An awful lot of my posts seem to be about beer but as I’m married to a CAMRA member maybe that’s no surprise.
And maybe it’s not a coincidence that we ended up living in a house converted from a building that was originally designed for the drying and bagging of hops, one of beer’s main ingredients! Fuggles and Goldings are names of two types of hops, by the way.
As far as I know, Herefordshire and Kent are the only counties to boast these unique agricultural buildings. In Herefordshire we call them hop kilns but I understand they’re known as oast houses elsewhere. Travel through these beautiful English counties and your eye will be drawn to the distinctive towers, some complete with the white cowls on top. In Herefordshire, they’re built of red clay bricks with Welsh slate roofs supported by sturdy oak beams. Most are round but occasionally you’ll come across a square hop kiln, particularly in the Frome Valley near Bromyard, where hop growing was once a thriving local industry.
Hops growing Photo copyright jefbro via Pixabay
We have an ornamental golden hop growing up one wall of our hop kiln (well, it seemed appropriate) and enjoy seeing the attractive tassel-like hops weigh the plant down in early autumn. Less pleasurable is cutting it back a few weeks later. The plant is a relative of the nettle and any naked flesh it comes into contact with comes up in itchy and painful welts. Gardening gloves definitely needed!
Close up of hops Photo copyright Romi via Pixabay
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the hop-growing industry was at its height, temporary workers were needed for the harvest. Whole families flooded into the area from the nearby Black Country, a short train journey away. Amazingly, they treated the hop picking as a holiday. Enjoying the fresh air and sunshine, as a break from factory work, they often returned year after year. The harvest had an impact on the local population too – all hands were needed to get the crop in. The scale of the enterprise can be reflected in school records as late as the 1950s, where high absenteeism among pupils was recorded at hop harvesting time.
Beer is drunk all year round but hops only come to fruition once a year. A method of drying in order to preserve the crop had to be developed. Hop kilns, most of them dating from the early nineteenth century began to built. In a pattern repeated throughout hop growing regions, the circular tower had two levels. On the ground floor, a terrific fire was kept alight in order to dry the fresh or ‘green’ hops spread over the floor above. The conical roof and venting cowl drew the heat and got rid of the condensation. The kiln foreman was skilled in achieving exactly the right levels of heat and humidity. He slept on the job, which was more or less non-stop for a month.
Hops and barrels Photo copyright Gellinger via Pixabay
There was often an attached barn to store the sacks of dried hops, ready to go on their way to the brewery. The reason hops were introduced to beer in the first place was to give flavour to the weak or ‘small’ beer that the working classes drank. Small beer was made from inferior ingredients and didn’t keep well. Hops, as well as adding taste, helped preserve the drink for longer. It was also added to small cider for the same reason. Quite handy, as agricultural workers and servants would often be paid in cider!
In recent years, Verticillium Wilt, not a Harry Potter villain but a disease just as deadly, has decimated hop growing and forced many hop growers to ‘diversify.’ Even now, in the few hopyards left in Herefordshire, you will see signs ordering you not to enter, for risk of spreading this disease. It is incurable and fatal to the hop plant.
As a result, many of the beautifully designed and sturdily constructed hop kilns have been knocked down. A few, like the one I live in, have been converted to dwellings. And a very lovely home it is too. I’m proud to live in a house with such a rich agricultural heritage. And I’m partial to the odd pint of beer too!
For further reading:
A Pocketful of Hops pub Bromyard & District Local History Society (a fascinating and detailed account of the hop growing industry in the Frome Valley)
The Cure of Souls by Phil Rickman pub Corvus (a terrifying paranormal thriller with a converted hop kiln as a backdrop)
My hop kiln is currently on the market. If you fancy the idea of living in a house with four round rooms and an interesting history, check out the details here:
EDITOR: There is also an article on the website about Georgia's house sale. See here.