Skip to main content area


Cookie settings
Left Navigation
Main Content Area

Guest author essay: Hops

Author: John Edmonds, former hop grower (2005)

Hops are a product with but one use - to give taste to the otherwise insipid alcoholic liquid produced by fermenting a mash of malted cereals and water . The essential oils their cones contain give flavour to beer with the sticky resins providing a characteristic bitterness. Before hops were brought into this country a number of flavourings for ale were used, perhaps the most common being wormwood, Artemesia abrotanum, which is also used to flavour absinthe. Hops offer a considerable advantage over other flavourings in that the beer produced has a much longer shelf life because the resins are weakly bacteriostatic. Once grown in nearly every county of England the acreage devoted to the crop has dramatically declined in recent years due to a change in the public's taste for less bitter beer, the brewer making better use of the hops they have and lower costs of production in other parts of the world, particularly America.

The onetime importance of hop growing to the county is well indicated in the field-name database of the Herefordshire Historic Environment Record. It is only in those parishes with marginal soils and poor growing conditions due to their height above sea level that some field names do not contain the word hop.

Hops have been known since early times. Pliny writes of them in the first century AD, describing them as a salad plant, but it was almost certainly in the medieval monasteries of Europe where they were grown as a medicinal herb that they were first used in beer. While a book on medieval trade records hops as being imported into this country in 1420, a dictionary of just 20 years later lists them but states that beer was a foreign drink. It was probably the need to add value to English exports of wool by weaving that led to their introduction as a crop. Weaving in the fifteenth century was an unknown trade and skilled workers were brought in from Flanders to set up the industry. With them came their tastes and because they could not easily buy hops they began to grow them. That production remained on a very small scale for a long time is reflected by the fact that in this part of the country the fields where hops are grown are hopyards and in the other main growing area in the south-east they are known as hop gardens.

By the early part of the sixteenth century hops were widely grown but hop flavoured beer had its opponents. In 1528 the citizens of London petitioned against the use of hops saying that "they would spoil the taste of drink and endanger the people". There is a record of a hop garden in Norfolk dated 1533. In 1577 William Harrison's Description of England states that "there are few farmers or occupiers in the countrie which have not gardens and hops growing on their own". A book, A Perite Platforme of a Hoppe Garden (Renolde Scott), published a year later contains very full instructions for the growing, harvesting and drying of the crop.

These instructions detailing the ways the crop was grown, mostly involving heavy manual labour, were followed for most of the next century and it wasn't until the introduction of horses that they were in any way changed. It was this extra power that prompted the increase in the acreage grown on any given farm. In 1710 Parliament passed an Act forbidding the use of any bittering agent other than hops and taxed the crop at the rate of a 1d per pound in weight. By 1724 Daniel Defoe in his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain notes that hops were being extensively grown in Herefordshire.

The hop is a herbaceous, climbing perennial with separate male and female plants. It is the female plant which bears tiny insignificant flowers in late July which develop into a seed cone on whose bracts (petals) the resin and oils develop. The traditional hop breaks into growth in April and then it develops into a shoot of 20 feet or more. Commercially it is trained up a support and the ripened cones are harvested in September.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century the support used was a wooden pole - many farms in the county even today have hazel or ash coppices which were used to provide these poles. Cultivation of the hopyard began soon after harvest when the old growth was cut away from the plant, freed from the pole and burnt. Before the introduction of horses the ground would have been dug over by hand, often with some form of potash-rich organic fertiliser added. By the mid-seventeenth century most of the work was done on a contract basis with a man undertaking all the work for the whole season. This would include picking and drying. Often the hops were planted in an orchard between newly-planted trees and grubbed once the trees grew and needed more space. The necessity of drying the newly-picked hops was well understood even when Renolde Scott was writing, and he describes a specialised kiln very similar to those used up until the beginning of the twentieth century. Using first charcoal - later when coal was more available it became the norm - hops would be dried and then laid out on a wooden floor to enable the moisture left in the core of the cone to move towards the bracts which would be tinder dry. To preserve the hops they need to be packed tightly to exclude air, which would cause the resin and oils to oxidise. If this happened before they were properly cooled the bracts would be broken and the hops would be down-valued.

Until recently dried hops were bagged in pockets, a circular bag around 30 inches (75 cm) in diameter and 6 feet 6 inches (2 m) in length containing as close to 168 lb (1.5 cwt or 67 kg) of dried hops as possible. Until the advent of machinery to do the bagging - a hand-operated hop press was invented around 1850 - the process was done by a man standing in the bag which was suspended in a circular hole who trampled the hops to firm them.

