Phil Kemp meets Bill Biddell for a tour of the estate’s hop garden and oast
The Hampton Estate at Seale near Farnham has been growing hops for hundreds of years and are the last commercial growers in Surrey. They specialise in Fuggle hops for beer production which are revered and used by brewers throughout the country, including The Hogs Back Brewery in nearby Tongham. In 2017 Hampton Fuggles were awarded the Wigan Cup by The Institute of Brewing and Distilling for the best sample of Fuggle hop in the UK.
Farnham has a hop growing heritage dating back to at least the late 1500s when the town was encircled by hop gardens, and was at its zenith in the late 19th century with over 1,500 acres under production. However, for a catalogue of conspiring reasons, following the First World War virtually all were out of production. I was intrigued to find out what has made Hampton fly in the face of such adversity and was invited to join Bill Biddell, who manages the estate with his wife Bridget, for a personal tour.
We met at the estate office where Bill started his introduction into their hop growing. “The Hampton Estate has always grown hops. Paul Thompson, who works for us, follows his father and grandfather who dried the hops that we’ve always grown in and around Puttenham.
We have always grown just one variety which is the Fuggle. In the mid 70s and early 80s there were thirty or forty growers around Farnham, all pretty small, and which included the Bides and the Tices who were really well-known hop names. But a lot of people were persuaded to go into new style hops because at that point there was this stuff called lager that people started to drink – and no one was drinking real ale. And Fuggle goes into real ale.”
We were standing by a wall hung with a display of photos of the estate showing the diverse activities they are involved in. As well as hop production these include producing pedigree beef and wild venison, forestry, and hosting a wide range of activities including orienteering and gundog trials. The estate is also used as a favoured location for film studios, which has recently included providing major sets for the Robin Hood and Jack the Giant Killer films.
Pointing to a photo of hop pickers hard at work on the bines strung over towering poles and wires on the slopes of the Hog’s Back I asked why they had always grown Fuggles.
“Fuggle is very hard to grow because they are susceptible to wilt, and verticillium wilt is the killer of Fuggle,” Bill explained. “If you get wilt into your hop garden then you won’t be able to grow the hop. In Kent and Herefordshire where many hop gardens are right next door to each other, if one gets wilt within a year it’s on to the next one. So there are only seven or eight Fuggle growers in the country. The breweries we supply including the Hog’s Back Brewery have all been using Fuggle in their recipes for years and years and they don’t want to change. So other hop growers say that if you can grow Fuggle hops you are the luckiest growers in the country!”
If you have travelled through Puttenham you will have undoubtedly seen the estate’s impressive hop garden alongside Seale Lane, with the tall ridge of the Hog’s Back behind. The hops enjoy the gault clay there that overlays the chalk of the North Downs. Only by standing alongside the many neat rows of healthy hop bines stretching into the distance can you get any real idea as to the scale of their operation.
“The hop plants you can see here have been going for 45 to 50 years,” Bill explained. “They stay in the ground all year-round. Now we’ve got even more hops as we’ve extended the hop garden by a further 10 acres. That means we can now look at the rest of the older hops and decide if we should take a block out, because they might not be performing well. Maybe just replant those. But we’ll see.”
When I visited it was the end of the growing season. The hops were now full of essential oils and exuding their distinctive aroma – fully mature and ready to pick. If you’ve never seen a mature hop cone, which is the flowering part of the plant, I can assure you that you’d be quite entranced, not just by the aroma but also by the sheer geometric beauty of the perfectly formed pale green leaves that make up the flower.
I asked Bill to provide a quick overview of a typical hop-producing year. “Let’s start on 1st January. There’s nothing on the garden. You can look right through the whole thing. All you’ve got are the skewers in the ground where each hop is. The next thing to do is cover the whole garden in dung to add some humus back to the soil. Then we will have a month and a half of stringing. Each plant needs two to four strings which are hung by working with long poles with a hook on the end fed a big ball of string. You walk up and down going from skewer at the bottom up to the wire and back down to the skewer… and on you go. It’s very labour intensive.”
We paused by one of the hop bines to inspect the way the hops are strung and to admire the cones hanging from a bine that must have been in my estimation a good 16ft tall.
“By April we start getting little hop shoots, with each hop plant having 40 to 50 shoots a few weeks later. But we only want two climbing the string so we train the two shoots we want and remove the rest. So now in early May you can almost watch them grow. They are like runner beans, although they go a bit faster and grow clockwise rather than runner beans climbing anticlockwise of course. By midsummer’s day the bine will reach the top wire and start to go over the top with little hops forming on laterals coming out from the main bines by mid-July. Come late August we’re ready to start picking, with harvesting by student labour in early September.”
Of course there is much more involved than space here will allow, and especially in painstakingly inspecting for any sign of disease, which as well as wilt can include various strains of mildew. Hops are also threatened by aphids and two-spotted spider mites, requiring a constant watch.
I recalled seeing photos back in the estate office of pickers working to cut the bines from the wires and then transporting these by trailer to the oast house. We were now at the farm to watch this process where the huge static picking machine removes each of the individual hop cones, the only part of the bine that the brewers need, and cleans them. The hops then go into the gas-powered kilns which reduce the moisture content to preserve them and dries them, after which they are pressed and packed into huge bales ready for storage and supply to the breweries. Each bale bears the emblem of a church bell which is a traditional symbol for Farnham hops.
Where to get the Fuggle flavour experience? Visit the websites of the breweries Hampton Estate supplies to find out more. You can even brew your own!
Phil Kemp is a Godalming-based writer and photographer. www.weyriver.co.uk
Breweries supplied with Hampton Estate Fuggles:
Hog’s Back Brewery – www.hogsback.co.uk/
Harvey’s Brewery – www.harveys.org.uk
The Black Sheep Brewery – www.blacksheepbrewery.com
Home brewing – www.the-home-brew-shop.co.uk