2018: slugs, great beer, crap beer and hop swimming pools

From slugs, great beer, crap beer to hop swimming pools it’s been a mixed year here at Dark Farm.

Gareth Davies-Best, Head Hop Head & Founder, looks back at the year gone by and reveals what exciting things are in store on the hop and homebrew equipment front for 2019.

How would you sum up 2018 in 3 words?

Educating. Rewarding. Positive.

It’s certainly left me hungry for more.

How did the year start for you?

Cold. Then wet!

We wanted to expand the farm this year by introducing 10 new varieties of hops. As soon as the snow and cold temperatures moved on we sprang into action to get our new rhizomes planted.

I’m a bit of a kit geek and have a nifty, engined powered post hole maker. Planting 150 rhizomes takes a bit of time so I came up with ‘ingenious’ idea of boring 150 holes in the grounds for the new additions. It seemed a brilliant idea at the time; but what we didn’t know was that we were just about to get 6 week’s of heavy rain. What I had in fact created was 150 micro swimming pools for our 150 rhizomes. The poor buggers don’t swim very well and so drowned. All of them.

You live and learn…

When the weather eventually dried out enough for me to get out onto the fields (my favourite bit!) I excitedly built our first 5m high geodesic dome for our hydroponically grown hops.

This was much more successful! The Chinook rhizomes developed nicely and we’re looking forward to seeing their results for 2019.

The original plants from 2017 had various degrees of success. Especially Cascade, Galena and Columbus. The drought didn’t help matters an awful lot as we currently don’t have any irrigation.

Dark Farm hops devon

Tell us about this year’s harvest

Despite all the challenges, we did have a reasonable harvest. We hand picked the vines one sunny day in September. We’re still grateful for our lovely neighbour jumping in at the last minute to help us so that we could – that same day – drive the crop to our local brewery, The Albert in Totnes, so they could produce a lovely wet hopped IPA. It’s brilliant to be able to experiment with wet hopping, but it does add a good dose of pressure when you’re picking! (How we suffer for our art…)

What have been the biggest challenges along the way?

Asides from the weather (force majeur) and our drowning hops (user error) being new to farming is definitely a challenge. Up until a couple of years ago I lived and worked in an urban environment. Rows of computer code filled my days back then. Now I’m in charge of rows of hops instead.

Land maintenance is a much bigger and constant chore than you would think. While the hops themselves are fairly hardy and somewhat self sufficient, ensuring nature doesn’t reclaim the land we’ve painstakingly prepared is another matter. Last year our flail mower needed repairing. The part took 6 weeks to arrive and another 2 to fit. You wouldn’t believe the amount of bramble, grass and weed growth that seized the opportunity to invade in that time!

Also, can I just say: bloody slugs! If you’re a gardener or a farmer you’ll know exactly what I mean!

We grow our hops organically, so next year we’re looking to improve yields by improving pest control – in particular for the wee junior plants which are really vulnerable until they establish themselves and get nice and thorny. (Any tips from readers are always gratefully received!)

Though we did enjoy some success with beer traps (see below). I don’t take great pleasure in killing off beasties, but: what a way to go, eh?

What’s been the most rewarding?

We’ve enjoyed unexpected success with the mini kegs and homebrew equipment we sell. This all grew from my renewed interest in homebrewing. People were asking me about the kit I was using so after a few sales we launched our website.

Along the way we’ve created a whole new community of stonkingly supportive customers. We’ve been overwhelmed with all the positive responses we’ve had this year. In fact, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their support over the past year, especially to those who have joined our founder membership scheme.

How’s your own homebrew going?

Pretty good on the whole! This year has seen a good few successes. BUT there have been some epic failures too. On the up side, crap homebrew makes good bait for slug traps, so it’s not all that bad. Besides, it’s the adventure and uncertainty of homebrewing that makes it so fun!

The best one was a fantastic stout and an APA. I’ve just made a batch of the Chocolate Orange Milk Stout that comes as an all grain kit and which we’ve just added to our range. It should be done in time for Christmas. So I’m really looking forward to that!

Another great success – which will also be ready for Christmas – is a cider that I made from our homegrown cider apples and citra hops. I cracked open a bottle the other day to share with our neighbours (who helped pick the apples too). It was pretty stunning…even if I say so myself.

What do you have in store for 2019

Well, it’s looking to be another exciting year. We’re going to introduce some more hops to the field and expand our hydroponic systems. In particular, we’re going to develop more automated processes for irrigation.

On the homebrew equipment front we’ve got some new kit we’re adding to our range. We’ve also started a rather cool collaboration with some of our local breweries down here in South Devon. We’re also working on some social events and brewing workshops. We might even take it on tour to reach more awesome people around the UK.

Stay tuned for more details about all of this! Pop your details on our mailing list to make sure you hear about all this cool stuff in the new year!

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