Hops and barley - growing beer

One of the better patches (L) compared to one that’s er, not (R)

Hmm is definitely the word/noise that springs to mind (and not just because of the terrible pun – sorry). The barley seeds are growing, but they aren’t exactly doing it in a uniform, consistent way. I think a combination of me failing to evenly tread in the seeds and a complete absence of anything that resembles rain for weeks has caused many of the seeds that are near or on the surface to either grow much more slowly or just lie there like dormant holiday makers on a sunny beach. Those that are coming up are doing me proud, with nice green blades shooting up above the handful of small weeds that think now is the time to shine, but they aren’t exactly covering the plot.

We finally had a proper downpour last weekend, and I think (hope) that there are more shoots starting to come through. It’s not absolutely critical for the completion of the project as there is some growing, but my dreams of a bumper brew in terms of volume are directly linked to the barley growth and eventual yield – Growing Beer is increasingly about finding out which of my four ingredients is going to be the limiting factor.

On the plus side, some of the hops are shooting up the string. Fuggles is currently in the lead at about 4-5 feet high, with Cascade in second and Goldings in, well, Goldings is still tying it’s laces on the starting line but it has at least shown up. I’ve also got the guttering in to collect the imaginary rain that I’m expecting, and this week I’m meeting with some rather nice chaps from the University of Exeter. With a little luck they’re going to help me get my head around yeast, it’s collection and whether I’m kidding myself in thinking that I can get a usable culture from my allotment…

I learnt my first lesson about ideals this week, and when you have to accept that you can’t always do things the way you want to.

I had wanted to prepare the ground manually, but the amIMG_3459ount of time it took to clear the soil of deep rooted weeds caused the final soil preparation for the barley to slip into April, which then coincided with one of the longest Spring dry spells I’ve ever known. The lack of rain and the unseasonally hot sun had the effect of a grill on my previously claggy, clumpy clay soil and before I had been able to make the most of the narrow window of soft, drying dirt it was rock solid.

2 solid days of futile turning, breaking and raking later and I realised that if I wanted any chance of getting the barley sown before Easter I had to resort to mechanisation, and in this case a rotivator. Small and hand-pushed it tore through the soil with an ease that instantly made me realise the futility of the previous days’ efforts; within 30 minutes I had turned and broken up both barley beds. It wasn’t a perfect finish but it let me rake out the stones and larger, harder lumps to leave a surface ready for the seeds.

IMG_3489With relative ease I could then set up the netting and hand cast the seeds. It wasn’t practical to sow them in individually, due to there being around 30,000 of them so instead I scattered, raked, walked and watered them in. I don’t think there is a lot more I can do help them get going now, so I just have to wait and hope that the little guys germinate and grow over the next 2 weeks…

Young hopsThe past two weeks have been a mix of good and bad news. On the positive side, WE HAVE HOPS! Whilst clearing out some weeds on the main beds a small, purple shoot caught my eye and after 2 or 3 more days it was obviously a hop making a break for the sun. It’s not all been plain sailing for the little guys and some are doing better than others, but all 6 are showing signs of life.

I was also lucky to be paid a very quick visit by a retired hop farmer, Wyndham Monk, who gave them the once over but didn’t voice any major cause for concern. It’s still too early to see how they will fare against disease, pests and whether they’ll be energetic enough to produce enough hop cones, but it’s nice to know I haven’t got the setup horribly wrong.

IMG_3404On the negative we have the barley, or to be more accurate, the lack of it. As most of the UK has been enjoying the continuous hot spell my allotment has been slowly baking into a giant rock. I had hoped to get the seeds in at the beginning of the month, but so entrenched were the weeds that it’s taken my extremely helpful friend Mike and I a fortnight longer than expected to clear them. 70 square metres of clay soil is a lot to work through with your hands and all this time the sun has been slowly drying out the clay until it is solid and practically impossible to rake. I’ve just finished the second of two full days breaking up the ground and raking it to a finer tilth, but is unbelievably hard going and I’m not yet ready for sowing.

Considering that I need to finish the soil, get the bird netting in place and sow the seed before the 20th, this is going to be a very tiring, stressful few days.

IMG_3171There are no taps, wells or appropriately large puddles on my allotment, so I’ll be collecting and using rainwater in my final beer. At a basic level this is a fairly simple exercise, but something that I already know is that when it comes to brewing, water can have a big impact. Liquor, as it’s called when brewing, affects not just flavour but also the mineral content and pH of the brew among other things. I’ve never used rainwater before and it turns out that not many people have, with the nearest I could find being in Amsterdam. I don’t need much of an excuse to visit Belgium and The Netherlands, so I opted to drive up with a friend and stop off at various breweries and shops on the way there and back, eventually meeting Yoris Hoebe of the Hemelswater project.

IMG_3155Hemelswater (‘Heaven’s water’ in Dutch) came about in response to an Amsterdam-wide campaign to reduce the amount of water reaching the sewer system during heavy rain – keen homebrewer Yoris set up various collection points around the city to harvest and filter the water before transporting it the Brouwerij de Prael in the heart of the old town. It’s a great project that involves people all over Amsterdam whilst making the most of a very obvious natural resource.

