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My hops. Let me show you them.

September is the time to harvest the hops. Next door in Kent is big hop-growing country, and has been since the 16th Century. Before then, lots of different herbs had been added to beer to make it bitter (to counteract the sweetness of the malt), but hops have a preservative, plus a slight antibiotic effect which makes conditions more favorable for brewer’s yeast.

Of course, they didn’t know shit about antibiotic effects in fifteen-hunnert-something. They just knew beer made with hops turned out better and lasted longer.

It took a quarter of a million workers to bring in the crop, about a third of whom were vacationing London families from the East End. A hell of a vacation that must have been, sleeping in crappy little hopper huts and working in the fields all day. But the money was good, it was out in the country, and it seems to have been pretty sociable work.

Fresh hops were then taken to oast houses, which are giant drying kilns. In the 19th C, oast houses took on a distinctive shape: round towers with conical roofs — usually in two or three in a cluster. The roofs have a little flange that catches the breeze and moves a vent to face the wind.

Or did. All the harvesting and drying is done industrially now, of course, and the oasts have been converted to housing. Tons of them around here.

I’ve been trying to get my hands on some hops for several years. In old houses and pubs with low beams, it’s traditional to hang strings (or “bines”) of hops along the beams like curb feelers, to warn people off smacking their noggins. They look and smell great. But you have to get them fresh, before they go brittle and dry, and they disappear into the beer trade very fast.

We stopped at a fruit stand for some plums and another customer pulled in, the back of his car full of freshly-picked hops. I mugged him. He’d picked them for some other middle-class pretend-farmer’s-wife country wannabe, but weasel got there first.

Somewhere in England tonight, a woman named Tallulah or Cassandra or Jemima is thinking of lost hops and crying bitter tears.

September 23, 2010 — 11:02 pm
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