Wednesday Weed – Hops

Hops (Humulus lupulus)

Dear Readers, as we come to the end of the summer what could be nicer than a last cold beer, preferably in the open air with at least two metres between you and your compatriot? Well, until the Middle Ages your beer would have been called a ‘gruitt’ and would probably have contained mugwort, dandelion, horehound, ground ivy, burdock and a whole host of other ‘bitter herbs’ , but there wouldn’t have been any hops. Hops probably became a principal ingredient when it was noticed that beer made with hops didn’t spoil as quickly as those fancy herbal mixtures: hops have an antibacterial quality which makes it harder for the bacteria who change the flavour of the beverage to multiply. However, not everybody was initially a fan: Henry VIII banned beer made with hops in 1524, considering that they adulterated the brew. Typically his son, Edward VI, reversed the ban in 1536 and said that beer made with hops was ‘notable, healthy and temperate’. (Update: one of my eagle-eyed readers has pointed out that Edward VI didn’t start his reign until 1537 and I have discovered that the legislation was not passed until 1552 which makes a lot more sense).It’s worth remembering as well that beer was much weaker in those times than it is now, and people drank it all day as they laboured in the fields. The beer was undoubtedly healthier for the drinker than the contaminated water that would have been working people’s other option.

In more recent times, the harvesting of the hops was a very labour-intensive occupation, and so people used to be recruited from London to do some hop-picking. At one point 40,000 Londoners would head to Kent for a few weeks of fresh air and sunshine, and children would sometimes spend the whole of the six week summer holidays messing about in the rarely-experienced countryside. You can read a lovely account of it here. In my living memory it was not unusual for city folk to head to the country to help with the harvest – my Nan used to go strawberry picking with a bunch of her friends, and when I was in Dundee in the 80’s the chaps would often go to help gather in the berries in Tayside (very popular) or to sort out the potatoes (rather less popular).

Photo One from https://londonsroyaldocks.com/forgotten-stories-hop-picking-fields-kent/

Elaine Bauckham Mithell and her family in the Kent hop fields (Photo One)

I spotted these hops at Walthamstow Wetlands, and what strange ‘flowers’ they have! They are actually called strobili, and they appear only on the female plants (hops are dioecious, meaning that the male and female plants are separate). What elegant forms they are!

Photo Two by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Male flowers (Photo Two)

Photo Three by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Female flowers (Photo Three)

Photo Four by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Ripe strobili on female plant (Photo Four)

Hops are native to pretty much the whole northern hemisphere, and it is an extremely vigorous vine. Its Latin species name ‘lupulus’ means ‘little wolf’, probably referring to the way that it strangles other plants, particularly young willows, hence one of its vernacular names, ‘willow-wolf’. However, in many parts of the UK, especially hop-growing areas such as Kent, it was seen as a lucky plant, often included in garlands which were hung in farmhouses and pubs.

Photo Four fromhttps://www.notonthehighstreet.com/villedefleurs/product/dried-hop-vine-garland-from-kent?DGMKT=FID__TID_pla-341166093066_PID_415168_CRI_341166093066&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI6OrNqcf66wIVSePmCh35cw8sEAQYBCABEgILn_D_BwE

Dried hop garland (Photo Four)

While dried hops are obviously used to make beer, the plant itself has been eaten, both as a salad ingredient and cooked. See here for a hop bruschetta . Most people talk about how bitter the plant tastes, and one article on the Hop Shoot festival in London (who knew there was such a thing?) said that munching on the raw plant was like ‘eating a hedgerow’. Most people seem to agree that the leaves and shoots are more palatable cooked, but you might want to restrain yourself if you don’t have a plant nearby, as apparently hop shoots are the amongst the world’s most expensive vegetables, at 1000 euros per kilo. This seems a bit of a high price to pay for what is basically a waste product from the brewing industry, but then nothing surprises me any more.

Although hops didn’t crop up in beer until the Middle Ages, they have been used as a medicinal ingredient for much longer. Roy Vickery in Vickery’s Folk Flora recounts how he was told that:

An ounce of hops to a pint of boiling water taken some time before meals is a good cure for loss of appetite. A poultice of the tops will relieve sciatica or lumbago. An infusion of the flowers will cure worms in children. Put hops into a muslin bag and use the bag as a pillow and you will cure insomnia’. 

The idea that a hop pillow is a cure for sleeplessness recurs many times; it’s said that it was a hop-filled pillow that finally cured George III’s insomnia, and created a whole new market for hop growers.

Apparently, just as the animals can talk on Christmas Eve so dried hops will turn green overnight. It’s.a lovely thought.

Now, back to the hop-picking. I love this image from the Wellcome Institute of a group of hop-pickers ‘hard at work’. In the background a couple of ‘gentlemen’ buy some hops, no doubt to knock up a barrel of home-brew. Rosy-faced children sit under an umbrella, a woman feeds her baby and all in all there is not a whole lot of hop-gathering going on. This is the kind of agricultural work that I could really get into, given enough suntan lotion and cold drinks.

Photo Five from Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Men and women work in the hop fields, possibly in Kent or Surrey, England. Right, two gentlemen buy some hops. Foreground, young children of the hop-pickers. Right background, oast-houses and the mansion of the proprietor. 185u By: Leighton Bros. (Printer) and A. HuntPublished: [185-?] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

L0051312 Hop pickers at work (Photo Five)

And finally, a poem, by Boris Pasternak, translated from the Russian. It seems to sum up that whole sense of late summer and the freedom of being outdoors, and the general air of hedonism that people must have felt when released from their work.

Hops by Boris Pasternak

Beneath the willow wound round with ivy
we take cover from the worst
of the storm, with a greatcoat round
our shoulders and my hands around your waist.

I’ve got it wrong. That isn’t ivy
entwined in the bushes round
the wood, but hops. You intoxicate me!
Let’s spread the greatcoat on the ground.

translated from the Russian by

Jon Stallworthy and Peter France

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://londonsroyaldocks.com/forgotten-stories-hop-picking-fields-kent/

Photo Two by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Photo Three by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Photo Four from https://www.notonthehighstreet.com/villedefleurs/product/dried-hop-vine-garland-from-kent?DGMKT=FID__TID_pla-341166093066_PID_415168_CRI_341166093066&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI6OrNqcf66wIVSePmCh35cw8sEAQYBCABEgILn_D_BwE

Photo Five from Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Men and women work in the hop fields, possibly in Kent or Surrey, England. Right, two gentlemen buy some hops. Foreground, young children of the hop-pickers. Right background, oast-houses and the mansion of the proprietor. 185u By: Leighton Bros. (Printer) and A. HuntPublished: [185-?] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

8 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Hops

  1. Sara

    The painting of the hop pickers is charming with the umbrella giving shade to the small child and the little girls in front wearing a crown of hops. I think you’ll find that Edward VI did not reverse his father’s decree about beer being made without hops in 1536 as Edward was born in 1537! Edward VI reigned from 1547 – 1553.

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  2. Liz Norbury

    What a wonderfully evocative account of hop-picking in Kent from the London’s Royal Docks website – thanks for providing the link. Last week, my husband went on a hop walk at a farm in Herefordshire – without leaving Cornwall. The walk is an annual event, but this year it had to take place via Zoom!

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