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History of Hops

The hop (Latin name Humulus Lupulus) is a herbaceous hardy perennial and belongs to the Cannabinacae family, which also includes hemp and is related to the nettle and elm families. It dies back to its roots every year and will live for 20 years or more.

The hop is a dioecious plant, which means that the male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. It is the larger female flowers, called cones, that yield the fruits that are used commercially. Hops begin to grow in April, flower in July and are ready for harvesting in September. They are used in brewing to give beer its distinctive bitter taste and smell.

History of hop growing in Britain

One of the earliest recorded references to the hop is in the 6th century BC. Later, the famous Roman writer Pliny (AD 23-79) described the hop as "the wolf of the willow". He also describes a delicacy prepared from young hop shoots. In the 7th and 9th centuries AD there are records of cultivated hop gardens in monasteries in France and Germany.

The use of hops in the production of beer is probably of German origin. In the 13th century the land given to hop growing increased and by the 14th century hop cultivation had also developed in the Netherlands. Hops were probably grown in England at this time but more for their use as herbs. It is generally agreed that beer first arrived in England in 1400, at Winchelsea harbour in East Sussex, in a consignment ordered by Dutch merchants who were doing business in England.

Some towns, which saw the production of beer as directly connected to the corruption of the community, tried to prevent its brewing by forbidding the use of hops: Norwich did so in 1471 and Shrewsbury followed suit in 1519.

Tradition has it that the first English hop garden was created in the parish of Westbere, near Canterbury in Kent, in 1520. Kent was the earliest centre of hop growing in England for a number of reasons: the enclosed field system of farming was already established there; the soils were suitable: and there was a plentiful supply of wood for the poles and charcoal for drying. Furthermore, Kent farmers were among some of the most well-off of the time and could afford the initial capital needed to establish the gardens.

By 1522 beer was being brewed in England using home-grown as well as imported hops. In the same year a large consignment of English-brewed beer were shipped to France for the army. Beer was also drunk at state occasions, and the accounts of a royal banquet held at Windsor Park in 1528 (during the reign of Henry VIII) show provision for 15 gallons of beer at 20d and 15 gallons of ale at 2s 6d. In 1530, Henry VIII ordered his brewer in Eltham not to put hops in his ale as the plant had become unpopular on religious grounds since it was considered a Protestant plant.

Hops later proved such a profitable crop that legislation was needed to prevent farmers from abandoning arable farming in favour of hops. By the 16th century England was exporting considerable amounts of beer. The huge demands for coppice poles and oak casks to supply the industry prompted the first plans for timber conservation. The first English book completely devoted to hop growing was written by Reynolde Scot, who was born in 1538 and educated at Oxford University. In 1574 he wrote A Profite Platform of a Hop Garden.

By the 17th century beer had become so established as a drink that farmers throughout England were incorporating small acreages of hops on their farms. In 1603 an Act of Parliament was concerned with cheaters who left "stalks, leaves, dross and other soils" in with their hops to increase the weight. Most manual work in the hop gardens was carried out by contract at an agreed price, often about 40 shillings per acre, but the contract normally excluded pulling, picking, drying and bagging which were charged by the day. An acre of good hops could produce as much as 11-12 hundredweight (550-600kg), which could fetch as much as £40-£60.

By 1655 hops were grown in fourteen counties in England, with Kent producing one third of the crop. However, there was not enough to supply demand and Flemish hops were still being imported. Some farmers in England would not grow hops because of the erratic yields caused by drought, excessive damp and mildew, but in a successful year an acre of good hops could be more profitable than 50 acres of arable. Towards the end of the 17th century beer began to be bottled in quantity and a hop market was established in London.

In 1710 duty was imposed on hops for the first time, at a rate of 1d per pound on English hops and 3d/lb on Flemish. An Act of Parliament also prohibited the use of any bittering ingredient other than hops in the brewing of beer intended for sale. The duty raised a large revenue but the actual duty charged varied from year to years and speculation on the hop tax was a popular from of betting. The import duty on hops led to an increase in smuggling to try and avoid the charges and from 1734 the penalty for illegal export was not only the destruction of the hops but a punitive fine of five shillings per pound.

In 1724 Daniel Defoe described the extensive hop plantations of Herefordshire: "they boast, perhaps not without reason, that they have the finest wool, and the best hops and richest cider in all Britain ... and hops they plant in abundance".

By 1763 Kent was still producing more hops than any other county, and it was considered that 1 ½ lbs of Kentish hops were equivalent to 2lbs of Worcester hops. Kentish hops were used in beer brewed for keeping and Worcester hops in beer to be drunk within one month. To try and improve their hops, the farmers of Herefordshire and Worcestershire applied a great deal of manure to the plants, often to the detriment of other crops. In 1774, to prevent marketing fraud, an Act of Parliament was passed which required the bags or pockets in which the hops were packed to be marked with the year, place of production and the grower's name.

Consumption of hops during the 18th century increased considerably; in some years over a million barrels of beer were brewed in London and the suburbs alone. By the end of the century hops were growing as far north as Aberdeen.

The 19th century was an era of booming trade for the hop industry. In 1800 there were 35,000 acres of hops in Great Britain, and by 1850 this had increased to 50,000. In 1862 the hop excise duty was removed. Hop acreage reached its peak in 1878 with 71,789 acres; from this point it started to decline and was back down to 50,000 acres by 1900. In 1848 large numbers of ladybirds were brought in to keep down hop flies and increase yields. From 1865 onwards a soft soap solution, tobacco juice and later quassia was applied to hops via a hand pumped sprayer as an insecticide.

By 1870 hops were cultivated in 40 English, eight Welsh and five Scottish counties, although the majority of hop production was still in Kent. However, by 1909 the area of land in Great Britain growing hops had fallen to 32,000 acres. During World War I brewing was also considerably reduced and the government further restricted the amount of land under hops. To provide some protection for the home industry a customs duty of £4 per hundredweight as imposed on foreign hops.

The period of economic depression during the 1920s and 1930s was disastrous for hop growers, who had to contend with surplus hops, low prices and diseases including hop downy mildew and verticillium wilt. In 1932 the Hop Marketing Board was created. The producer-controlled board consisted of 14 members elected annually by the hop-growing districts of Kent, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Sussex and Worcestershire, four special members elected annually by hop producers, and two nominees of the Ministry of Agriculture. The board exercised a monopoly control and was immune from the restrictive Trade Practices Act; thus creating a sheltered market for its producers.

In 1934 an English hop-picking machine was developed at Suckely in Worcestershire, but it did not pose a great threat to hand picking until after World War II, when it was generally accepted in the Midlands. The machine enabled faster picking in all weather conditions. However, machine-picked hops were more difficult to dry as they settled unevenly in the kiln, and it was not until the 1950s that machines really took over.

In 1947 a Department of Hop Research was established at Wye College in Kent.

In 1982, following new legislation to conform with European Economic Community rules, the Hops Marketing Board Ltd, a voluntary agricultural co-operative, took over all assets and procedures of the old board.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]