With a population which was increasing from the mid-eighteenth century and hopping rates which could be as high as 10 or 11 pounds (4 to 4.5 kg) added to a 36 gallon barrel for strong ale meant to be kept for twelve months or more - today's rate can be as low as 1.5 lb (0.75 kg) - the demand for hops grew and the acreage expanded. By 1724 there were 6,000 acres being grown around Canterbury but even though Hereford hops were being marketed at the great fair at Sturbridge in Cambridgeshire at this time it was transport, or rather the lack of it, which probably held back any great increase in this county. The West Midland crop grew later in the century with an expansion of acreage in Worcestershire now linked by canal to the rest of the country. But even so William Owen's Official Book of Fairs of 1765 lists hops being sold at local fairs in Brecnock on September 10th and November 17th, at Bridgenorth on the Thursday before Shrove-tide, Hereford on February 2nd, at Kingsland on October 10th, at Ledbury on October 2nd, at Leominster on November 8th, at Ludlow on September 28th and December 8th, and at Worcester on September 19th. With picking starting late in September in those days, the fairs taking place in September were unlikely to be offering that same season's hops. The absence of fairs in the south-east indicates that already the London market was handling most of the crop from Kent, Hampshire and Sussex.

At this time hops were a speculative crop with wild variations in yield from year to year, Burgess in Hops (1964) suggests that it could vary from 224 lb (90 kg) to 1680 lb (670 kg) per acre but an analysis of the levies imposed by the towns in which hops were sold would make an interesting study. Both Bewdley and Worcester imposed a toll of 1d for a pocket taken across their bridges. An Act was passed in 1774 to prevent fraud in the buying and selling of hops. It required that each pocket should be marked with the true weight of hops it contained, the full name of the grower and the place and year of growth. In 1800 it became illegal for the weight of the pocket itself to be above 10 lb (4 kg) and obliged growers to call an Excise Officer to mark the pockets with a progressive series of numbers - with the exception of the Excise Officer a process which continues today.

The expansion of the acreage grown continued. By the 1870s it reached a peak (never to be exceeded) of just over 70,000 acres but despite being grown in 40 counties of England, eight in Wales and five in Scotland it was the south-east and the West Midlands which accounted for 99% of this acreage. Hops ceased to be grown in Scotland in 1871 and in Wales in 1874. It was the advent of sprays in the second half of the nineteenth century which could control the hop/damson aphid and powdery mildew. Thus a more stable yield was produced and the marginal soils lost out. Hops are a demanding crop doing best on a deep alluvial soil. In Herefordshire it was around this time that hop growing began to be concentrated in the Lugg and Frome Valleys. Hop kilns grew taller as the advantage of higher air speeds in the drying process was realised and the wooden pivoted cowl to always keep the exiting hot air away from the wind became such a distinctive feature of the hop-growing areas.

Wirework as a support for the string, up which the hop bines were grown, was developed in Worcestershire in 1867 and by the turn of the century a majority of growers had given up on poles and most hopyards, although nowhere near as tall as today's, were very similar. Hops continued to be grown on poles right up until 1981 when the last yard to use them in Kent was grubbed. The fall in the hop area continued until the 1930s when it stabilised at around 20,000 acres. There was an unsuccessful attempt to begin picking hops by machine when a picking machine was imported from America but after the Second World War and particularly in the 1950s machine picking became the norm.

Hop picking by hand is a most labour-intensive business and once the acreage began to grow it was necessary to bring in pickers from outside the immediate area. The migration of town to country to pick hops was one which was to continue for more than two and a half centuries - it is first mentioned in an Act of 1710. Ellis in his Modern Husbandman (1750) refers to a Kent grower who was providing a small hut or shed for his pickers furnishing it with wheat straw for bedding, and a cask of small beer "so that they may not lose time in a quest for drink". Each morning he gave each picker a quartern (1/6 of a pint) of gin which he thought to be a preservative against the Kentish Ague that generally has the greatest power to seize those who live the poorest. Another Mr Ellis, a grower from Barming, the largest grower in Kent in the 1830s, employed between 3,000 and 4,000 pickers each year. Kentish Ague was in fact cholera and many country churchyards provide a record of the deaths this disease could cause. Cholera occurred here in 1834 but Mr Ellis blamed the bad fish they ate. Right up until the beginning of the twentieth century, leaky living quarters and above all a total lack of sanitation were breeding grounds for germs and diseases among those living on a near starvation ration.

