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Hops in Herefordshire

Fields of hops are known in most parts of the country as hop gardens, but in Herefordshire they are called hopyards. Once a hopyard had been established, provided it was kept free from disease and properly cultivated, it would go on producing hops for fifteen years or more before needing to be replanted.

Hop growing in Herefordshire is now mainly concentrated in the sheltered river valleys of the Frome and the Lugg in the west of the country, where there is at least a 45cm depth of loamy soil with a medium to heavy texture. A plentiful supply of water and food is also needed for good growth, as is good soil drainage. At one point or another at least 80% of Herefordshire's parishes have extensively cultivated hops. The first reference to hop growing in the Bromyard district of Herefordshire is in 1577, in the Swithin Butterfields Survey for the Bishop of Hereford.

For at least 300 years Herefordshire produced more hops than the local brewers needed. The poor road network of the county and the lack of canals and railways meant that it could often by quite costly to transport the hops to the parts of the country where there was a market for them. However, the cost was offset by the fact that the crop could be produced more cheaply in Herefordshire than in many other parts of the country.

The market for hops was further helped by government propaganda that beer was a healthy drink. This was to try and encourage people to stop drinking gin, which was thought to cause many more problems. With the expansion of industry and towns, more and more breweries were established and in some years more than one million barrels of beer were produced in London and the suburbs alone. Between 1890 and 1920 there were several breweries registered in Hereford, Ledbury and Leominster. The surprising thing is that Bromyard, right in the centre of hop-growing country, appears to have had no breweries.

It was recognised that the railways were the best option for opening up Herefordshire hops to a broader market, but in 1851 (two years before the railway arrived in the county) concerns were raised about the selling of hops outside of the county:

"Whenever we have a railway into this city, immediate steps must be taken for establishing a hop market here, in order that the farmers may dispose of Hereford hops in their own country, and not have the trouble of journeying to a distant market to sell what may be disposed of at their own doors - great parts of the hops of Herefordshire being disposed of at Worcester, acquire the title of 'Worcester hops' and thus rob us of the celebrity of our own county's growth."

In 1857 a Corn Exchange was built in Broad Street, Hereford, and hop markets were also held here. In 1911 the Corn Exchange was converted into the Kemble Theatre but it was still used for corn markets on Wednesdays, when there were no matinee performances. This continued until 1950; the theatre itself closed in 1963.

Home brewing would have represented a relatively small market for hops, and during the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) the price increase in barley and hops would have made it too expensive for many home brewers. A duty imposed on beer in 1880 was also a blow to home brewing, and much of it disappeared.

The first half of the 19th century saw the highest acreage of hops ever in the Bromyard district, with 4,251 acres in 1835. However, hop growing was an erratic business and over-production, blight and competition from foreign markets led to a drop of 65% by 1860. A gradual rise then occurred until the turn of the century, when the acreage was at 2,050. Foreign imports after World War I again caused problems; the acreage dropped by 45%, and by 1985 there were around 650 acres.

The tithe maps of Herefordshire, which mostly date to the 1840s, show 26 fieldnames containing the word "hops", and these have a wide distribution across the county. By 1862 creosote for the preservation of the hop poles became widely available and many farms in Herefordshire had their own long, narrow creosote tanks with a fireplace and chimney at one end.

In 1882 Herefordshire, like other areas of the country, suffered from an influx of aphids and the total hop yield dropped from the 455,000 cwt of 1881 to only 120,000 cwt. As a result the price increased from £5 to £15 per cwt. Many remedies were tried, and it was discovered that soft soap and quassia (a South American shrub), mixed with water and sprayed onto the plants, helped to reduce the infestation.

In 1883 the principal hop-growing areas of Herefordshire were: Bromyard; Bishops Frome; Castle Frome; Eardisland; Eye; Hope; Kimbolton; Leominster; Lindridge; Ledbury; Stoke Lacy; Tenbury; and Tarrington. Hops were grown over 12,371 acres in 81 parishes, and a total hop duty of £24,160 was paid by the county.

By the beginning of the 20th century the British hop industry was in a depression and was suffering from cheap imports. Growers campaigned for an import duty but no action was taken by the government and by 1914 the pressure from cheap imports had caused a further national decline of over 2,000 acres.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]