The craft beer boom that swept in from the US about seven years ago caused a shortage of hops in the UK. When Gareth Davies read about this it started him thinking. He and his wife Yohanna Best enjoyed a digital nomad lifestyle and ran a company supplying home-brewing equipment while working remotely from Italy, Australia or Thailand, wherever took their fancy for a few months of the year.
While in the UK they lived in the countryside and were able to lease a piece of land where Davies planted some hops. However, when he learned that hops are closely related to marijuana plants the seeds were sown for the idea of growing hops hydroponically. Davies built a 10-meter diameter geodesic dome – their first hydroponic hop farm.
The project was a success and the search for more land to expand took the couple to Wales, where Yohanna had grown up. A newspaper advertisement led them to a warehouse unit, where they stored their stock and equipment. The owners showed them a large barn around the back which was “absolutely spot on” for their hop farm.
That said the building does have some issues regarding light sources, however Davies has plans. “We are still looking to buy land and develop the project. To set it up can go a couple of ways,” he explains. “Either we convert an existing industrial building, although the upfront costs would be more expensive, or we could buy some land and build from the ground up. At the moment we’re investigating what we can do with our available funds. The idea would be to build another, larger, geodesic dome or something like a large Toblerone six-meters high and create a unique sort of ecosystem.”
Living off the land
“A big part of our business is selling home brew equipment and the hop farm gives us credibility, we’re not just a shop, we’re a couple of people trying to make a living off the land” Davies does make his own beer and Dark Farm has just launched its first all-in-one brew system, which enables new and experienced home brewers to grapple with the brewing process at home. The results will surpass any kits available at convenience stores (ie Wilco).
During Covid people have picked up hobbies, including a surge in interest in home brewing. “Our sales increased by 300% over the past 18 months,” says Davies. “We’re back down to normal now though. That injection over the last 18 months has been great and has enabled us to get to where we are now with the hop farm.”
For the past five years, Davies and Best usually (before Covid) travelled all over the UK and in the winter, when hops don’t grow, spent a few months abroad. Davies acknowledges it is a great lifestyle. However, to move the project on they recognize they need a base in the UK. This is near Aberystwyth in Wales where the couple have bought their first property. By putting down roots they hope to get support from the local council for their exciting concept and build contacts with local businesses.
“Having a base in Aberystwyth is our start. The region is very progressive,” says Davies. “There are many green, ethical businesses around here, we will fit in well with that.” Indeed, Davies is considering harnessing and using green energy and the UK’s Centre for Alternative Energy is in Machynlleth, less than 17 miles from Aberystwyth.
When asked about the advantages of growing indoors Davies readily admits that the concept appealed to his geeky side, he has a background in web development. “Although I do enjoy pulling on a pair of wellies and driving a tractor around, indoor farming beats scrabbling around in the mud,” he laughs.
“It appeals to my inner geek; using technology and solar energy. I like combining all that to grow something indoors. It’s beautiful environment to work in. If it’s sunny outside you can open the door, if it’s raining, you’re sheltered in something almost like a jungle.”
There is also more opportunity to control the growing environment. “We are still learning about the nutrients we can provide to increase yields,” Davies says. “This year all our plants grew really well but the yield wasn’t as high as expected. This was probably down the light source in the building. We can’t be classified as organic, but we can be very careful that our feed is organic and we’re not using any nasty chemicals. We haven’t used pesticides but may have to look into it as we did get a little infestation this year.
Moving to Aberystwyth, home to a university with a worldwide reputation for teaching and research in agriculture and rural science, could be a good move for Dark Farm in dealing with these growing irritations as they can benefit from having this valuable learning nearby. As Davies says: “You can’t be good at everything and there are people who have a lot more skill and experience in these matters and people who want to learn in these areas so we’re really excited to tap into that.”
Home brew club
As a self-described “person of opportunities” Davies admits he may have to put the hop farm on hold for a while as they find “that perfect place” and set up buildings. In a small town like Aberystwyth there will be empty shops. He is keen to speak to landlords about doing pop-ups. “I’m thinking more of a home-brew club than a bar where we could attract locals, tourists or students to come in and watch me brew, maybe get involved themselves, we’re not sure of the actual logistics yet,” he explains. “I’d love to do a brewery, but there’s a lot of competition out there and although you can make the beer quite easily the marketing and selling is the difficult part. I’m quite happy to support the personal drinking side.”
The subscription side of the business is going well with over 300 subscribers. “They get the quarterly magazine MASHED! (written and designed by Yohanna) and we have the grain kit now. We’re getting great feedback and we’re trying to grow the community side of it,” Davies says.
“We offer two subscription options; the Hop Club costs £60 per year and offers four issues per annum of MASHED! Magazine, hops, exclusive brew kit offers and 10% all items on the website darkfarm.co.uk or the MASHED! Magazine only for £20 per year.”
There is also thought of producing a “manly” range of vegan organic soaps scented with the aroma of hops. “Different varieties give different aromas. Some are spicy, some piney, woody,” Davies explains. “The Australian and New Zealand hops are tropical. Then there are the American hops. Which are more citrussy. The idea is to produce three bars of soap; a stout, a lager, and a bitter.” Who could imagine hops could have a role in male hygiene and grooming?
The traditional hop growing areas in the UK are mainly in Kent and Worcestershire. This is because these areas are close to the urban populations of London and Birmingham, which used to decamp from the cities to spend summers picking the hops. When it comes to harvesting Dark Farm’s crop its size means family and friends can gather in the crop fairly easily.
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“We jumped at the chance to grow hops as it is a social crop,” says Davies. “Hops grow to a magnificent size and are quite different to anything else we grow in the UK. I like the concept of being hands on. This year we had family and friends over and we rolled our sleeves up, put on some music, got the barbecue going and drank lots of beer. I like to think of it as farming the old-fashioned way, more communal and jolly. Yohanna and I like the idea of working with people we love and know.”