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Hops and how to grow them: An Elizabethan view

The oldest printed book in the Company’s Library is a wonderful small volume published in the year 1576. It’s a 63-page manual on how to grow hops called A Perfitte Platform of a Hoppe Garden. The book was written by a gentleman named Raynolde (or Reginald) Scot, who lived at Smeeth, near Ashford in Kent, and owned land in various surrounding villages.

Hops then were still fairly new in Britain. They had been imported from the Low Countries for many years before the first hop gardens were planted, in Kent in the early 1500s. Scot had clearly become an expert on the subject. He was the first to write a book in English solely devoted to hops, which proved popular and went into three editions in four years.  His book deals with all aspects of cultivation including planting, tying the hops to poles, harvesting, and how to build an ‘oast’ in which to dry them. Scot tells the reader that he had seen oast houses at Popperinge in Flanders (present day Belgium) and realised how effective they were for drying hops. ‘The very worst waye of drying Hoppes’ is the heading of one of the briefest sections in his book, comprising a single sentence: ‘Some laye their Hoppes in the Sunne to drye, and this taketh awaye the state of the Hoppes, and neverthelesse leaveth the purpose of drying undone’. An oast house was far better, and soon Kent in particular was to have many thousands. Hop growing in Britain reached its zenith in the Victorian era, with over 70,000 acres devoted to it, Kent being the major county involved. Today only a few thousand acres are given over to hops, but there have been signs of a modest revival in recent years, as some brewers seek to use local, home-grown varieties in their beers.

Scot’s book is enlivened with charming woodcuts such as this one, showing how to pick hops, an activity he advises only after the hops have changed colour, sometime between Lammas (1 August) and Michaelmas (29 September).

Scot wrote another well-known book on a totally different topic: witchcraft. His views were enlightened for the time, as he doubted the existence of witches and called for tales of their evil-doing and powers to be seen as ‘erroneous conceptions’, along with the ‘delusions of astrology and alchemy’.  Scot was specifically criticised by King James VI of Scotland, a great believer in witches, and it was perhaps well for him that he had died by the time that king also became king of England as James I in 1603.

This beautiful and rare book came into the Brewers’ Company’s Library in 1980, when it was a gift from Henry Charles Whitbread, Master for 1979-80.