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A Brief History of the Hop Industry in Kent

by Peter Tann

No crop is more closely associated with Kent than the hop, even if the hop-garden is now quite rare. The collective memory is kept alive by physical evidence of the distinctive oast-house, by the Museum of Kent Life (sic) and other attractions. Literary reinforcement comes from writers drawn to describe the annual trek of East-enders ‘hopping down in Kent’. In the nineteenth century, the hop was the best recorded of all crops because, uniquely, it was dutiable at the point of production, and because of its importance for employment. The main sources are the Excise records from 1807 to 1861, tithe commutation records, estate records and official enquiries in 1835, 1857 and 1890. Directly and indirectly, much of the agricultural history of Kent, by parish, is to be found there. Hops are not native to this country, but Kent was an ‘early adopter’. Imported hop seeds were found in the remains of a tenth century boat found at Graveney, presumably to serve the requirements of the monks at Canterbury.i Port books show that hops were still imported into Kent in the sixteenth century. The Tudors encouraged hop growing as a form of import substitution, and in 1524 granted a licence to Sir Edward Guildford of Kent to export hops. Flemish growers were attracted to the county. In 1574, Reynolde Scot, of Ashford, wrote a very practical handbook for prospective hop growers.ii By 1655, a return of the national acreage of hops showed that one-third lay in Kent. Celia Fiennes noted ‘the great Hopyards on both sides of the road’ between Sittingbourne and Canterbury in 1697.iii Houghton referred to massive hop production around Maidstone in 1699. Defoe described East Kent as the ‘Mother of all Hop Grounds’ in 1725.iv

There are three areas where the soil, climate and aspect are good for hops:

Hop acreage by parish, 1821 & 1851

Hop acreage by parish, 1861 & 2001

But the map shows that, in the nineteenth century, hops were grown in just about every parish in Kent. We still see oast-houses high on the North Downs, to cater for hops once grown on that unpropitious clay-with-flint, overlying chalk. Thus, favourable physical conditions do not fully explain the hop phenomenon in Kent. We have to look for other reasons.

The most obvious reason has to do with the brewer. Beer production in parts of Kent in the eighteenth century would have far exceeded local consumption, as local brewers met the demands of the Navy at Chatham and Deal. Later, export of beer increased demand. More important were the London brewers. Their need for hops was met through Southwark, easily accessed from Kent. The hop market was itself highly organised, with a sophisticated arrangement of merchants (acting for the brewers) and factors (acting for the hop growers), and highly developed support mechanisms of credit, transportation, warehousing, and distribution.

The next has to do with the county’s traditionally wide use of agricultural land. Kent’s ‘yeomen’ farmers were disposed towards agricultural diversity. They were content that they or their tenants should plant half an acre or two of hops alongside their existing system. Even very small husbandmen might cultivate a few hops – it is not coincidental that we use the expression ‘hop garden’. Larger landowners sometimes made it a condition that a lessee grow hops, and even build an oast-house at his own expense.

Profit was the motivation behind such widespread cultivation. An acre of two of hops could be as profitable as fifty acres of arable. The capital investment needed, of course, was much higher. Figures of £125 per acre, against £10- 12 for arable were quoted in 1857.v But hops could also be a dead loss. In years of abundance, the grower might decide it cheaper not to pick his hops than to bear the costs of picking, drying, bagging and the payment of the excise duty. On the other hand, the hop could be destroyed by wilt, or by the weather, hours before picking. Then the grower, whose crop was not destroyed, might achieve sale prices in excess of £20 per cwt. Betting on the hop yield was common, perhaps as a financial ‘hedge’. Estimates of yields were published weekly in Kentish

For all these reasons, hops were huge business in Kent in the nineteenth century. James Ellis, the greatest hop grower in England in 1825 had 500 acres of hops around Barming, Maidstone. He employed 4,000 people for one month at picking time. 43,614 acres were dedicated to hops in 1875, or a massive 51% of that used for all green crops and 9% of total agricultural land use.vii Kent’s share of the total national hop acreage from 1850-1900 was about 60%. In the ten years from 1847, Kent had an average of 2,822 hop growers compared with 1,468 in Sussex, and 1,355 in Worcester. In that period, the average acreage in Kent was 9.7 acres. The yield per acre ranged from 1.45 cwt to 13.14 cwt, with corresponding price volatility. The yield trended up in the course of the century but in no period of seven years did it reach 10 cwt per 25 acre. Yields in Kent were always greater than elsewhere.

Kent’s growers did not have it all their own way. The men from the West Midlands never allowed Kent to drive them out of business (and gradually closed the yield gap). The sophistication of the market arrangements probably worked to Kent’s disadvantage in that they lost (or never had), with their largest customers, the sort of direct relationship that growers from Worcester developed with Midlands brewers. Kent growers were variously accused of packing together hops of mixed quality and variety, or paying insufficient attention to the drying process, or of adulterating hops with sulphur.viii (But local brewers anyway were very conservative, and nurtured long and exclusive supply arrangements that were important in times of shortage, but did nothing to promote innovation and discrimination.) For two centuries Kent’s growers trained hops up (plentiful) poles, just as Scot had shown them, before they introduced wiring. It is quite an indictment that in 1875 Brenchley’s Richard Fuggle introduced a winning new variety, which was taken up more enthusiastically in Worcester than at home. In Kent, they persevered with the prolific and ‘spurious’ Colegate, instead of focusing on the high value Golding and its derivatives. The reason was recognised by mid-century. In Kent, the hope of quick profit lured men of insufficient capital; technical development of the product could not be sustained.ix In today’s business jargon, we would say that Kent did not invest sufficiently in its hop ‘brand’. Brewer Michael Bass claimed that price aside, he would prefer Bavarian hops to English.x

The twentieth century was one of inexorable decline for the English hop. Brewers use hops in pelletized form from China and the USA. Kent has less than 3,000 acres, (but yields are about twice what they used to be), but maintains its leading position in another way, through the research done at Wye. The new ‘hedgerow’ hops cost less to grow, can be picked by machine, are more resistant to disease and require lower chemical inputs, and should provide the range of alpha acid intensities and of flavours demanded by brewers. But will they be grown in Kent?

Further reading

Armstrong, A. (ed), The Economy of Kent, KCC, 1995 ch. 2 (Mingay, G.)

Garrad, G., A Survey of the Agriculture of Kent, London, 1954, ch. 8

Parker, H., The Hop Industry, London, 1934 Reay, B., The Last Rising of the Agricultural Labourers, Oxford, 1990 ch. 2

Thirsk, J., Alternative Agriculture, Oxford, 1997



Fenwick, V. (ed) The Graveney Boat, British Archaeological Reports, vol 53, pps. 147-8


Scot, R. A, Perfite Platforme for a Hoppe Garden, London, 1574


Morris, C. (ed), The Journeys of Celia Fiennes, London, 1949, p. 123


Defoe, D., Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain, 1724, vol 1, p 118


Select Committee on Hop Duties, Parliamentary Papers, 1857, X1V.347 q 3753-4 (SC 1857)


Kentish Gazette, 1770-1861 (when Excise Duty was abolished)


Parliamentary Papers, 1876 (1303) LXXV111 97


Tann, P., Brimstone and the Adulteration of Hops, Journal of the Brewery History Society, New Ash Green, Kent, no. 83, 1996


Tann, P. The Legitimate Hop Grower and the Spurious Hop, ibid. nos. 73-76, 1993


SC 1857, op. cit. q 7203

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