Hops have been grown at Castle Farm for at least 300 years.
Eaten by the Romans as ‘poor man’s asparagus’, and used by medieval monks for its herbal properties, hops began to be grown extensively in northern Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries as a preservative and flavouring for beer. In England a thriving hop industry developed, initially in Kent where the plentiful supply of coppiced chestnut trees provided poles for the hop gardens and fuel for drying. Even small farms in these areas each had their own little hop garden with its distinctive oast-house.
Hops, Humulus lupulus, are in the same Cannabaceae family as hemp and nettle – and have similar tough, fibrous stems and a rough hairiness to the stalks and leaves. Vigorous perennial plants, they thrive in rich, moist soils, establishing deep rooting systems that enable them to survive summer droughts and winter frosts.
The young shoots emerge in March and twine clockwise up and around any suitable support, following the sun. In April the strongest shoots are selected (and the rest removed) and ‘trained’ up rough coir string. These hop shoots, can grow as much as 10cm a day during May and June, reaching about 5m in height. Lateral shoots develop in July and the flowers form in August. The full length of the hop climbing on its string is known in Kent as a bine (or as a vine elsewhere). After the harvest, the plants are cut back to ground level and lie dormant until the spring. Over the winter, new strings are put in place ready for the following years growth.
The large hop flowers or ‘cones’ used for brewing and decoration are the fruiting bodies borne on the female plants and are composed of collections of green bracts or ‘petals’ protecting the seeds. At the base of these bracts is a yellow pollen-like substance – the plant’s essential oil (lupulin) glands that provide the bittering and preservative element used in beer-making. Castle Farm (along with lots of Kent farms), used to attract gangs of hop-pickers (a traditional working ‘holiday’ for London’s east-enders), until the process became automated in the late 1900’s. The picked hop flowers were quickly air-dried and compressed into sacks for storage and transport to the brewers.
Still today, our hops are grown on the best, most fertile soil on the farm… but now, purely for decoration! Read all about hops for decoration.