Harvest time at the oast cottage

It’s that time of year again. The fields are reduced to stubble, the apple trees in some parts of the country are already picked clean (hello, climate change), schoolchildren are collecting tinned goods to send to Africa, and in a garden in suburban Leeds, my hop vine is laden with ripe, pale green flowers.

On Sunday, I enlisted whatever help I could find (three kind souls helped me out) and together we spent several hours cutting down long bines of hops, and stripping the flowers into two big eleven-gallon buckets, ready for me to transport them back to my Whitby cottage. It’s a sticky job, but the smell of the flowers is gloriously heady, verging on soporific (especially if, like us, you were faintly hung over from the night before).

On returning to the cottage, I got a batch of beer on first thing Tuesday morning, but was left with the usual problem of a bit of a surplus. Even after I’d got the wort bubbling away on the hob in my mum’s old jam cauldron, I was still left with enough hops for at least three more batches. As it happens, I only possess two brewing vessels, and even if I did have more, I’m not certain where I would put 160 pints of beer. Not to mention that, living out here on my own, it might well be the death of me.

And you can’t store hops green. We tried one year, placing a couple of cardboard boxes full in the airing cupboard, and when my mum opened the door, she released a swarm of evil black flies.

The only real solution is to dry them, which in times gone by was accomplished by means of an oast house. You see them a lot in the home counties: those funny-looking towers with a lop-sided conical hat on the top, sort of like a tipsily disshevelled windmill (and mostly converted into desirable private residences these days). I don’t have an oast house, but I do have an oven, and in previous years this has served me just as well.

It’s not a quick process, mind. You want to dry the hop flowers without burning them, so you have to spread them on reasonably shallow baking trays (nothing deeper than about an inch), keep the heat low, and keep agitating them to bring the damp ones from underneath to the top. Then as soon as one tray is done, you tip the dry hops into a box, replenish the tray with damp ones, and start again.

It took me the better part of a day, but there are lots of other jobs you can be getting on with while the hops are drying, and the perfume that suffuses the house is wonderful (particularly if, like me, you’ve got malt mashing at the same time).

My only regret is that, once I’ve used them in the beer, I just have to throw the hops away, and it seems like they must still be useful for something (like for example the spent malt, which you can use to make tasty bread). The internet is curiously quiet on the subject, aside from the obvious suggestion of composting them. Does anyone have any bright ideas?

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