Kent hops

Information about hops and the part they played in the history of Kent.

Hops were initially brought to Kent by the Romans, who also introduced cherries and vines to the county. Hop tops, the leaves of the hop plant, were at first eaten as a salad vegetable or cooked in butter in dishes like Hopscotch.

In the 16th century hops started to be used in the brewing of beer. Previous to this the British drank ale, which was made with malt and honey. Beer brewed with hops had first been brought to England by Flemish merchants during the 15th century. This beer was viewed with cynicism at first; London pubs that served it were actually prosecuted. But in due course, the preservative consequence of hops on beer was accepted and beer brewing and hop growing became big business in Kent.

Hop-picking became an annual working holiday for the people of London . Amazingly it culminated in  80,000 Londoners  coming to Kent every autumn to pick hops. This came to a halt just after the Second World War  when machines started to be used as an alternative. The hops also gave Kent its famous Oast Houses. These were vast barns with conical towers that were used to dry the hops and which are now sought-after and high-priced homes.  Beer  superceded traditional ale (brewed with only malt) in popularity after  the introduction of hops. Hops add flavour and aroma to beer, making it clearer and less perishable. Thanks to hops the modern British drink of 'bitter' was created. As Kent was the base of the hop industry, it is not surprising that Britain's oldest surviving brewery is found here.

Shepherd Neame of Faversham, Kent  can trace its history back to 1698, when the Mayor of Faversham, Richard Marsh, founded a brewery. Marsh's brewery grew quickly and was soon the largest  brewery in town. On Marsh's death, the brewery was inherited by his wife and later his daughter. When she died in 1741, it was taken over by Samuel Shepherd. The brewery stayed in his family and over the years they took on several partners, the last of these being Percy Beale Neame, who joined the company in 1864. Percy's great-great grandson, Jonathan Neame, is in charge of the brewery today, and the brewery now owns approximately 370 pubs in the county.

Shepherd Neame's most famous beer is Spitfire, which was developed in 1990 to commemorate the Battle of Britain and to raise money for the RAF Benevolent Fund. Tours of the brewery are available and extremely popular.

Sets, drifts, gangs and pokes
The hops grew on bines which used to be trained on poles, but by the twentieth century most of the bines were trained on wires. The poles or wires were arranged in alleys and these would be separated up into 'sets' or 'drifts'. The pickers worked  in gangs and each gang would stick with their own bin or basket in the set which they would be allocated by the farmer.

Bin-men and Tally-men
Each group or gang would have its own bin-man. The bin-man would be responsible for pulling the poles or tearing down the bines, allowing the pickers to  strip the hops from the bines and leaves. The bin-man was also accountable for moving the bin to the next set and loading the hops into the 'poke' after they had been measured by the tallyman. Because of  the physical nature of the work, the bin-men were always male.

Tokens, tally sticks and bushels
The measurer or 'tally-man' would visit the gang during the day to gather the hops. The measurer was responsible as well for calculating the quantity of hops picked by each gang. Tokens or marked tally sticks were then given to the hoppers as a record of the volume of hops, measured in bushels, that each gang had picked.

Key dates
1520: It is thought that the first English hop garden was established near Canterbury

1655: One third of the UK hop crop was produced in Kent

1722: A new beer, porter, was brewed that was a mixture of 3 beers. It used plenty of hops and became very well-liked throughout the UK making the hop industry extremely wealthy

1744: A law was brought in stating all the bags or "pockets" the dried hops were sold in had to be stencilled with the year, place of growth and grower's name

1875: Methods of training and stringing the hop plants using stilts were developed in Kent

1878: Hop farming reached its zenith with 31,000 hectares (77,000 acres) of land in Kent being used to grow the crop

1908: Foreign hops were being sold into the UK. This caused problems for the British growers. After people in Kent protested, the Government brought in a charge on imported hops.

1909: Only 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) of land were growing hops

Disclaimer: The information in this Tourist Guide has been researched from a variety of sources including books, articles and online information. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information the reader should check any specific facts for themselves before making any decisions based upon the said information.

Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015