Hops have been cultivated in the High Weald since the sixteenth century. Hopped ale or beer was popular for both its taste and superior keeping qualities and, as trade flourished, so hop gardens, oasthouses and breweries. Today only a handful of hop gardens and breweries remain and most oasthouses have been converted to residential use.
Stringing and twiddling
The process of growing and processing hops into beer has changed very little over the last 300 years although mechanisation has made what was once a very labour intensive job less so.
The process starts in the Hop Garden when in February the "stringing' begins. Four strings are attached to each hop pole and pegged to the surrounding ground. A long pole known as 'the stringing goad' is used by the stringer to thread the string through the hooks at the top of the pole.
From April onwards the plants or bines, which are normally planted in the Autumn, rapidly scramble up the strings. Farm workers step in and 'twiddle' or train the hops as necessary to ensure they climb clockwise up the string and that the growing tips or hopheads remain on track.
Cutting and drying
It is not until late August that the female flowers produce their pale flowers or cones.
The cutting down of the bines then starts in earnest. A labour intensive activity, one person standing in the crows nest of the tractor cuts the strings at the top, another frees the bines at the base and another heaps the bines into the trailer.
The bines are then transported to the drying shed. An automatic picking machine strips the cones from the bine and the cones are then transferred in hessian sacks or pokes to the drying kiln.
Drying normally takes about eight hours. Once dry the hops are spread out on the oast house floor to cool and then guided back into the pokes ready for transport to local breweries.
Back in the hop garden the bines are cut down and made into a mulch. Dead plants are replaced and the wire is repaired ready for the next growing season.
Once the hops reach the brewery the skills of the Brewer take over.
Beer is the result of turning the starches in malted barley into fermentable sugars, boiling the sugary extract with hops and then fermenting the liquid with yeast to produce alcohol.
The boil extracts resins, acids and tannins from the hops adding flavour, aroma and bitterness to the beer and protecting the liquid from infection. Different varieties of hops, like grapes in wine making, add aromas and flavours to the beer; spicy, peppery, resiny, floral and acidic. The brewer's choice of hops therefore is one element which determines the character of the final product.
Many pubs across the High Weald sell real ales produced by local breweries; Westerham Brewery (which uses hops from the Scotney Castle Estate), Harveys, Shepherd Neame, Larkins and Old Forge.