I recently had the privilege of being shown around the Oast House at Mockbegger Farm on the Lower Road between Teynham and Faversham. It was a real eye opener into the skill and dedication required in drying and pressing hops to the perfection required by brewers. Mockbegger Farm fulfils this requirement ably while still using traditional methods.
During September hops are harvested from the Farms nine hop gardens and taken to a huge barn for processing. Here the hops are stripped and separated from the bines and leaves and then sent on conveyer belts to an area at the back of the kilns or drying rooms where they are put in sacks ready for drying.
As John, the Head Drier explained, six hessian cloths are laid on the slatted floor of the drying room and then up to 96 sacks of hops are spread on the floor in 8 by 12 rows to be dried. Mockbegger Farm has four drying rooms, each producing approximately 21 bales of hops per firing. There are two firings per day, with four drying rooms loaded in the morning and four in the afternoon/evening. With the heat reaching 160 degrees Fahrenheit for between 5 ½ to 7 ½ hours, John uses his skill and judgement deciding when this part of the process is complete.
Once dried, the hops are then spread on the floor of the cooling room adjacent to the drying room, then moved to the press for baling. Darren and Peter were involved in the moving of the dried hops, in a process known as ‘scuppering’, taken from the name of a large shovel like tool called a ‘scup’. As the hops are scupped the outside of the pile is mixed towards the middle. This is to stop ‘come back’ which is the drawing in of moisture to the outside of the hop pile during the drying process, (the drier hops of the middle helping to re-dry those from the outer edges). If mixing isn’t done, one side of the hop pile will be heavier than the other and this will affect the weight of the bales.
The press goes from the cooling room to a lower floor and consists of a large rectangular box and a weight – the structure is similar to a Dumb Waiter found in hotels. The hops are scupped until they are level with the top of the box, then the weight comes down and compresses the hops and depending on the variety of hop, this is done three or four times (Mockbegger grows Goldings, Challenger and Cascade varieties). Before the final press a top sheet is laid on the hops which will make one side of the bale, precision being needed to avoid a wonky bale being created – this is done just as carefully at the bottom of the press on the lower floor.
Once the final press is made the box is lifted up and the man on the lower floor, Aaron, swiftly and dextrously stitches up the sides to produce a perfect bale. Then he has to haul the bale of the press and weigh it (the weight can vary between 81kg – 94kg although the aim is for 87kg) and place it on a pallet, by the time this is done the next bale is waiting.
Before being sent off to the brewers, 3 samples are taken from random bales. These are sent off to laboratories, brewers and the British Hop Association for analysis (in 2008 John won a trophy for the best dried hops in the UK and he also regularly wins awards when his hops are exhibited at shows and ploughing matches).
So next time you’re enjoying a pint, raise your glass and say cheers to the unsung heroes of brewing, the hop driers, men like John, Darren, Peter and Aaron.