After a tour of the collection sites by bike (in 50mph winds and rain) we finished up at the brewery where we tasted the resulting beer, Code Blonde. It’s made to exactly the same recipe as a regular de Prael blonde beer, but with the tap water substituted. Trying them side by side with Yoris made for an interesting comparison, but you’ll need to wait for the podcast to find out exactly how it might affect my final beer…

Next week I’ll be back in Devon, finishing off the barley beds and finding out just how bad my weed problem is as spring begins.

I’m back in the saddle, on my feet and getting back onto the plot to get ready for the impending arrival of the barley seed. It’s taking far longer than I expected to get back to full strength, but now I’m pretty much there and can crack on with the weeding.

Of the two beds that will be used for the barley the biggest is riddled with horsetail and bindweed – I didn’t know a lot about these two until the start of the project but it’s becoming increasingly clear how much of a problem they can be if not kept in check. Both of them can regrow from just a small part of the root, so digging down and getting all of it out is the only way to begin removing it from the soil. I’ve got no chance of clearing it all out, but as long as I get most of it out I should be giving my barley seeds the best chance of success – once they’ve established themselves I’m hoping they’ll dominate the bed and do well.

IMG_3029 (1)The hops have now been in for 3 weeks so will hopefully poke through at some point in the next month. I’ve nabbed a load of plastic, transparent kegs from a local bar and have broken them down to create large, lightweight cloches to protect the shoots as they come through. I’m always a fan of reusing where possible, so as soon as I see some signs of life I’ll get these in place to hopefully keep the worst of the slugs and rabbits away. Who would have thought so many creatures wanted to eat my plants?

Next week I’ll be heading off on a roadtrip to Amsterdam, to find out how to collect and brew with rainwater from a small Dutch project.

C8BEE430-1567-4D49-A847-68055983C123My friend and willing assistant Mike and I had the bed finished, the holes dug and the hop coir pegged and running 13 feet to the top of the pole, ready for the arrival of the rhizomes that would hopefully shoot into life in the next couple of months. It turns out it’s quite tricky to put in a pole of this length without the right equipment, so instead we went with an improvised alternative that starts off as a well secured 8 foot fence post, with another 8 feet of well secured but smaller poles on top – this allowed us to avoid massive ladders by setting the coir ropes and then lifting it into place before securely lashing to the main post.

I was hoping that the hops would turn up on Wednesday or Thursday, as I was due into hospital on the Friday, but sadly our postal system delivered them a little too late – by the time they arrived I was post-sinus surgery and under strict instructions to avoid all physical activity for at least the next week. Fortunately, my father-in-law Paul was on hand to take the 6 tiny plants up and get them settled in.

Modelling the latest in hospital gowns

Modelling the latest in hospital gowns

I opted for 4 differents hops in the end; Fuggles (x2) and a Goldings variety (x2) to hopefully offer some good yield and disease resistance, along with a continental Perle and US Cascade to provide more flavour, aroma or style options come brew day.

I’m going a little stir crazy at the moment and still haven’t been able to get up to the allotment – I’m into day 6 of recovery and won’t be out and about for at least another 2 or 3 and even then I can’t do anything too strenuous for another couple of weeks. I’m doing my absolute best not to flood my various social media accounts with my whining, discomfort and general self-pity, but I’m not sure I can hold out much longer…

Bull-printIt’s getting serious now. Gone are the days of casually clearing rubbish and turning over the beds – plants have been ordered and very soon they’ll need to be planted, protected and generally loved. Protection is now high on that list, after receiving a visit from the neighbouring bull. I’m not quite sure how he does it, but he’s got in and left some pretty hefty footprints across mine and other allotments. I’ve told our friendly parish council clerk and hopefully it won’t happen again – slugs I can plan for, giant livestock I’m not so sure about.

Post-blue-skyThis week saw a glimmer of good weather, so I enlisted the family to paint the shed while I finished off the hop bed. Having created a small retaining wall on the slope to make a stepped bed I can now level off it off, dig it over and remove as many weed roots (and glass) as I can.

Because hops they can grow quite high, I’m putting in a big post and I’ll run a tough twine called coir from the top, so hopefully the hops will grow up and create big green teepee. At the ground level I’ll then fix this using the scariest pegs I’ve ever seen, before recycling transparent plastic kegs from a local bar to create some protection from slugs and rabbits for the young hop shoots. Hops grow in long lines called bines, and I’m going to put 6 of these in – hopefully just one or two will produce enough hops, but the more I can plant the more variety I can have and increase my chances of actually having something come harvest day.

Next week will be an interesting one. I’ll have one day to get all of this finished and the hops planted before I’ll be out of action for around a week following a minor operation – there’s nothing like a deadline eh?

