Manual Picking of the 18th Thesis

Excerpt from Thesis :

In England, one of the premier locations for growing Hops in the 18th century was Kent. Kent has a long history with the growing and curing of hops; "The cultivation of hops for brewing was, in fact, introduced to Kent by Flemish brewers in the 16th century," (Kent County Council 2007:2). Once the popularity of hops exploded in England, it was Kent that vastly benefited from the rich soil and close proximity to massive amounts of seasonal laborers available to manually work the fields in the 18th century. Kent alone employed over 80,000 workers in the harvesting, drying, and sale of hops during the 18th and 19th centuries; "thousands of acres of Kent's countryside were devoted to growing hops in fields known as 'hop gardens,' with up to 80,000 people involved in the annual harvest at hop-picking time in September," (Kent County Council 2007:2). The region found great success in the production of hops for commercial brewing. This was based on several essential reasons that helped elevate the growing of hops as Kent's main agricultural product. These were based on the land and its proximity to available work, "Kent was the earliest center for hop culture for a number of reasons: suitable soil, the enclosed field system was established; and there was a good supply of wood for the poles to support the hops and charcoal for drying them," (Kent County Council 2007:2). The popularity of hops production in Kent sparked a surge in the local economy. Local farmers and traveling manual pickers alike all benefited enormously from the September harvest season. According to research, "The conversion rate from bushels into cash depended upon the quality and quantity of the hops picked," (Powell 2007:3). Thus it was important for growers during the 18th century to produce quality hops that could compete with other local farms in the region. However prosperous the industry became, it eventually hit its bubble and slowly receded, leaving it to be a fraction of what it once was today. After the heyday of English hops production in the 18th century, "A combination of developed higher yield of hop plants, lower concentration of hops in beer, cheap imports and blight all served to effectively bring the hop growing Industry of Kent and Sussex to a close," (Powell 2007:2).

However, while hops reigned supreme in the 18th century, thousands of annual and temporary workers combed the fields, thus providing massive support for the local and foreign economies. When the popularity of hops sky rocketed, the rural areas of Kent and Sussex could not efficiently produce a massive enough workforce to manually tend to the fields during the September harvest time. The demand for hops was ever increasing in the middle of the 18th century. However, Kent and Sussex fell short of labor supply, "By the late 18th century the growth in demand for hops and subsequent expansion of the hop gardens had outstripped the available local labor supply of farm workers and itinerant gypsies," (Powell 2007:2). Yet, it was crucial for the hops to be tended to in large numbers based on the plant's success in the fields. Thus, farmers began looking outside the region to fill the labor demand, and "Over time, production became concentrated near to the industrial areas of London, South Whales and the West Midlands because a huge itinerant force of workers was needed to pick the crop by hand," (Kent County Council 2007:2). The 18th century was before the time of massive transportation revolutions such as the railway. Thus, 18th century workers were forced to use slower and more arduous means of transporting the hops from the English countryside to urban breweries and marketplaces. According to research, "The Kent and Sussex pickers would initially have made their way down to the hop fields by horse and cart or boat down the Medway," (Powell 2007:2). From there, hops made their way into local breweries and helped create a new recipe for an old classic.

The rising popularity and use of hops within the brewing process during the 18th century was crucial in the formation of modern brewing as we know it today. It bridged the gap between older brewing practices without the use of hops, and how we see beer in the modern context. The keeping qualities of the hops also allowed brews to be transported to further distances, spreading out the popularity of local and commercial brews and creating a massive demand for the new beverage -- beer.


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