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Andrew Douglas didn’t even bother to advertise his latest venture, but quickly the home brewers, and community-garden enthusiasts, and the hop-flavoured ice-cream experimenters signed up.
“And there’s always the people who just love a good piss-up,” he said, on a recent Thursday afternoon.
Roughly 140 people have joined Social Hops and are growing about 200 hop plants around the country, said Douglas, the founder and CEO of Urban Farm.
The idea is simple: Dubliners, and those further afield, grow hop plants wherever they can – in little gardens, roofs, and patches. Then they are harvested and passed on to local breweries to make beer.
In return for their services, growers get to attend social events and drink some free beer over the next three years.
Birth of an Idea
You might have come across Douglas before, through his rooftop potatoes, coffee-grounds-into-mushrooms packs, or his work in the urban greenhouse at Belvedere College in the North Inner City.
His reward for his working with the school is hanging out with schoolboys and eating microgreens, laughs Douglas. “So I thought I needed a bit more of an interesting payback,” he adds.
He stumbled upon a hops-growing project by Trinity students at the Science Gallery last year. Then he came across a community hops-growing project in London called Palace Pint, which he liked the look of. And so Social Hops was born.
Last month, the group had its first meet-up at the rooftop garden of the Bernard Shaw on Richmond Street. It featured hops-topped pizza, beer tastings, and deep discussions about hops.
Among the attendees was Ian Alvey, who heads up Brewtonic, which has its tiny tester nano-brewery on the rooftop. Here, he’s been growing vegetables, herbs, and berries but this is his first foray into hop growing.
Ten hop plants have been creeping up from the soil since March. They’re all looking healthy and Alvey says it’s easy enough to grow them.
In Dublin, Meath, Kildare, and Wicklow, there are about 70 members of Social Hops who are nursing new plants, and their hops will be sent to Rascals Brewing in Rathcoole in the autumn.
The other 70 members are scattered around the rest of the country, and their hops will go to the Carlow Brewing Company.
“Since I started Social Hops this year, I’ve been getting emails from people about turning over their entire farm to hops,” says Douglas. “So there’s a want for it in Ireland.”
Members get a hops rhizome (that’s a stem) to plant and all the other bits and pieces they need. Douglas doesn’t recommend growing from seeds, because you only want the female plants, and you can’t tell which seeds are female.
“You’d be very frustrated if you planted 10 seeds and only six were female and it took you a year and a half to find out,” he says.
He won’t be pinned down on how much beer members will get, because he has no idea how the harvest will go.
“We’ve worked out that there’ll be a pretty big piss-up, and then people will be walking away with four, five or six packs of cans,” he says. “I think 25 quid for three years of free booze and going to piss-ups is kind of a winner.”
If all goes to plan, the beer will also be available from off-licences, and he expects that there will be a spurt of interest when people see them on the shelves.
“I’m going to turn off my email for that,” he jokes.
Technically, Douglas set a deadline of 19 February for people to sign up and get their plants. But that seems to be loose.
If more people want to join Social Hops, he doesn’t mind. It’s a late season, so there are still lots of people planting now in May.
“It’s never too late really,” he says. “Because the hop plant produces hops for 22 years.”
This year, members of the group received two varieties of hop rhizomes, chosen because of their suitability for the Irish climate.
Prima Donna is English, grows to about seven feet, and — take note, urban gardeners — can grow in a large pot. “That’s the short one,” says Douglas.
American Cascades grow to between 15 and 20 feet, and need something to grow along.
Douglas also imported a few other strains to test how they’ll get on in Ireland. “Eventually we’ll have 15 or 20 different varieties of hops and everyone can make different beers,” he says.
A Merry Crew
If all goes to plan, there will be more events in the coming months.
The Social Enterprise Development Company has set up the Dublin Brewing Co-op in the CIE Sports and Social Club in Inchicore, which will host the next Social Hops gathering.
Douglas has his fingers crossed that there will be room out there for a permanent hop garden too.
When most of the hops in the Dublin region are ready, everyone will meet up at the Bernard Shaw’s roof garden once again to harvest them. The same day, they will be sent to the brewer.
The turnover is fast, as fresh hops have to be used within 24 hours of harvest, or they start to go off.
Prima Donna isn’t used much in brewing, so it will be interesting to see what the beer tastes like, says Alvey. Most hops that he has used have been imported from the US, Australia or Germany.
While the bulk of the hops will be sent to Rascals Brewing, Alvey plans to use a couple for experimenting with at his brewery in the Bernard Shaw.
Douglas believes when people think of beer, they think of flashy brands and adverts, rather than fresh ingredients grown on farms. He hopes this project will change this.
He’s already thinking about another project to grow barley for brewing next.