed."
While Lynch says growing hops is best suited to craft brewing "because of the costs, time and energy taken up with it", he says brewers are interested in collaborating with each other and landowners to share the costs of buying a hop harvester and kilns and creating a supply of Irish hops - "like a co-op". The start-up capital expenditure is estimated to be between €12,000 and €15,000 an acre, he says.
"Hop prices have more than doubled over the last number of years, and if hop prices continue to rise, commercial growing could be a very worthwhile investment in time," he says.
South of Wicklow Wolf's hop yard, in the Co Wexford village of Arthurstown, is the eponymous Arthurstown Brewing Company. Its directors include celebrity chef Kevin Dundon and it is based at Dundon's Dunbrody Country House Hotel and Restaurant. The gardener at the country house supplies Arthurstown with three varieties of hops for their pilot beers and one-off batch brews, according to master brewer Kieran Bird. There are 100 plants of each variety growing on two plots on the Dunbrody estate, Bird says.
In Youghal, Adrian Hyde, who set up Munster Brewery there in 2013 with his twin brother Padraig, says the company grew hops organically on a quarter-acre plot of spare land - dubbed Hop Alley - for three years. It was enough to flavour the in-house beer tastings Munster Brewery holds for visitors doing tours of the brewery. Hyde says the brew was the first 100pc fully Irish organic beer, but the growing stopped last year because Munster Brewery had to hand the land back so it could be built on.
"Not a week goes by that we don't get an email from a farmer keen on growing hops for us, and with all the breweries in Ireland they would have plenty of buyers," he says. "There really is an opportunity for a farmer to start doing this on four or five acres."
Cuilán Loughnane, a craft brewing veteran whose latest venture White Gypsy Brewery was founded in 2009, started growing hops on a quarter acre beside the Templemore-based brewery - with advice from Mosse - to "show farmers that hops can be grown in Ireland".
"We had hop farmers from Oregon who came over and got a great kick out of it because they were growing on 60 to 100 acres and we had a quarter acre," he says.
White Gypsy used the hops to brew Emerald Fresh, which the brewery claims was the first craft beer to use their own Irish-grown hops. It doesn't have a hop crop this year, due to planning for a redevelopment of the site to enable it to sell beer directly to visitors, but expects to have another harvest in 2018.
Loughnane has spoken to the Department of Agriculture about starting a development programme to grow hops - and specialised malt - for the craft brewing industry, but was "met with blank stares".
"We need a clubbing together of a lot of brewers but the Department needs to take the lead on that," he says.
"The New Zealand hops industry didn't exist 30 years ago and now they have three or four varieties sold all over the world. But that took a government programme. You'd need the likes of Teagasc to develop a unique variety of Irish hops that would be owned by the Department of Agriculture, and that takes investment and long-term planning from the Department."
The Social Hops Project
The Social Hops Project, a community hop-growing project founded in 2016, is the brainchild of Andrew Douglas, best known for setting up Dublin's Urban farm.
The three-year project is aimed at illustrating the need for more local hop production and reducing the beer miles associated with importing hops. The collective hop-growing initiative was partly inspired by a London-based project called Palace Pint, which encourages beer-lovers to plant a few hop plants in their garden or in pots on their balcony or patio.
At Social Hops, individual growers pick up a starter pack that includes a hop rhizome, training string for the tall plants, organic fertiliser and instructions for planting every March at The Bernard Shaw pub in Dublin.
The growers then meet back at the pub in September to harvest the fruits of their work and share beer and pizza. The hops are passed on straight away to Rascals Brewing, which rewards the volunteers with a local wet-hopped beer made with the hops at another session in October. The beer is then sold on the market to help the brewer recover its production costs.
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