It’s an increasingly
rare thing to see nowadays, but as a youngster growing up on the Kent &
East Sussex borders (before heading back north to a more sensible part of the
UK for formal education and an introduction in to many of the finer things in
life…) around this time of year I would often see earnest and ruddy-faced
agrarian labourers heading off to work equipped with several unfeasibly large
balls of string – and with a monkey slung over their shoulder !
Somewhat unsurprisingly,
they were not actually engaged in some arcane simian husbandry, as the monkey
in question was in fact a wooden pole, some twelve to fifteen feet long, with a
metal fitting to one end like a hollow crochet hook – and it was used for
stringing hop gardens. These were fields populated by regiments of reassuringly
rudimentary telegraph poles and a cat’s cradle of wire and string where one of
the vital ingredients of proper beer was grown. The popular perception is that the
preparation of hop-gardens was done on stilts, but it this was required purely for
the maintenance of the lattice of wire cross-ties which ran parallel to the
ground, supported on the top of the 18-20 foot poles which make up the familiar
hop-growing trellises. The monkeys were then used to affix the diagonal stays
up which the hop plants grew, as one continuous piece of coir yarn running from
hooks on the ground to others on the wires (little crimped metal hooks that
I’ve heard called nogs or barbs, depending on which farm it was that I was
running about on, causing trouble). The stringers would tie a starting knot to
a ground hook, thread the yarn through the end of the monkey, hoist it to arm’s
length and weave it from hook to barb and back down, up and down, up and down
with the yarn feeding from a huge roll they carried in a rucksack over their
shoulders. They’d be followed by women carrying armfuls of shorter coir lengths
which they’d use for “banding in” – putting a bracing tie around the four
diagonal strings rising up from each individual “hop hill” (the mound from
which the plants grew) to add tension to the whole structure, and ensure that
the plants grew in such a way as to allow a clear passage up and down the rows
for harvesting later in the year. These banding-in women were the bane of my
life – they seemed to be institutionally 
joyless and
wholly intolerant of a boisterous boy, hell-bent on mischief; wicked witches,
the lot of ‘em…
It was a curiously
engaging thing to watch, almost hypnotic, and little did I know then what the
fruits of these curious labours were to be – or what a debilitating impact
they’d have on me on various occasions back in Scotland somewhat later on in
life ! It was also a hell of an undertaking – in the late sixties when I’d gaze
vacantly at this slightly bizarre agricultural macramé, over three hundred
thousand miles of yarn would be used each year across Kent and East Sussex to
string all the hop gardens; that’s further than the distance to the moon at the
most remote point of its orbit around the earth – an awful lot of string !
So, hops –
that’s what we’re looking at today. The little cone-like flowers that produce
acids, oils and biosynthetic phenols which are so vital in the production of any
British beer worthy of the name
, and which have so often formed an integral
part of decorative engravings applied to glasses going back to the 17th century
as a result.
 And at this point I am, of course, duty-bound to make my
near-liturgical pronouncement that it’s only a beer if it contains hops – if it
don’t, then it’s an ale ! I often quote the Harvey’s brewery in Lewes (East
Sussex) as the source of this particular gem, but, in fact, all the good folk
on the banks of the River Ouse did was to provide contemporary confirmation of
a very long-standing distinction when making this assertion.
We can look to the
writings of Andrew Boorde, in his “Dyetary Notes”, committed to paper in 1542,
who states without fear of contradiction that “Ale for an Englysshe man is a
naturall drinke – made of malte and water – and they which do put any other
thynge to ale than is rehersed…doth sofystical (it).” Sofystical is just a
fantastic medieval word, extant today in the form of “sophistry” – a subtle
trickery, superficially plausible but ultimately fallacious; Boorde considered
ale containing anything other than the basics to be thoroughly disreputable.
The reason for this disdain, unsurprisingly for an Englishman, is that anything
made without strict observance of the natural order of things was held to have
been contaminated by that most heinous of influences – the dread hand of the
Boorde goes on to
say that “Bere is made of malte, of hoppes, and water; it is the natural drynke
for a Dutche man”, and that furthermore one that is much used in England (to
paraphrase the original a little) “to the detriment of many Englysshe people;
it kylleth them with colycke (colic), and the (kidney) stone and the
strangulion (quinsy); it doth make a man fat and doth inflate the bely”.
Dutchmen, consequently, are noted to be distinguished by having “fat faces and
belyes”, whereas fine, hop-free English ale “ingendres grose humoures, yette
maketh a man stronge”.
