In March we picked our hops and spread them out to dry in the kiln built at Valleyfield in 1854.
We picked them by hand into a bin that is normally tucked away in a dusty corner in an attic.
In the long tradition of hop picking being a family affair, the children helped. Hop growing and picking includes tasks for nimble fingers like training the bines up their string (they twine clockwise and are unhappy about going the wrong way), striping the cones off the bine and picking stray leaves out of bins.
We don’t have many plants, but it took us most of a day to pick them by hand.
Hops (hummulus lupulus) are perennial vine, dying back each year. Provided with something to climb up, a plant will grow 25 feet or so in a season, and in the warm growing period, up to a foot a day. Wonderful man number one, not the most patient of gardeners, is very pleased with our hop plants and visits them almost daily to monitor progress. There are boy plants and girl plants. It is the female plant that provides the fruit (cones) for harvest.
A warning for gardeners though, an early nickname for hops was willow wolf, meaning that the hope would strangle the willow (also known for its vigorous weedy properties) it grew upon. If you want to plant hops in your garden, then I don’t recommend you plant it in a mixed bed. It needs its own spot, with perhaps mown lawn all around to keep it in check.
It is said that Flemish weavers brought the hop to England in the 1400s and added it to British ale. British ale had previously been flavoured with other sorts of herbs. Like many new things, the hop was initially regarded with suspicion. It was called an “unwholesome weed” and blamed for things like inciting rebellion. The use of hops (or, as it used to be spelled, hoppes) was banned in some English towns. Herbalists, who feared it being used in place the plants they grew, were against it. However, hops have anti-bacterial properties. They gave the beer made with them a longer shelf life than ale and thereby enabled brewers to brew larger quantities and distribute their beer more widely.
William Shoobridge, one of whose son’s bought and farmed hops at Valleyfield, brought hops to Tasmania in 1822. He and his family were the first to grow hops commercially in Australia. The Shoobridges were innovative, hardworking and god-fearing people. One might think that this is inconsistent with introducing a crop used in the production of an alcoholic beverage. In the 1800s beer was a desirable alternative to spirits and also to unboiled water in urban areas where sewage systems were absent. Making beer was encouraged as a healthy and socially preferable alternative to rum and other spirits.
Hops spread around the valleys of Tasmania, following the streams and rivers. Because they are grown on trellis structures, they are vulnerable to blowing down in the wind. Lombardy poplars were grown around the hop gardens as wind breaks. Poplar trees are a remnant markers of what was likely a hop garden in the latter half of the 1800s and first half of the 1900s.
When my sister and I were little, Valleyfield was still a hop farm. As the days began to chill, the hops were being brought in to dry. The drying kiln was heated. My sister and I would sneak in and bury each other and roll in the warm, drying hops, pretending to swim in them. We would emerge coated in the yellow scented resiny lupulin found at the base of the petals in the hop cones. Wooden surfaces at Valleyfield, like the kiln floors, steps, and an old scuppet (a kind of shovel for moving the dry hops) are still coated in this tacky resin, now blackened with age. This is the substance which contains the bitterness and the essential oils that make the hop useful in brewing. I was lucky enough to tour the Bushy Park hop kiln a few years ago and noticed the barriers erected where the hops were drying, and grumpy signs about not entering to prevent contamination. I don’t think little girls are allowed to roll about in the drying hops any more.
People often stop me to talk with nostalgia about how they, or their mother or father came to work on the hop harvest at Valleyfield. There is a special romance to the hop harvest. I have wondered why. I don’t think it is just a love of beer. I think it’s the smell of hops, the time of year it is harvested and that whole families would be involved. Autumn is a poetic time of year I think. A time of reflection. Hops smell of the end of summer, aromatic with bitter cold to come.
We plan to plant a few more hops, not acres of them, but to make more of a hop garden.