Kent hops, hedgers and Pale India Ale

Here’s another titbit* from the Times archives: a report from 1840 on the hop harvest with some fascinating clues about what hops went into IPA (I was wrong, incidentally, in saying the archive is not available to the public – if you can use your public library card to access resources like the Oxford English Dictionary from your home computer, you can probably use it to access the Times 1785-1985 archive).

One of the reasons The Times carried hop harvest reports was because of the betting that went on over the yield of the hop tax. By the mid-19th century, according to Peter Mathias’s magisterial The Brewing Industry in England 1700-1830, as much money was being bet on the hop tax yield as on the Derby.

This was not simple gambling, however, but a way for hop growers and hop dealers to lay off, or hedge, the risks that came with involvement in a trade that could see prices triple one year and halve the next, as yields went down and up depending on the weather, outbreaks of pests and the like. If you were a hop buyer and you thought yields would be low, and the tax take (based on quantity) subsequently low as well, but the price high because of scarcity, you bet on a low tax take, and at least made some money as you paid top whack for your hops. If you were a seller and feared a big harvest and low prices, you bet on a high tax yield, and made up for the smaller amount you got for your hops by winning on the hop betting.

The most interesting part of the Times report from September 12 1840 on “Hop Intelligence”, however, is not the details of the bets being made on the size of the hop harvest, at 25 guineas or 50 guineas a time (huge sums when a guinea – 21 shillings – was as much money as a labourer might earn in a fortnight.)

In a note lifted from a local paper, the Kentish Observer, the Times “Hop Intelligence” report says that Ospringe, a village in East Kent almost due south of Faversham,

is highly favoured; for although the bulk will be deficient, the quality is generally good. Mr John Abbott’s (so much esteemed for their preservation quality in the celebrated ‘Hodgson’s Pale India Ale’,) falling short, may this year be assisted by his neighbours, Mr Alfred Cobb and Mr Wilks, who seem to vie with Mr Abbott and each other in superior culture and attention to their plantations.”

We’ll step aside from the curious way The Times lets a news report be used to brazenly promote three Kentish hop growers and a Middlesex brewer. What is significant is that it shows us where Hodgson’s brewery at Bow, the first to make a name for itself exporting strongly hopped pale ale to India, was getting its hops from in 1840. It suggests strongly that Hodgson’s was specifically contracting with an East Kent hop grower for supplies, rather than buying on the open market from the hop factors in Southwark, the centre for hop wholesaling, just the other side of London Bridge from the City. It also seems very likely that the hops Hodgson’s was buying from Mr Abbott and his colleagues were East Kent Goldings, the best known and most highly prized variety from the most highly regarded hop-growing area in the country.

The name of one of Mr Abbott’s neighbours, Alfred Cobb, may also be significant in indicating the type of hops being sold to Hodgson’s. The surname Cobb is fairly common in East Kent (there was a Cobb’s Brewery in Margate for more than 200 years, until 1968), but around 1881 Mr John Cobb of Sheldwich, three villages south of Ospringe, introduced the Cobb’s hop, a variant of the Canterbury Whitebine “of a Golding character”, according to George Clinch’s English Hops, written in 1919 (I have the author’s own copy of this book, with his bookplate inside: cost me £95, one of the single most expensive books I’ve ever bought, but there are other copies on sale right now for up to £110 …).

The Golding itself, found by a Mr Golding (nobody seems to have recorded his first name) of the Malling district (near Tonbridge) growing in his garden around 1790 was itself “a sub-variety of the Canterbury hop”, according to Hubert Parker, writing in The Hop Industry, published in 1934. (My copy of this book carries a pasted-in complements slip from the wonderfully named hop merchants’ firm of Gascoyne, Kent, Harrington & Firkins of Worcester, which only closed down in 1969). In 1857 a parliamentary select committee on the hop industry was told that Goldings made up a third of all the hops grown in East Kent, the rest being made up equally of a variety called Grapes, and a poorer-quality but heavy-cropping variety called Jones’s.

