In Europe hops have been used in beer making ever since the Middle Ages when it was accidentally discovered that they prolonged the life of beer. Hops were introduced to England in 1530's, to North America and South Africa about 100 years later.
The hop plant is a perennial creeper that grows up to 150mm a day; it is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. This cold hardy plant is indigenous to the northern temperate regions of Europe . However, one area of South Africa provides the ideal climate for an unusual crop- Blanco near George, Waboomskraal and at Herold. The Mediterranean style climate around George gives this plant the mild temperatures, little frost and a reasonable amount of rain to encourage this fast growing plant. People generally associate hops with beer making and there are some interesting aspects to the cultivation of this crop.
Hops are planted in August and September. When the first shoots appear, they are strung up on trellises. The bines are trained by wrapping three healthy shoots clockwise to the string, (in Europe anti-clockwise) to encourage more rapid growth. Male and female flowers grow on separate plants; the female plant is used commercially, while the male plant is used in breeding programs. By mid-January the hops are in full flower and are ready for harvesting in mid-February and March.
Traveling through this area in summer you will notice the flowering hop plants beneath the overhead lights. Farmers use these bright lights at night to encourage the growth of these plants. Once harvested the mature female flower is pressed into pellets and used in the brewing process. These cones contain a substance called Lupulin, which gives the characteristic bitter and aromatic taste in beer.
The First Hop growing in South Africa
Jan van Riebeeck, commander of the Cape planted the first hop garden in 1652, with the first beer being brewed in 1658. However, after that there is no evidence that it continued. From this time on hop growing in South Africa was somewhat erratic. Hop growing was only resumed at the beginning of the 20th century and was concentrated around Herold. In 1924 the Cape Town Brewery (later Ohlsson' Cape Brewery) organized a competition to see which region would be the first to supply 100 pounds of dried hops. Hop cuttings were sent to a number of locations but it was the area around George that was the final winner.
The first hop farm "Afgunst" near Herold was bought by the Union Hop Growers, a company formed by Ohlsson's Cape Breweries and SA Breweries Limited in 1935.
Hop growing in South Africa developed further in the 1970's when a locally developed strain "Southern Brewer" was cultivated and was ideally suited to the growing conditions around George. If you are in the George area, there are various tours and opportunities to see hops being grown and harvested and it is worth seeing.
Article kindly supplied by Over the Mountain Guest Farm. Visit them at: www.overthemountain.co.za