For such was one of the common condemnations of hops in early sixteenth century England. The hop plant was also considered to be an "unwholesome weed that promoted melancholy." Yet, within the next three centuries, not only were hops no longer banned in Britain, they had become an important cash crop for a number of farmers across the country. By the Regency, hops were a crucial ingredient in the brewing of the most popular beers enjoyed in Britain. They were also responsible for a new structure which sprang up in the areas where they were grown.
Hops in Britain through the Regency . . .
Hops were first used in the making of beer on the Continent in the early Middle Ages, particularly in Germany and Holland. However, in England at that time, most beer was brewed using gruit, a mixture of herbs and spices which were used to introduce flavors to the brew and add some bitterness to balance the sweetness of the malt. Then, over time, brewers noticed that beers made with hops, rather than gruit, were less likely to spoil and they tended to remain drinkable for a much longer period. Before the Middle Ages came to an end, most brewers in Europe were using hops to brew their beers, and hops had become an important crop for farmers on the Continent.
From the early fifteenth century, some Dutch beers, most made with hops, were imported into England. However, they were not widely popular, as the English tended to prefer their native beers, which were still made with gruit. Those English beers and ales were usually sweeter than beers made with hops. In 1471, the Mayor of the town of Norwich, in East Anglia, banned the use of hops in the making of ale in order to maintain its "purity." In the sixteenth century, King Henry VIII banned the use of hops in the making of all English beers during his reign. Henry VIII declared that hops were an aphrodisiac and he believed they would incite his subjects into lustful, sinful behavior. Personally, he also preferred the sweeter English beers and ales so he did not like the sharper, bitter flavor which hops imparted to beer.
By the reign of Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth, hops were no longer banned. In fact, they were being grown on English soil. Initially, hops had been put under cultivation in the county of Kent, by immigrant Dutch farmers. By that time, the value of hops as a preservative was widely recognized and even English brewers were using hops in their beers. The demand had increased to the point that hops were also being imported from Europe, primarily from Holland and France. During the reign of Elizabeth’s successor, King James I, British brewers were increasingly complaining about the poor quality of hops which were being imported from Europe. The bags of poor quality hops imported into Britain were stuffed with leaves, stalks, straw, and even sand and chunks of wood, in order to increase the weight of the bags. The situation became so bad that Parliament passed an act which specifically forbade the importation of these adulterated bags of European hops. The poor quality of imported hops also served to stimulate the expansion of the native cultivation of hops, not only in Kent, but all across Britain.
During the seventeenth century, the cultivation of hops in Britain steadily increased, as did the quality of those native-grown hops. Hops are actually the flowers of the female hop plant, Humulus lupulus, part of the Cannabaceae family, and a relative of Cannabis. Hops are a vigorous perennial, a herbaceous climbing plant, which sends up new shoots early in the spring, then dies back to a cold-resistant root mass each autumn. Only the female hop plant produces the green flower or cone (strobile), which is the valuable part of the plant. The flowers of the male plant are tiny and white. Hop plants are technically bines, meaning their stems wrap themselves around their support, rather than putting out tendrils or suckers as vines do to support their new growth. Hop plants were usually trained to grow up strings tied vertically on frames. These fields were known as hop fields or hop gardens in Kent and other areas in southern England. In the English West Country, they were more often called hop yards.
Some of the more enterprising English growers began cross-breeding hop plants to produce hops with the qualities most desired by brewers. In England, those new hop varieties were named after their breeders, such as Goldings and Fuggles, which were developed in Kent. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the cultivation and breeding of hops had expanded into at least fourteen counties in Britain, typically in those areas within easy reach of one or more breweries. In a good year, an acre of quality hops could be more profitable for a farmer than any other crop grown on fifty acres of arable land. However, some farmers were not willing to grow hops. They were aware that yields of hop crops could be erratic if the plants were subject to very cold or wet periods or long periods of drought. Too much moisture was the greatest threat, since the plants and their valuable cones (flowers) were easily damaged by mildew.
Despite the preference of many Englishmen for the sweeter ales (not made with hops), as the seventeenth century progressed, beers (made with hops), were reluctantly accepted, due to the fact that hopped beer could be preserved for much longer periods in fine drinking condition. This upsurge in the use of hops steadily increased the demand for hops by British brewers. A further spur to native British hop production was an Act of Parliament, passed in the early eighteenth century, which prohibited the use of any flavoring or bittering agent in beer, except hops. This act was passed because it had become clear that hops were much more wholesome than many of the ingredients in the traditional gruit. What was not known at the time is that hops have natural antibacterial properties which inhibited the development of many of the detrimental microorganisms that often grew in beverages brewed without hops.
