Monday 21 November 2011

A brief history of cultivated hops in England

I heard hop expert Peter Darby give a talk on the history of cultivated hops in England the other day. As he poured out distilled essence of hop history I mopped it up as best I could, furiously scribbling down notes.
I'm no expert botanist or geneticist but to help make sense of it bear in mind that hops have male and female plants, only the cones from the females are used in brewing and each hop ‘varieties’ used in brewing is essentially a single female plant that has been cloned by vegetative reproduction. Males are of importance when making new ‘varieties’ though as sexual reproduction is used to make new plants. I hope this account is of interest:

Surprisingly for something going back that far Peter started with the exact year that hops were first cultivated in England for use in brewing: 1524. He said this was a documented date when Flemish religious refugees started growing hops. I think he even mentioned the heresy they adhered to but I couldn’t make it out. I bet it wasn’t neo-kegism though! The hop they grew was the Flemish Red Bine, but they can’t have done that well as in 1560 they had to call over a consultant, Peter de Wolf from Flanders to tell them how to do it properly.

The hops hybridised with indigenous English hops and by the end of the 1600s there were three types:

 Flemish Red Bine, which was easy to grow and quite disease resistant but coarse and not good for brewing.

 Green Bines, which were better for brewing and

 White Bines which were difficult to grow but the most prized for brewing.

By the early 1700s White Bines predominated and the best were grown in Farnham: Farnham White Bines. Hops were named by their shape, their grower or the place they were grown in. So when Farnham White Bines spread to the Midlands and over to East Kent they became known by different names, such as Canterbury White Bines.

By the end of the 1700s one White Bine was selected out by Mr Golding.
In the 1800s a number of Goldings were grown, for example Bramling, Amos’ Early Bird and Mercer. East Kent Golding is a marketing term as hops grown in East Kent were now considered the best and does not refer to any particular selection of Goldings hops. During the 1800s various clones proliferated. Around 1875 the Fuggle was released, though Percival’s often repeated account of how it originated from a seed found by Richard Fuggle which had been thrown out with some crumbs from a hop picking basket is simply not true. He would either have been three at the time or have emigrated to Canada four years previously!

When we reach the 1900s there are various varieties have been selected:

 Flemish Red Bines, such as Tolhurst and Canterbury Jack (the Shepherd Neame beer of this name does not contain any Canterbury Jack hops)

 Green Bines such as Colgates and Prolific.

 White Bines, including Fuggles and ten types of Goldings. The Mathon Golding is the same plant that had also been known as Farnham White Bines and Cantebury White Bines. These plants will have some differences as the soil they are grown in will alter the character of the hops and epigenetic effects can lead to differences in disease resistance even in genetically identical plants.

In 1906 Wye College in Kent appointed a mycologist, EF Salmon, who had experience in working with powdery mildew, a common hop disease. He started a hop breeding programme. Looking for marketable varieties he noticed that brewers were looking for resin content, as they gave more bitterness and preservative properties but still preferred British flavours. In 1917 he took the unusual step of using wild American hop plants from Oregon in the USA and Manitoba in Canada to make crosses. This greatly increased the genetic diversity. Seedlings from these crosses were planted out in 1919 and one of them became Brewers Gold. This hop had double the alpha acid (potential bitterness) content of the other hops available at the time and is in the pedigree of every high alpha hop in the world today!

Hops evolved in Southern China 6.5 million years ago and the population separated 1.5 million years ago, spreading West and eventually reaching Europe and East over to North America. When these divergent populations were reunited in breeding programmes increases in alpha acid content, mildew resistance, dwarf varieties and new aroma possibilites were opened up.

In 1978 Ray Neve rescued the Wye hop collection from a wilt stricken field and replanted the hops in two separate areas. Peter Darby took over in 1981 and by 2006 the collection had 1500 plants, including 120 named varieties with 70 of these English (including 10 different clones of the Golding variety). Some of these plants had a history going back to 1737. Funding from the government stopped in 2006 and the terms of the lease said the fields had to be returned to arable land: all the hops would be grubbed up unless funding could be found. The National Hop Association decided they couldn't allow this and rapidly raised money.

The hop collection was rationalised: varieties that could be obtained elsewhere, duplicates (plants that had different names but where identical in character and genetics to other varieties) and hops that had been superseded were removed.

This got the collection down to 784 accessions, including the 120 named varieties and 361 males. In 2007 they were planted in a new hop garden and in 2008 the core (including all the English varieties) were also planted in a second site as a precaution against disease.

In 2009 the paperwork was submitted to a body that now goes under the name of Plant Heritage and in 2010 these plants were declared the National Hop Collection, which gives the collection more prestige and should help secure its future.

The plants in the collection are still actively used for crosses and from next year the collection will be open to the public through the Shepherd Neame visitors centre.

Pervious hop selections were made using the judgement of the researchers but using modern scientific techniques the collection is now being analysed more systematically and the brewing characteristics analysed.

Wye hops have recently developed two new varieties: Endeavor which has a Cascade like flavour and Aramis which is grown in France. Some older varieties which were previously rejected are also being looked at again to see if they are suitable for modern tastes.

I think I’ve got the details down correctly, but sadly I have no references, only the notes I scribbled down.

A talk about Australian hops followed, and on leaving we were given a goody bag of small samples of various new, old and Australian hop varieties which I will no doubt return to at some point soon.


  1. Really interesting, can you recommend any books about hops history/science?

  2. Sadly no. I asked Peter Darby for a book recommendation, but sadly the book he recommended was published 20 years ago and is long out of print.

    There is a hefty chunk of heavy hop science in The Handbook of Brewing (F G Priest and G G Stewart), and the parent company of Simply Hops (Barth Haas) do a ring bound book with more easily digestible science and details of various hop varieties. I have been told there should be a good hop book published in America next year though so that's one to watch out for.

  3. At the risk of appearing immodest . . . If you can
    wait until September 2012 then "For the Love of Hops" will be available. Peter was among the hop breeders I visited (as well as ones in Germany, the Czech Republic, Oregon and Washington).

  4. Didn't realise you were doing the book Stan, that's excellent news.

  5. A good book is "Hops - Botany Cultivation and utilization" by A.H. Burges - Leonard Hill Books (1964)!
    Cheers, Jens Eiken

  6. "Surprisingly for something going back that far Peter started with the exact year that hops were first cultivated in England for use in brewing: 1524. He said this was a documented date when Flemish religious refugees started growing hops.

    I'd like to see the actual document that says "1524" - different authorities have given different dates, though "some time between 1511-sh and 1524-ish" is very probably right, and it would be very surprising it it wasn't either Flemings or their near-neighbours who were the first to plant hops in England.

    1. The following recipe is given in Richard Arnold's Chronicle (the Customs of London), first published in 1502:
      " To brewe Beer. x quarters mailte, ij quarters wheet, ij quarters ootes, xl II' weight of hoppys. To make lx barells of sengyll beer."

    2. But were the hops home grown or imported? There's a lot about early English hop use in Ian Hornsey's History of beer and brewing

  7. Sadly the handout that came with the talk related to the hop breeding programme, not the history, so I can't provide any references.

    Thanks to Jens' recommendation I do have a hop book on order though, so hopefully I'll be able to back up my blog postings with scholarly references soon!