Rubbing one’s hands together. In glee, with joy, with anticipation. When these hands are full of the green green glaze of hop flowers then my sense of glee, joy and anticipation knows no bounds. The palms are sticky with essential oils, the leaves crumble and flake themselves all over my clothes, there is a pungent, resiny, sweaty, boot-room smell in the air, not unpleasant. I’m not the only one in this ridiculously enjoyable situation — the room above the pub in the West End is full of adults, both men and women, some with latex gloves, rubbing their hands together, and smelling the musk of the plant that gives beer its perfume.
Marston’s Single Hop beers is the reason why. It’s an attempt to explain the thinking behind 12 beers the brewery is releasing throughout the year, all of them with a single hop, an attempt to get drinkers to think about the hop in their beer, in the same way the wine guys devour information on single varietal grapes. There are three beers to taste, January, February and March. Wai-iti, which comes from New Zealand, offers a hint of lime zest on the nose (though the nose on my sample in the glass also has that trade mark green apple note of acetaldehyde); the East Kent Goldings is earthy, with this particular hop allowing the malt to come through — it also adds a spicy note, a dryness that makes for that classic British beer character. Galaxy has Cantaloupe melon and peach on the nose and is rather swish in an Lana Del Rey sort of way.
Paul Corbett from Charles Farum hop merchants gives us a talk about the prospects for the hop industry, a brief historical resume (the peak of hop production was 1879 with 17,000 acres under cultivation and there is now 2500 acres), the ongoing trials to produce more intensely flavoured British hops and a look at the idea of terroir for hops. I like the way he conjures up the hop growing area of Nelson in the northern part of New Zealand’s South Island — here the air is clean and comes straight from the Antarctic thus helping to give the hops more intense features than the same hop varieties would have if grown in the damp and variable climate of the UK. And did you know that more and more US brewers were using British hops?
And now to the hop rubbing. We have six bowls on our table: Saaz (pellet form), Citra, Kohatu, Nelson Sauvin, Strisselspalt (used in Orval when I visited in 2010) and Styrian Goldings. It’s a fun exercise, even if I start sneezing in the middle of it (allergic to hops? I hope not) — I am particularly intrigued by the Kohatu which brings forth notes of lemon and dust burning on the bar of an electric fire that has just been switched on.
Ok, you could argue where has Marston’s been? Especially as the ‘awesome’ side of hoppy craft beers has rippled out through the land. On the other hand Marston’s is a large brewery and it has the chance to educate a lot more of the beer-drinking public about the beauty of hops than — sadly — the sort of craft brewer that gets my juices spluttering and fizzing like a Catherine Wheel. To my palate the beers are not world-beaters and they got one notable beer writer next to me itching for an IPA, which we had at Craft Beer Bar later on, and as they are all 4% I along with several others felt that more alcohol (not in the Hardknottian sense of extremity, but maybe 5%) would have given the hop flavours a more bolder character. However, if this is just the start of Marston’s beers leaving behind an often monochrome world and embracing a more colourful future then I’m all for a bit of rubbing.