Friday 23 November 2012

The Empire Strikes Back

You’ve probably never heard of a hop variety called Jester and until last Wednesday night neither had I. Sadly, British hop farming is currently in decline due to our palates craving the zesty, resinous flavours of new world hops from Austraila, New Zealand and the United States. Many British mouths seem to have got a bit bored with the earthy and dare I say ‘twiggy’ taste of hop varieties such as Fuggles and East Kent Goldings. I confess, I am one of these people, I much prefer the rich hit of citrus and pine on the tongue found in new world hops to the earthy, bramble-like flavours found in our native British hops.

We used THIS MANY hops
Thanks to my good beery friend Justin and Tom from Liberty beer I was invited to the launch of a brand new beer brewed exclusively with Jester, a new British hop variety that allegedly packs a similar burst of flavour to new world hops. The Empire Stikes Back is a 5.7% ABV single hop IPA which has been brewed by the Moor Beer Company who have been heavily involved with the breeding of this new hop along with hop merchants Charles Faram & Co and Liberty beer who distribute Moor Beer around the UK.

I headed down to the Earl of Essex in Islington on Wednesday evening and met Justin inside the pub which was already crowded with brewers, hop growers, beer writers and bloggers alike. I was immediately introduced to beer writer Sophie Atherton who was rubbing a handful of Jester in between her palms and I got to take a whiff before I tasted the beer. The dank, hemp-like scent immediately reminded me of the first time I ever smelt Columbus hops as did the fruity pineapple and grapefruit aromas. What made it different to Columbus was that signature earthyness that I associate with British hops but it was unlike any British hop I had ever smelt before.

Before we had our first taste of The Empire Strikes Back, Moor Head Brewer Justin Hawke along with one of the hop development team at Charles Faram gave a brief talk about how this hop and in turn this new IPA came into being. We were then handed samples of the cask version, Moor are passionate about creating unfined (unfiltered) beers and so the pale gold liquid had a little haziness to it. Unfined beer to me means one thing, more flavour and so I’m all for beers being made this way. On the nose I got gooseberries, rhubarb and a buttery, biscuit aroma from the malts. On cask The Empire Strikes Back tasted like a rich British fruit salad of rhubarb, blackberries and redcurrants, it was bigger and fruitier than any British hop I had ever tasted but it still tasted quintessentially British. There was an earthy, herbal quality underpinning the fruit and the malt, I mused on what might be the cause of this, the acidity of Kentish soil? The pH of the water supply used to irrigate the crop? Either way it tasted quite unlike any hop I had tasted before.

On keg the aroma was much more pronounced, the extra carbonation forcing those aroma molecules out of the glass and this really helped the pineapple qualities I had smelt in the raw hop leap out. Sadly the keg version didn’t quite stand up to it’s cask brother, the bitterness levels were ramped up to the max and that lovely biscuity malt quality was lost to a massive wash of pineapple and grapefruit. As it warmed in my hand it became less cloying and more pleasant. I thought to myself that although this beer in both of its forms was delicious and I enjoyed it immensely, Jester will really come into it’s own when combined with other hops. Surely the aim in breeding this new variety is not to dominate the world hop market but to make sure British hop growing stands arm in arm with it’s American and Antipodean cousins. I await with baited breath to see how our talented new wave of British craft brewers will utilise this interesting new hop.

As a side note it was fantastic to meet so many of the wonderful and supportive people I’ve come to know on Twitter this past year, I look forward to seeing all of you at the CAMRGB Twissup on the 15th of December!

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