At The Hop

I was talking about hop pockets and pokes last week – and pigs, of course, which was how it all started, but forget the pigs for now. Let’s stick with the pokes and pockets. At the weekend we went for a walk through a part of Kent we hadn’t walked for a few years and part of the walk took us through this field:

This was a hop garden many years ago. Conveniently close to the oast houses so that as soon as the hops were picked they could be taken in and dried before there was any chance of them spoiling. Taken in bagged up in pokes, and once dried shipped out to the brewers in pockets. A word of explanation for those not familiar with these terms: hops are not grown in fields, they are grown in gardens. Not like your or my back garden, but like a field. But a field full of poles. Hop poles. With huge cable-like wires strung between them to support the hop bines as they grow.

When they are ready for harvesting, the bines are pulled down and the hops picked and put in pokes – large sacks (but you knew that, of course. You remembered it from last week). Then once dried they are shovelled into pockets – another size of sack.

And what are the hops for? Making beer, my friend. Lovely beer.

I don’t have a picture of the hop garden from back then, but late one cold, misty, autumn night about thirty years ago, I walked through it and the eeriness was instantly imprinted on me and once I was home I felt compelled to make an oil pastel painting of it (below).

Anyway, as I said I don’t have a photo of the hop garden in question, but this one from Pixabay illustrates very nicely the hop poles and wires with the growing hop bines growing up and across them:

Image by -Rita-👩‍🍳 und 📷 mit ❤ from Pixabay

The poles were supported by wires kept under tension, anchored into the ground around the edge of the garden. Quite a few of these are still in situ around the very edge of the field and just into the woodland and hedgerows bordering it.

In 1872, there were 72,000 acres of land in England growing hops, the majority of these being in Kent, employing over 100,000 seasonal workers at picking time. By 2003, the acreage in Kent was down to just over 1,000 and for the first time ever the county had been overtaken by Herefordshire, which now grew more, although the decline does at least appear to have halted for now. In 2011 there were a total of just over 2,500 acres under cultivation in England but it is such a small number there were fears the industry could die out. Although hops are still used in beer brewing, much of the requirement is imported, especially with a popular shift towards less bitter-tasting beers. But in much the same way that Kent has also lost a huge percentage of its apple orchards, a once rich and diverse farming landscape has become more and more homogenised, with endless huge fields of arable crops and sheep and cattle replacing the hop bines and apple trees.

I spent one autumn apple picking around thirty years ago and the farm I was working on had a large acreage of hop gardens (both apples and hops all sadly gone, now). It was an incredibly busy and bustling time, with our diverse group apple picking – a mixture of locals and Europeans come over for the work – and a traditional mix of workers in the hop gardens; as well as locals, there were a lot of gypsies and possibly still a few people down from London’s East End, which was a traditional way for those workers to make some extra money in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was busy, noisy, very hard work, and a lot of fun.

And, not surprisingly, there are a number of traditional songs about hop picking. So here is the wonderful Shirley Collins and the Albion Dance Band to perform ‘Hopping down in Kent’ especially for you.

21 thoughts on “At The Hop

  1. What a fun song! It sounded as though some of the percussion in the background was akin to our primary school band instruments: wooden blocks, or pairs of sticks. Songs embedded in particular aspects of a culture — like sea shantys or other work songs — are ways to hang on to what’s in danger of passing away.

    I had no idea hops were grown like that. Your description of the work reminded me of corn detasseling corn during my midwestern youth. It was hard work, too, but it had to be done by hand, and it was a great way to make extra money in the summer. It was easier to stick with it, knowing the season was short.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Goodness me, that looks a gruelling job. I had to look it up to see what it involved. You certainly earned your money.

      And definitely both a fun song and, I think, an important one. As you say, like a sea shanty or other work songs, part of a heritage that is being lost and needs to be at the very least recorded and remembered.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Robbie. No, I use the pastels directly onto paper as though they were crayons. I’ve not done anything else to this picture, but often I will use my fingers to smudge the pastels, which gives a different effect like, for example, on the painting ‘Rock #5’ in my Etsy shop.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. for a time in the 1800s, New York State was the leading hops producer here. I’ve seeing old prints with pictures of the hop pickers, some of them on stilts! Now they’re grown in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, but every time I visit New York and drive through farm country, I will see some new (small scale) producers. A lot of the local IPAs, especially the “New England” versions (where they dump in an extra load of hops right at the end of the brewing process) are probably creating a lot of demand.
    somewhere in my parents house there’s a small embroidered pillow, stuffed with hops, that was a gift from my grandmother — supposed to help people get to sleep.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d forgotten about the stilts, Robert. That’s something that was done over here, too. I’ll have to look for some photos.

      I wonder if your hop-growing is doing much better than ours at the moment, since much of the demand for hops over here is to make IPAs with more of a citrus flavour than our traditional bitter beers, which is one reason for the decline in demand for our traditional hops.

      And hop pillows – yes, apparently they work very well, which doesn’t surprise me since the scent of the oils in the hop flowers is certainly very calming.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well … I certainly learned some things about hops ‘n such that I didn’t know before! I love your painting, but it makes it look like a place I would not want to be in after dark! Thanks for teaching us about hops … all I knew was they were something beer was made of.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I always come away from your posts having learned something new, Mick. I knew very little about hops besides that they are used to make beer. It’s interesting to know the story behind growing them. I love your somewhat eerie picture.

    It’s such a shame that English orchards are in decline because the land is being given up to raise animals for food. Mind you; the same thing is happening in other parts of the world. My house, where I have been for 43 years, was an apple orchard before Wimpey builders moved in and built a whole area of modern homes. (They were built around 1967.)

    I’ve still got a pint can of alcohol-free Guinness in my fridge from Christmas – I really ought to drink it before next Christmas gets here! I’ve heard about hop pillows – it might be an idea to search one out as I have a terrible job staying asleep at night. I enjoyed the song, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Ellie. There is a bit of a shift in how farming is seen now, but in an awful lot of cases it is still that ‘big is beautiful’ idea of gigantic fields of monoculture, or grass for cows or sheep.

      Glad you enjoyed the song! I’ve had that going around in my head ever since we went for that walk last weekend.

      Liked by 1 person

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