The use of hops in
brewing was first noted by Roman historians who state that Germanic tribes used
them as a preservative for un-hopped ale, with the improved flavour being a
wholly accidental by-product. Similar incidences are variously attributed to
captive Jews in Babylon, Arabian physicians, medieval alchemists and Frankish
kings in the Dark Ages, with the first mention of hops being grown in any
substantial quantities referring to the eighth and ninth centuries in (present
day) France and Germany, where the first hop-gardens, known as humeloria, are
noted to have been cultivated. There are limited inferences made to hop-growing
in Saxon England at the same time, along with reference to their use in  brewing, with the name of a 9th
century village in Worcestershire – now Himbleton – said to derive from
“Hymel-tun” or literally “the hop enclosure”; Abbot Adalard of Corby is also
said to have excused “persons belonging to the service of the monastery” from
all “works and labours relating to hops” on the first day of Lent in the year
822, “in order that they might better make their time for renewing their
confessions” – although I have to say that this almost certainly refers to Corbie
in Picardy, northern France, rather than the Northamptonshire home of the
trouser press. Numerous incidental allusions to hopped English beer crop up in various
works throughout the middle ages, but it is not until the 15th
century that the most definitive of records – ordnances for the governance of London
mercantile associations – provide absolute confirmation that its production was
extant to any sort of near-industrial scale; 1454 is the date, and London’s
ale-brewers and beer-brewers are, from this point onwards, are to be distinguished
from one another by being affiliated to separate trade federations, each with
their own (albeit near-identical) standards of measure and regulation. Thus the
brewing of beer with hops in England finally gains official recognition and –
as with any other self-respecting English pursuit – almost immediately becomes
the subject of taxation, regulation and tediously restrictive bureaucracy –
hurrah !
For all the
assertions that hopped beer from the continent was wholly inferior to fine
English ales, however, once the European variety became widely known on this
side of the channel, it was quickly adopted as the de facto “proper” English
version. By the 1520’s hop-growing in earnest was established in England as
Flemish settlers arrived in Kent, bringing their hop-related horticultural
hobby with them and undertaking said goings-on in an increasingly substantial
manner; this gave rise to a number of rhyming-couplets which infer that hops
and the reformation – amongst other things – arrived in England in the same year;
these rather specious ditties lack any precise dating points of reference, but
confirm that the 1520’s were broadly recognised as being the relevant decade,
and other apocryphal evidence alludes to the exact date of the Flemish arrival
as being 1524. As mentioned, there’s nothing more quintessentially English than
some overbearing regulatory body interfering in the otherwise unimpeded
continuance of a harmless pursuit, and it should be noted that in 1551 the City
of London employed half a dozen “hop-searchers” whose job it was to track down
consignments of cones deemed to be less than entirely fit for purpose, and to
burn the offending sacks and pockets without compensating the owner.

All that having been said,
and with the sage pronouncements of Messrs Boorde and Harvey being put in to
historical context, it may well be the case that the distinction between beers
and ales made with and without hops is going to be rendered entirely irrelevant
at some point in the not too distant future, having endured for a mere 500
years or so. Our American cousins, so it would appear, are working on the
development of an artificial replacement for hops – synthesised flavouring for
what is already (somewhat laughably) marketed as artisan – or worse, craft – beer.
This is being applied – would you credit it – by the genetic manipulation of
yeast DNA, splicing it with genes from mint and basil so that, in essence, both
yeast and hop-like flavouring (or worse still – flavoring !) can be added by
way of a single procedure. The reason behind this madness is that hops, by all
accounts, require a disproportionate amount of water to grow – something to the
order of fifty pints per plant over the course of the growing season to produce
a crop sufficient to flavour just one pint of beer. There have been many
occasions during the evolution of the human race when mankind has been seen to assume
control over what has formerly been regarded as the work of whatever god may
have been held particularly dear at the time – from the first time that fire
was tamed to the point where crops were cultivated and irrigated to such an
extent as to not be entirely dependent on the ebb and flow of the seasons or
the vagaries of the weather; from rudimentary medical interventions that cured
trivial afflictions to the reversal of seemingly fatal conditions by the use of
cutting edge surgical advances. None of these, however, can be compared to the gut-wrenching
paradigm shift in the great scheme of things which would be needed to
countenance the preparation of beer without hops – surely, to any
right-thinking individual, this must be considered to be a step too far…
Anyway – inexpedient
scientific lunacy to one side for a moment, and back to a more civilised time
where the link between hops and good beer was one of the underlying tenets of
any society which considered itself to be properly removed from barbarism and
ignorance. The use of these fragrant, enticing little flowers in the brewing
process was quite rightly recognised as something to be celebrated, and what
better way to do so than to embellish the vessels from which you enjoyed your
hearty draughts with engraved representations of the prehensile plants in
question. We’ve already written at some length about the use of hop motifs to
decorate 17th and 18th century glassware (see
), so there’s no real need to revisit the same ground over again, but hopefully
– now armed with a little knowledge as to the story behind the  plant itself – you’ll be more of a mind to
take up cudgels, firebrands and pitchforks in the style of a suitably insurrectionary
baying mob, and hunt down the meddling heretics who are looking to break with a
tradition rooted deep in the heart of the common man; like the hop-searchers of
the 16th century – seek out these execrable alchemists and burn them
– burn them and their diabolical works to the ground !
Or perhaps, in a more
civilised 21st century manner, you could just tweet your general
dissatisfaction with the direction in which their research is going…#stophopheresy
As for our pictures we have,
by row:
repairing hop garden wires
and poles on stilts; brandishing monkeys
three rows of 17th
and 18th century hop engraved glassware
enormous balls of string – to
the laboratory ! – an evil banding-in witch
and finally, a link to our
index of hop-related glasses