Hops-Ben-Adams

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.

growing beer, allotment, brewingAnd so it begins – I’ve got this year to grow or gather the raw ingredients needed and then process, prepare and brew them into the finished beer. I’m really excited about seeing what I can produce, meeting the people that grow and use the ingredients and finding out more about how they do it.
Before I can even think about planting, growing or brewing though, I’ve got to get my allotment cleared. I took it on in quite a mess; it hasn’t been productive for quite a few years, is strewn with rubbish and around half has reverted to turf and well established weeds. The first week has been a frenzy of hacking, cutting and digging to get it into something that resembles a productive plot, so far turning up a smörgåsbord of rubbish:
  • 40m2 of rotting carpet
  • Enough broken glass to fill a small barrel
  • 4 broken water butts
  • 1 broken 1000l water container
  • 2 rubbish filled oil drums
  • 3 gas canisters
  • Several rotten pallets
  • Around 20 refuse sacks (buried)
  • A 3m wooden beam (buried)
  • Several cast iron wheels (buried)
  • Enough plastic rubbish to fill one of the above water butts
Once the waste was cleared from the beds I could then turn my attention to cutting back and digging out the weeds that are, to say the least, established. I had no idea that nettles grew so quickly, thickly and spread their roots so far. I’ve been stung so much that I barely notice them now, whilst I’m seriously considering testing out my new-found immunity at the local World Nettle Eating Championships later this year.

It’s been a very tiring week. By my estimate I’ve removed over a mile of roots and runners, the 20 sacks of weeds and turf weigh in at over 300kg and I’ve removed enough rubbish to fill a small skip. It’s a shame when people don’t leave things in a good condition for those following after them, or treat natural spaces like a tip. It’s not all bad though, as I can return one of the gas canisters for £7.50. Result.

Next week I’m very lucky to be welcoming TV gardener Toby Buckland to offer me some help and advice on how to get the most out of my allotment.

Be thankful that you can’t smell this water – 1000 litres of it in all.
Scroll to top