Beer would not be beer were it not for the hop plant. While you can make a beer without hops (the word ‘ale’ is thought originally to have meant exactly that), it is the hops that give to beer the distinctive flavour that most drinkers would probably consider to be the essence of the brew. These are the soft green cones of the plant Humulus lupulus. Only the female plant produces cones, and the magic ingredients that the brewer seeks are found only in tiny glands at the base of each leaf-like bract within the cone.
The hops contribute to the making of beer in several ways, notably the addition of taste and smell. Bittering hops give the brew its characteristic bitter taste, while aroma hops give it its beery scent. Hops also act as a natural preservative, help to clarify the beer and to form and fix the frothy head.
Until the early decades of this century all the hops used in South Africa’s brewing industry had to be imported, but in the 1920s the brewers began to wonder if it would not be possible to grow their hops at home. The conditions for the plant’s growth, however, were stringent: a minimum number of daylight hours in summer, a six- to eight-week dormant period in winter when it needs to be chilled, and a plentiful water supply throughout the growing season. Only one small part of the country met these conditions: the rich farmlands around George, and one or two well-watered valleys in the Outeniqua Mountains. Today 480 ha are cultivated, enough for half of South Africa’s needs. A visitor cannot miss the hop fields in summer. The plant is a fast-growing climber that shoots up in spring, the specially erected trellises towering as much as 4 meters above the ground so that the fields look like giant vineyards. The rate of growth is so remarkable – up to 20 centimetres a day – that some farmers (the older ones, who have had time to sit down and study such things) insist that the patient visitor will actually see a plant growing taller before his eyes.