East Bristol Hops: a community of hop-growers

Guy Manchester

Guy Manchester, Community Gardening Facilitator at Alive Activities, is also an organiser for both Bristol Seed Swap and East Bristol Hops Collective. In this Bristol Bites Back Better blog post he tells the story about how East Bristol Hops was formed.

Back in 2016, four friends hatched a plan. That plan was to bring a community of Bristol-based beer lovers together to grow hops, the harvest of which would be used by a local brewery to make a uniquely Bristolian brew.

With the city’s nascent craft beer scene just taking off, the timing was perfect. But with which brewery to partner? Emails were sent, and before the friends knew it, Dawkins Brewery in Easton had replied expressing interest. A quick phone call later, and it was agreed – Dawkins would be the partner brewery.

As it was late February by now, time was running out to order plants. So a recruitment drive was instigated, post haste. Sixty people answered the call, much to our delight! In consultation with Dawkins, it was decided we would use three different varieties – a dwarfing kind, Prima Donna, and two full-sized plants, Bullion and Fuggles.

Within a month, the rhizomes (stems that grow underground) were distributed around various gardens and allotments in Bristol. A lively Facebook group was set up, where people shared tips and photos of their plants as they developed over the summer.

There was a huge sense of excitement in the group as autumn approached and the hops began producing flowers. A cropping date was decided upon. As the oils in hops (which give it its flavour) are volatile, it was essential to coordinate the harvesting so they could all arrive at Dawkins on the same day and then be added to a brew the following day at a ceremonial “hop stuffing” party.

All that done, the waiting began. But there was one thing to occupy us during this time – what to call the beer? We enlisted the hive mind of the association via a competition. The name chosen was Easton Promise – a name it retains to this day.

Dawkins offered us space in the brewery to hold a launch party for the inaugural Easton Promise, as well as a couple of free barrels to share with growers on the day – something they’ve done every year since.

And the beer? Well, that was deemed a huge success, of course! Because it is made with fresh hops, the flavour notes are different every year, but the beer is always super-fresh, grassy and, of course, very hoppy. Its unique flavour is only possible because the hops are picked straight off the bine (the climbing or twining stem of the plant), capturing all the delicate aromas from the natural hop oils.

Our first harvest was an impressive 7kg of hops. In our second year, though, the harvest was over 20 kilos – a significant milestone as it meant the 2017 beer contained only locally grown cones. A truly local brew!

Bringing together people with a passion for beer, small breweries and their community has been the chief goal of the association since its inception. We’re also excited to a part of the local food and drink scene and love that the beer is more Bristolian than any other brewed in the city. 

To that end, our goal is to become self-sufficient in terms of plants as well as hops so we can increase the number of association members without having to order new plants. Propagating new plants is not only fun, but it’s also surprisingly easy – and nothing beats the sense of achievement when you first see new shoots appearing on a cutting or rhizome division! 

As well as making our beer more local, using propagules from locally grown plants produces a hop more likely to be attuned to the soil and climatic conditions in Bristol, so they’re likely to be more robust and should produce a higher yield.

Our plans for the future are largely centred around expansion. We’d love to increase the harvest year on year and get more people propagating their plants to give to friends and neighbours. There’s also talk of switching up the hop varieties to tweak the flavour profile. It’d be great to get more community gardens and allotments in on the action too. And maybe one day, when our yield becomes too great for Dawkins to handle all our hops, we’ll see if any other local breweries might like to take some of the cones off our hands to produce their own locally grown beer. 

If you would like to join the association, drop us a line at eastbristolhops@gmail.com. We have hop plants all ready to go in the ground from this year’s cuttings. They may not produce any cones this year, but they’ll be ready to romp away next summer once established! We also have a website at eastbristolhops.co.uk.

Read this blog from February 2020 about the thorny subject of seed sovereignty, published as part of Bristol Seed Swap, which Guy helps organise. For 2021, Bristol Seed Swap was organised via post: seeds were sent out to 307 individuals and 10 community growing groups, plus 50 bundles of seed packs were sent to three food banks in Bristol and Nailsea.

Three online talks from the 2021 Bristol Seed Swap are available on YouTube: with Liz Zorab (“First steps in food security”), Sara Venn (“Food justice and seed sovereignty in Bristol and beyond”) and Diane Holness (“Seed Saving: How and why to do it”). The Seed Swap team expect to run the event as a live event again next year on Sunday February 13th 2022.

Guy (and Abi Sweet) from Alive Activities have also written for the Bristol Bites Back Better blog about Bristol’s first dementia-friendly allotment. They discuss the social and therapeutic benefits of gardening and food production, as well as their exciting plans for the community allotment.

By setting the wheels in motion now, together we can transform the future of food in our city, building in resilience over the next decade. So, what change do you want to see happen that will transform food in Bristol by 2030? Do you already have an idea for how Bristol can make this happen? Join the conversation now.

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