England’s garden blooms

(by Oliver Smallwood)

The following article was sent in to us by Oliver Smallwood, freelance photographer and amateur booze hound of pure Kentish stock. In it, Olly identifies an intriguing cross-fertilisation between the local wine and hop/beer industries, and wonders if this might not be leading to a revival in what he terms the UK’s “sorry garden state”. He’s also included a few welcome recommendations for Kentish tipples.

September 1980, a country lane setting.  Warm sun, dusty air and hedgerows overrun with blackberries and insects.

It could be anywhere in England, maybe even Europe and beyond.

A nose full of sweet, herbally, spicy, diesely air.  As the tractor engine cuts out, the shouts of farm workers (south London accents) emanate from 16ft high rows of overgrown greenery supported by a network of wooden poles, wire and string.

Unmistakably Kent.  Undoubtedly hop picking in the garden of England.  Unquestionably, the centre of British booze making for centuries.

Introduced to Kent by Flemish brewers in the 16th century, the hops were added to traditionally brewed ales in order to improve their flavour, aroma and keeping qualities.

By its mid 19th century heyday, the hop industry supported over 70,000 acres of hops nationally (the majority of which were in Kent), employing more than 100,000 workers at hop picking time.

Ian Strang, who still farms hops on the Scotney Estate in the Weald of Kent, recalls the local parish of Goudhurst as being the centre of the industry worldwide.  He also reminds us of the role that hops played in putting the ‘Great’ into ‘Great Britain’.  It was beer (and tea) that sustained the vast workforce required by the industrial revolution at a time when cholera and other diseases infected the water supply.  And it was the hop ingredient that preserved the beer, allowing it to be stored and drunk throughout the year.

Back to 2010, and a drive through Kent presents a very different rural landscape.

The oast houses, once used for drying the hop harvest, still stand as a reminder of a bygone era.  But the hop gardens are few and far between.  The total acreage in Kent fell to just over 1,000 by 2003 and, for the first time in living memory, Herefordshire took over as the UK’s leading hop growing county.

Globalisation of brewing, the growth in popularity of lager (which uses fewer hops) and cheap hop imports from other parts of the world all contributed to the decline of the industry and to some extent a loss of identity for Kent.

As the hop gardens have been grubbed up, so has the character of the Kent countryside, where fields are now planted to arable crops and livestock roam over the relatively bare garden of England.

Along with the hops, Kent’s rich brewing tradition also suffered.

All reasonably sized towns took pride in their own brewery, which produced a local beer – ‘a taste of the region’.   Shepherd Neame in Faversham near Canterbury is the country’s oldest surviving independent brewery, making beer since 1698, and one of the few to remain.  For the majority, amalgamations, mergers and bankruptcy during the 20th century drained the barrels dry.

But do we detect the green shoots of recovery in this sorry garden state?

It is early days but there is some evidence of a renaissance in booze production in the previously prolific garden of England.  And wine is playing a significant part.

The vineyard is not new to Kent.  It is thought that the Romans grew vines in the region at the time of their occupation of the country from AD43 and, in modern times, Biddenden lays claim to being the first commercial vineyard in Britain, dating back to 1969.

However, recent years have seen a local increase in vine acreage.  In the vicinity of Biddenden there are at least 5 other vineyards growing on land traditionally associated with hops.  These include the Chapel Down vineyard and winery, the largest producer of wine in the UK, and the relatively recent addition of Sandhurst, where the Nicholas family has added 25 acres of vineyards to their traditional Kent farm, which still includes 55 acres of hops and several fruit orchards.

Meanwhile, it appears that the decline of the hop industry has at least been halted.  The overall acreage in Kent has stabilized as the new wave of microbreweries has helped to secure the short term hopping future.  At the same time, it seems that they are learning a trick or two from the wineries in the branding and marketing of their local beers.

The Westerham Brewery Company, set up in 2004, restores the local brewing tradition of Westerham’s Black Eagle Brewery, which closed in 1965.  Its innovative owner, Robert Wicks, has followed a path long associated with the wine industry by making varietal beers.  For Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Ortega read East Kent Goldings, Bramling Cross and Target to name but a few.  A number of hop varieties were first bred or propagated in Kent.  Such varieties offer a great way to show the full range of flavours and aromas that the local beers are capable of.

Robert has also teamed up with the aforementioned Ian Strang to create the Scotney Best Bitter and the Finchcocks Original, made entirely using hops from the Scotney and Finchcocks hop gardens.  These drinks are just two of a growing number that attribute their flavour to a specific hop-growing region.

With the trend of the day for authentic and local produce could we yet see a hop garden revival in the south east of England?  And could the growth of English vineyards show the way to making hop farming and the brewing industry financially viable again?

Anyone who was fortunate enough to remember the scenery and character of Kent’s countryside on a warm September day 30 years ago will hope so.

Whatever your tipple, it could be time to raise a glass once more to the Garden of England, traditionally the booziest region in Britain.  And here’s to a vintage year for the likes of Scotney Best Bitter in 2010.

Recommended tastes of Kent

Biddenden Vineyards:

Ortega 2008 (white),

Biddenden Strong Kentish Cider (medium)

Chapel Down:

Tenterden Bacchus Reserve (white)

Vintage Reserve Brut (sparkling)

Pinot Reserve (sparkling)


Sandhurst Beer

Bacchus Dry (white)

Shepherd Neame Brewery, Faversham:

Spitfire Premium Kentish Ale

Bishops Finger Kentish Strong Ale

Westerham Brewery Company:

Scotney Best Bitter & Scotney Pale Ale

Finchcocks Original

British Bulldog Best Bitter

Single Hop Varietal Beers