Ahead of this weekend’s Beer festival, local resident Mike Saunders shared with us some fascinating facts about brewing through the ages.
Early in lockdown when we were looking through the grocery store cupboard we came across the beer making kit bought some years ago, which the chairman had never got around to processing, so the ale-wife (correct medieval terminology) made a start with brewing, before the AGA was turned off for the summer.
When the home brewing was mentioned to our son who lives at Sutton Bonington, he commented that there were hops growing in the hedge of Pit House Lane, near the bridge over the Kingston Brook and others were growing in Landcroft Lane. The writer was later told there were also hops growing near the churchyard gate.
At this point the writer decided to investigate hop-growing in the Nottinghamshire area, but firstly thought he would look at some of the history of Ale brewing. It is not known when “man” first discovered that a palatable drink could be made from fermented grain, but “ale” is believed to have been drunk for thousands of years.
Beer is effectively ale with some form of additive to give it a tang. What is believed to be an early form of additive was called Griut, which apparently means herb in medieval German.
The herbs used might be any, all, or a combination of the following: bog myrtle, yarrow, wild rosemary, wormwood, lavender, hyssop, fennel seed, woodruff, ground ivy, mint, sage, nettle, lemon balm, or juniper berry.(All about Beer Magazine. Jan 2016). “It is important to keep in mind the properties of Griut beer-it is highly intoxicating, narcotic, aphrodisiacal and psychotropic, when consumed in quantity, explains Buhner”.
The earliest written reference to Hops, was by the Benedictine Abbot of Adalard Monastery, in the Somme Valley, in 822CE. German sources claim that there were hop gardens in use by the mid 9th century in Bavaria, but it is not until the mid 12th century that hops appear to have been grown commercially in North Germany.
Hopped beer was being brewed and exported to England late in the 14th century from the Low Countries notably Holland and Flanders. The first record of Brewing in England was in 1412 when Agnes Smyth, a “Dutchman” (German) was noted brewing beer at Colchester.
By 1520 Hop Gardens had been established at West Beare near Canterbury, by farmers from the Low-Countries, possibly Huguenot refugees, many of whom settled in the South East of England.
By this time the Catholic Church in Europe had gained a monopoly on the aquisition of the ingredients to prepare Griut, effectively charging a tax on it. This did not go down well with the Protestants, who decided to introduce untaxed Hops as a flavouring agent to ale, producing bitter beer.
There was obviously ongoing concerns about the adulteration of hopped beer, so in 1516 a Reinheitsebot, a purity law demanded that only water, hops, barley and yeast should be used to brew beer. Why was ale/beer such an important commodity?
The brewing process, which involved heating, helped to kill off bacteria in the water used, as did the small percentage of alcohol in the finished liquor. It was even considered efficacious to give small beer to children. In addition Beer has a high calorific value and it was reckoned that a labourer would obtain some three quarters of his daily calorie intake from the beer he drank.
The oldest surviving brewery in the country is Shepherd, Neame of Faversham, founded in 1698, Faversham being only some fifteen miles from Canterbury in what is still a hop growing area. It is located on a tidal creek which permitted easy transport to London by sailing barge.
Hop growing spread across to the heavy clay soil of the Kentish/Sussex Weald, then onward to the area around Farnham in Surrey and later still Herefordshire. Some years ago when reading Thoronton’s History of Nottinghamshire, the writer came across a reference to hops being grown on the heavy clay soils of North Nottinghamshire. This was verified by an article “A short History of Hop Growing “, by a person who called himself Zytheophile.
Each of the hop growing areas claimed that their product was superior, with Farnham regarded as the finest, followed by Kentish, but some brewers were prepared to pay a premium for the North Nottinghamshire hop. Perhaps it was all down to personal taste.
Ale houses must have originally brewed their own beer, until the larger town breweries became a more reliable source.
Rita Alsop, who previously owned the cottage in West Leake which was formerly “The Basket” ale-house, avers that beer was brewed somewhere on the premises and off licence beer would be obtained in a jug taken to the ale-house.
So in conclusion did some local ale houses have their own Hop Yards, or are the hop bines growing around the village just garden escapees? Keep your eyes open around former Ale Houses to see if you can spot any hops growing.
An interesting aside is how the names of things used in hop culture changed as the industry moved up through the country. The Kentish Hop Garden becomes a Hop Yard in the Midlands and an Oast House becomes a Hop Kiln, among others. The writer has not attempted to investigate local ale-houses and breweries in this article. They are for another tale.