The SAB Heritage Tour: first ingredient – hops

Posted by Lucy Corne on 12 March 2012

For some, the most important ingredient in beer is yeast, for others it’s the malt. Some might say it’s the most abundant ingredient, water, but if you asked me under duress I would choose another component. Those of you who know my beer preferences will know that I am something of a hop head, so a visit to the hop farms in George during harvest season was a way to better understand the bitter flower that fills a beer with flavour – the vital spice to a batch of good beer.

SAB’s Heritage Tours take place each February and March to coincide with the annual hop harvest, though it’s not all about the hops. The tour is designed to show you exactly what goes into a pint, from the raw ingredients, through the brewing process and of course on to the all-important part of how to taste and enjoy the amber nectar. Our first stop took us over the Outeniqua Pass, home to most of the South African hop harvest. George was chosen several decades back for its long days and relatively cool climate, though the hops grown here are specially bred to thrive in South Africa’s non-hop-friendly climate – that’s why home brewers can’t find something similar to the mouth-watering American hops they crave in this country.

The first thing I noticed about hops was how pretty they are. Not the flowers themselves, which while not unattractive for an agricultural product are far from being the beauty queen of the floral kingdom, but the plants. A climbing plant akin to a vine – think Tarzan not Merlot – the hop plants sway in the wind, making you want to wander within the jungle-like maze they create. Special ‘hop trainers’ teach the plant to climb virtually invisible strings, making these swaying, five-metre high plants seem like they’re defying gravity. Of course, they’re bound to be pretty really – only the female plant is used commercially, with males getting lucky just once a year.

The harvesting method is equally impressive and we were lucky enough to see the harvesters in action. Sadly, the days of men on stilts racing through the hop fields to cut the towering plants from the thin thread that keeps them sky-bound are long gone. But the tool used to chop the hops is still the same – impressive machete-like knives wielded by two men atop a tractor. This follows ground-level workers who cut the plant at the bottom, ready for processing.

Before being turned into the pellet-form that home brewers will be familiar with, there is one crucial and as I learnt, perilous process left to perform. Once separated from the plants the hop flowers must be dried rapidly to prevent your aromatic beer spice turning to compost. You wouldn’t think drying a flower could be hazardous, but if the hop is over-dried there’s actually a chance of spontaneous combustion. And if that doesn’t make you respect your next pint a little more, I don’t know what will.

Also read: The SAB Heritage Tour: second ingredient – malt

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