The kids, completely reasonably, got bored half way through and wandered off


Whilst the allotment preparations are coming along, it’s very nearly time to get some plants in the ground. Before I can do this though, I need to work out how I’m going to plant the hops and barley and for this I need some help. I tore myself away from digging and clearing, and took to the road to visit 2 people that know a lot more than me…

First up was a trip to see Ben Adams, technical advisor for hop merchants Charles Faram. As well as supplying the vast majority of UK brewers with some of their hops they also work with farmers and specialists to research new varieties. After a chat about what I need to do next, which varieties I should be growing and what I can do to keep them all alive we had a look around one of the warehouses – aisle after aisle of processed, packaged and ready-to-brew hops stacked 50 feet up to the ceiling. Considering that a handful of hops can add bitterness, flavour and aroma to a brew, the amount stored in just this warehouse really highlighted just how much beer is brewed in the UK alone.

Barley-Steve-LePNext, I headed over to Crisp Malting in Norfolk to better understand what to do with the barley – if I don’t get this bit right there’s no barley grains, which means no sugar, no fermentation and no beer. Steve LePoidevin was my barley and malting expert, offering advice on what type I should be planting and, assuming it all goes to plan, what process it will go through before it can be brewed. Similar to Charles Faram, the scale that the guys at Crisp work on is mind-boggling – from traditional floor maltings that haven’t changed in over a century to modern equivalents that produce thousands of tonnes of malted barley to supply both brewers and distillers.

All in all, a really important couple of days. Interviews for the podcast sorted, varieties decided and tips for actually growing it all secured, I’m much better prepared to start growing beer. I’m very grateful to both Ben and Steve for their help now and for the ongoing support and advice I’ll need over the coming months to grow the plants, harvest and then process them.

Next week I’ll be adding the final touches to the shed, further preparing the beds and ordering the all important hops and barley.

Hitting the road in the name of research

You can’t have an allotment without a shed. As well as vital for storage and sheltering from the elements I also need mine for less traditional reasons – recording the growing updates on the podcasts and keeping out livestock.

I decided before starting on this journey that it wound’t be right to introduce the episodes anywhere other than on the allotment, so that meant finding a way to get out of the wind and minimise the impact my exceedingly amateur recording skills would have on the episodes. Once I’d received permission from the parish council to put up a shed (I had no idea you had to this until now) I had to figure out how to site it to minimise bull access – yes, bulls may well be the biggest pest problem I face. Not aphids or slugs, bulls.

A few weeks after taking on the allotment I arrived to find large hoof prints in the ground and the biggest bull I’ve seen for a while staring at me over the now clearly inadequate bank between us. Putting aside the potential damage to the plants, I’m not overly keen on having a tonne of fast-moving, horned, testosterone-fuelled muscle coming anywhere near me, so I’m going to block up the gap with a shed. And not just any shed – a 6×4 foot, double-door, shiplap-panelled sanctuary from which to record the podcasts and oversee my limited but glorious kingdom. Standard practice applied when I need another pair of hands, local friend Mike gave me a hand unloading the pieces, levelling the ground and building it. Again, standard practice involved the rain setting in, a certain amount of incompetence and a second day’s efforts just to get it upright and watertight.

I’m amazed at how the whole area suddenly looks different, even though there is nothing growing yet. Clearing the rubbish, defining the beds and putting up the still not-quite-finished shed gives the site a completely new feel, one of productivity and hidden potential. I just hope the adjacent cattle don’t notice.

Next week I’m hitting the road, finding out the basics in hop and barley farming from the experts.

Time lapse of the shed going up. It’s not quite finished, but fingers crossed it’s stable and watertight.

With the site clearance well underway, the next step is how I’m actually going to grow the ingredients I need. With the help of my friend Mike I’ve marked out the growing areas and managed to clear the turf off the top – the beds aren’t ready by any stretch of the imagination but at least they are beds now.

Toby Buckland and Ben Richards - Growing BeerOnto the first challenge of the week – get my head around the gardening basics. Luckily this is where the first of my friendly experts, Toby Buckland, comes in. He has years of experience presenting radio and TV gardening programmes, writing books and publications and runs his own garden centre and festivals here in Devon. He’s also a very nice guy, and offered to visit the allotment to give me a few tips on the best way to get started.

This though, gave me my second challenge of the week – holding and recording the interviews. The podcast is going to be the main way to understand and follow my journey, so it’s important that I get it right. As well as making sure that you’re going to find the 30 minutes interesting I also need to make sure that you can hear it properly! I’m not sure if I know less about gardening or recording audio, so it seemed an ideal time to give both a try. As Toby led me through the basics of understanding soil, seed nutrition and growing plants 101, I got to grips with my portable sound recorder and microphones, all the while fearing a gust of wind or the accidental tapping of a microphone cable. I have a new found respect for both allotment gardeners and sound engineers, but as I’m now into the editing, with the first interview done, I’m really looking forward to the rest of the year.

You’ll just have to wait until August to find out how it went, but I think it’s worth the wait…

Next week I’ll be tackling the essential accompaniment to any allotment – the shed.

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