In the main Kent drew its pickers from the East End of London, Worcestershire from the Black Country and Herefordshire from the Welsh Valleys, all industrial areas where despite low wages the women, children and unemployed men welcomed the opportunity of leaving the blighted industrial areas for the open countryside and the chance of earning money. Hop picking also attracted many gypsy families who would time their arrival in the hop growing areas to correspond with picking. The number of people who came hop picking is not recorded anywhere and their living conditions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can only be judged by evidence such as that listed above. Certain it is that it often attracted the dregs of urban society and life in the hopyard was rough in the extreme. Between six and eight people were needed to pick an acre of hops so that in the 1870s as many as 500,000 pickers were employed. Most growers built a long-term relationship with their pickers who came to a particular farm year after year. The larger growers would charter a railway train to bring their pickers to the farm and to take them back home at the end of picking. There were advantages for the locals in the influx of pickers. Housewives sold them pies or eggs, the local ice cream van called in the yard, as did the grocer and the fish merchant. The local pubs prepared for the invasion either by repainting their "No Pickers" signs or putting away the chairs and replacing them with benches.

Pickers were paid according to the quantity of hops they picked. The crop was picked in a crib where a wooden frame held open a hessian-covered receptacle around eight by four feet long. and around two feet at its deepest. The picked hops were measured in a bushel, which was tipped into an open-weave sack for transport to the kilns for drying. The record of the number of bushels picked was recorded on a tally stick. Here the part of the stick held by the picker was matched to that held by the tallyman and a notch cut on the edge of both. A notch on one edge would indicate five bushels picked, the other edge a single bushel. In order to ensure they kept their pickers for the whole of picking many growers would only pay half the full price for any picker leaving before the end of picking.

The living conditions provided for pickers was examined by the Ministry of Health early in the twentieth century, and while ex-army Boer War tents continued to make an occasional leaky appearance it became the norm to provide brick-built barracks for the pickers. The Ministry issued Model Byelaws in 1929 and wanted the provision of sleeping accommodation at the rate of 18 square feet per person with bedding of straw or other suitable material supplied, a separate cooking fire for every five to ten people and an adequate water supply with proper sanitary arrangements. By the beginning of the Second World War most local authorities had adopted the byelaws.

Better standards of living after the Second World War led to a shortage of pickers and sharply increased picking costs. In a few short years of the 1950s and early 1960s machine picking became the norm, its financial advantages such that two seasons' use of a picking machine could provide savings sufficient to pay for it. For the hop grower the years between 1950 and 1974 were perhaps the most prosperous ever. The brewers agreed each year to purchase a certain weight of the crop through the Hops Marketing Board (HMB), a producer organisation set up in 1931 with the aim of matching supply to demand. Imports were banned but our entry into the Common Market ended this cosy arrangement and the brewer was able to, and did, buy cheaper imports. Better methods of storing hops were introduced, meaning that the crop could be held over in a good year to be used when yields were low. In the 1980s the market for UK-grown hops collapsed and most growers grubbed their hops.

In 1894 Wye College in Kent had been founded and from then on they undertook research in hop growing. Perhaps their most important achievement didn't come until the late 1990s when they were able to introduce a dwarf hop with an internode length of around one third of the norm. Hops just six feet tall did not require the expensive wirework of the normal crop and the new system dramatically reduced growing costs by at least one third. A considerable acreage of these dwarf hops - they look like rows of hedges - has been planted at Dormington and near to the Trumpet Inn at Pixley.

From one in every ten pockets a sample around nine inches square would be taken and the valuation placed on it by a team of valuers would be applied to the ten pockets. The sale of hops for the grower was conducted by a factor on his behalf and it would be he who arranged to take the samples. The brewer employed a hop merchant to buy on his behalf and much of the trade was centred in the Borough just south of London Bridge. The trade was so concentrated here that in the days before all figure telephone numbers the alphabetical prefix for the area was HOP.

So today, what is left of this once big industry in the county? Most prominent are the kilns, many now converted to houses. But several of the specialist warehouses survive, notably one in Gwynne Street in Hereford, which is all but unaltered. Several stories tall with outside access doors on every floor, pockets of hops would be hauled up from street level and stored stood upright on a wooden floor until they were removed to the brewer who had bought them. The very limited number of small windows deliberately excluded most of the light which could make the hops lose value. The Hops Marketing Board built a huge warehouse in Ledbury.

© John Edmonds, 2005