If you’re looking to brew an authentic early-type IPA, then, the hop variety to use looks like East Kent Goldings. The year of the Times report, 1840, was admittedly in the period that Hodgsons was losing ground rapidly to the Burton upon Trent brewers of pale ales for the Indian market, particularly Bass and its rival Allsopp’s. The Burton brewers, however, look to have had the same views on hops as Hodgson’s: Colin Owen’s history of Bass. Ratcliff & Gretton, The Greatest Brewery in the World, says (p40) that around 1820 at Bass

“East Kent hops were generally regarded as being the best and were used in varying proportions with other Kentish and North Clay (Nottinghamshire) hops.

Owen says prior to 1900 Bass bought “a wide range” of mid-Kent and East Kent varieties of hops from the Southwark hop merchants Wigan Richardson & Co and Wood & Co, only shifting to Worcester-grown hops in a “marked” way after the turn of the century. Again, therefore, for an authentic 19th century Burton IPA, too, East Kent Goldings look your safe choice.

*The American “tidbit” looks like a bowdlerised adaptation designed not to offend the puritanically minded of the kind who became upset at Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”, but is, in fact, etymologically closer to the earliest known form of the word, tyd bit than the Br Eng version is. I like “titbit”, though – it sounds more euphonious to my West London ears …

9 thoughts on “Kent hops, hedgers and Pale India Ale

  1. Sort of a tangent – but are there descriptions of the taste of these hops in these books? I ask because I take a statement like “…bought ‘a wide range’ of mid-Kent and East Kent varieties of hops…” to be a recommendation as to a whole range of desirous qualities (such as superior handling of the hops) as compared to the genetic lineage (and therefore flavour) of the plant. Have there been any genetics testing confirming the stability over time of the properties of the plant such that we can be confident what is called East Kent Goldings now was the same thing in 1840?

  2. Fascinating stuff. It fits in with what I’ve seen in the brewing logs.

    In the first half of the 19th century London brewers were still sourcing their raw materials pretty locally. Most of the malt is from Hertfordshire and the hops either East Kents or Mid Kents. Very occasionally Worcester hops turn up.

    Later in the 1800’s American hops appear in the logs, either just called “American” or more specifically Pacific or Oregon. The malt is much more eclectic, coming from all over the place – California and the Middle East, for example.

    I assume the huge variability in size and quality of the crop was the reason for brewers to use a mixture of different years in each brew. There’s rarely more than 50% from the last crop. The oldest hops I’ve seen in a log were 11 years old.

    Whitbread went one further than Hodgson – they owned their own hop gardens in Kent. Though they didn’t produce enough to satisfy all of their needs.

  3. Alan – there’s remarkably little commentary about the different flavours available from different hop varieties in 18th and 19th century sources: they seem much more interested in how resistant each variety was to blight and insect attack, and how heavily they cropped. I get the impression hop flavours weren’t that important to them – they wanted the bitterness, and the preserving qualities, and that’s all. I’m sure the people at the hop research centre at Wye in Kent have done loads on hop DNA, but I dunno the results, I’m afraid … memo to self, must try to find out more …

    Ron – as I’m sure vyou know, porter brewers didn’t seem interested in hop flavour much at all, what they wanted was preserving quality, like lambic brewers, and always seemed to go for older hops … Guinness also did a lot on hop research, of course, and they too had their own farm, at Odiam, IIRC, for many years …

  4. Thanks Z. I like to think of my role as stumbling upon decent questions by fluke and leaving it to others to follow up.

    If it is of any interest to them, I know of a patch of hops that there is a good chance of planting around 1860 (by a Canadian Father of Confederation) and the end of production in 1905 or so (when the place went dry) that sits in a property that was a former Victorian roadhouse in my old home of Prince Edward Island (home of the longest stretch of prohibition in the western world – p’raps). I pal owns it and I always wondered what the strain would turn out to be.

  5. But it isn’t just the Porter and Stout that have old hops. All the beers do, including Pale Ale and IPA. Tell a lie, I have seen one beer that used all fresh hops – Barclay Perkins IBSt (Russian Stout).

    And it isn’t restricted to the 19th century. It’s the same in all the 20th century ones I’ve looked at, too.

    As for what they were looking for in hops in the 19th century, Loftus says:

    “Those in the highest repute are grown in Kent, in the environs of Canterbury; the Farnham hops are likewise much esteemed; they are both distinguised for their strength and flavour.”

    That sounds to me as if they were interested to some extent in the flavour.

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