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Fergus on English hops, alpha acids & Adnams English Red Ale

By Fergus Fitzgerald, also posted in News on

Adnams English Red AleAs a style of beer there is no such thing as a Red Ale, at least not in England where it is generally embraced within the out stretched arms of the bitter/pale ale category. In America the term 'Amber' or 'Red' ale is generally used for pale ales that are a little less pale and a little more… well, amber. Irish red ale is a more established style but there is a fairly strong argument that it really is an English Bitter and usually served like Guinness. Flemish Red is definitely a beer style, one which I love, but it is a sour beer and not what we are going for with Adnams English Red. For a lot of our seasonal beers recently we’ve used hops from America, New Zealand or Australia. We’ve used them because we wanted the flavours that we can get with the hop varieties grown in those parts of the world. However, the majority of the hops we actually use are English. We haven’t shouted about them for a while, probably because they are used in more established beers, but actually we love English hops. So we thought we should look to redress the balance and showcase some English hops. So English Red is a single hop beer brewed with English grown Admiral hops. The base of the beer is Pale Ale, Vienna, Münich and Cara malts with a little black malt. That gives the beer a good solid malt base with subtle toffee notes and a nice red colour. The Admiral hops are one of the most resinous and aromatic UK hops, it gives us lots of orange peel aromas with some grassy and herbal notes. We’re using the hops at 3 stages in the brew to bring out as much of it’s character as we can. There has been a little bit of interest recently in the state of the English hops market and as ever our timing is impeccable, either that or it’s pure coincidence. The amount of hops grown in England has steadily decreased over the past hundred years or so. There are several reasons why this happened. All brewers want bitterness from their hops and this is measured in hops as something called alpha acid. The higher the alpha acid level in a hop the less you have to add in order to get the level of bitterness you want in your beer. Unsurprisingly, upon discovering this, new varieties of hops were cultivated with much higher levels of alpha acid. For the multinational brewers the alpha acid content became the driving force, so now instead of paying per kilo of hops (or per zentner) major brewers started pay per kilo of alpha acid. Slice of hopsA slice of hops. Samples are taken out of the huge hop bails like a cheese taster would remove a core of cheese. Something like Fuggles has an alpha acid content of around 4%, some of the high alpha acid varieties are around 16% or higher. Compared to Fuggles you can use a quarter of the amount of high alpha acid hops to get the same amount of Bitterness. This helped to reduce the overall cost of hops in each brew and subsequently meant less hops needed to be grown. Alongside this there has also been a steady decline in the average bitterness in beer, possibly as our tastes changed and we wanted more sweetness or possibly as the large brands of lager started to dominate the market with their relatively low level of bitterness. Again, this meant less hops were needed. Hop growing in England is not particularly suited to growing the really high alpha acid hops, at least not as cost effectively as Germany or America, so for many growers the price they could get for the hops just didn’t allow them to make a living. Many growers persevered but often when it came to handing it on to the next generation a more pragmatic view was taken and some hop farms disappeared. The character of many English ales rely heavily on the unique flavours of English hops so steps were taken to stem the tide. Partly this came about through brewers placing long term contracts with growers at more reasonable prices, which gave the growers some confidence for the future and also some shelter from the low alpha acid price that still drives most of the market. Hop cultivation in England tended to focus on developing new varieties that were more disease resistant and produced better yields while replicating the flavours of the established hops. Many new varieties were discarded because they had the ‘wrong’ aroma and brewers didn’t want them. With the growth in craft beer and a renewed interest in getting more flavour in beer some of those ‘wrong’ aromas may well be just the thing, so a lot of work is going on to look at some of the trials that never made it and apparently there are some really exciting varieties. They will take time to come through but they sound like they’ll be worth the wait both for brewers and English hop growers alike. If you are interested in reading more about the history of hop growing then have a look here. Adnams English Red Ale is available as a cask beer in selected outlets.


Fergus Fitzgerald