The production of hops was also responsible for the appearance of a new feature on the British landscape in the areas where they were grown. When they are first picked, hop cones have a high moisture content, which must be reduced before they can be shipped or stored. Therefore, oast houses were built for the purpose of drying hops. The term "oast" was introduced by Dutch hop farmers in southeastern England, primarily in Kent and East Sussex. But further west, in Surrey, Hampshire, Hereford and Worcester, these drying structures were known as hop kilns. In the seventeenth century, the first oast houses were converted barns. But by the eighteenth century, most oast houses and hop kilns were built specifically for the purpose. These buildings were fairly substantial, typically rectangular in plan, with one or two stories, attached to drying kilns. The earliest kilns were square in shape, but around 1800, round kilns with conical roofs were constructed in the belief they were more fuel-efficient. That view was not held in Hereford and Worcester, where square kilns remained the standard. The main portion of the buildings were used for cooling and short-term storage, while the hops were actually dried in the kilns. Each kiln had two or three levels, with very thin floors, perforated all over in order to allow the hot air to pass freely through the structure. Some oast houses were built by a single large grower, but it appears that in some cases, an oast house was built for the use of a number of small growers in the same area.
Freshly harvested hop cones were spread in a single layer over the floors in the kilns. The furnace would be fired up and heated air would steadily rise though the structure, slowing drying the hops. The length of time needed to dry the hops was determined by the size of the cones and the climate, particularly the humidity during the drying period. Once the hops were determined to be dry, they were removed from the kiln and spread on the floor of the attached building to thoroughly cool. The dried and cooled hops were then pressed into sturdy jute sacks, which came to be known as pockets, with a hop press. Each pocket of pressed hops weighed about 140 pounds and held the equivalent of about 150 imperial bushels of fresh green hops. As required by a law passed in 1750, the outside of each pocket would be marked with the grower’s name, the place where the hops were grown, and the year in which they were harvested. The pockets would then be sent to market. Some growers had contracts with one or more breweries and their entire hop production each year was sent directly to those contracted customers and never went on the open market.
Though hops were used primarily in the making of beer, they also had medicinal properties which were employed by many natural healers. Hops were used for the treatment of sleeplessness and anxiety. A popular folk remedy for insomnia was to use a pillow filled with hops. Such a belief is not surprising, since those who worked in hop fields were observed to become increasingly drowsy as they worked, probably due to the transfer of the active ingredient onto the skin of those who handled them. That same relaxing effect made hops useful as a sedative. Hops are not only naturally anti-bacterial, but they are also an anti-spasmodic agent. A decoction of the cones was used to relieve fever, help settle an upset stomach, as well as a remedy for menstrual cramps and asthma. A syrup made of the juice of the cones mixed with sugar was believed to cure jaundice and could ease headache pain. A poultice made from the cones was used to reduce swelling, ease joint pain and cure boils. However, the active ingredients in hops become unstable when they are exposed to air or light for any length of time. The cones will also gradually lose their potency if they are stored for more than a few months.
The nineteenth century was the golden age of hop production in Britain. It was on the rise during the Regency and continued to increase well into the century. In a good year, even an acre or two of hops could yield a significant profit for a hop grower. And though a bad year would not provide the same profits, if the farmer were growing other crops, the poor hop yield would not leave him with nothing. During the Regency, hop breeders and even a few botanists, were working on developing new hop varieties which were more resistant to mildew, aphids and other pests, as well as hops with new flavors and other desired properties. Though some hops were still imported from Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, such imports were severely restricted during the blockades in place during the Napoleonic Wars. In addition, the constant troop movements and battles on the Continent during that time often inhibited the cultivation of many crops, including hops. Therefore, native hop production became crucial to British beer-makers.
The fact that one of the active ingredients in hops has the properties of a sedative makes Henry VIII’s declaration that they were an aphrodisiac perfectly preposterous. Nevertheless, Dear Regency Authors, lest you think hops, once called a "wicked and pernicious weed," can offer nothing to a tale of romance, think again. Consider a hop garden in the high summer, somewhere in Kent. All of those hop stems twirling around their string supports, leafed out and laden with green cones. Would not the shelter of a hop garden make a lovely trysting place for a pair of lovers? Deep in the hop garden, the couple would be screened from prying eyes as they share their feelings and spend time together in their secret place. Or, mayhap a young couple eloping cross-country will happen upon a oast house, just in time to shield them from a sudden rain storm and provide them with warm, dry shelter for the night. Unbeknownst to them, surrounded by all those sleep-inducing hops, they will have a very relaxing and restful night. Of course, hops might be less closely related to romance in a story set during the Regency. Perhaps a young country squire with an interest in botany is busy breeding new varieties of hops which are pest and disease-resistant, or that can produce a special flavor in demand by the local brewers. Could his efforts be the best hope he has of saving his family estate, and maybe even helping his tenants or neighbors to improve their own fortunes by growing this new variety of hops? How might the heroine aid him in his efforts? Then again, the medicinal properties of hops might enable a young lady in a rural village to care for a gentleman who has been involved in a riding accident. Will he complain if she requires him to sleep on a pillow stuffed with hop cones, and uses hop poultices to bring down the swelling from his injuries? How else might you employ hops in a story set during the Regency?