As I've said before, I've long been interested in the history of Farnham hops and how they were once considered the best of the English hops. I've been even more interested since I found out that plants originally propagated from Farnham hops are still grown as part of the Goldings group.
I've been looking through books, and on the internet, and even going to the Surrey History Centre and I think I've now got a fairly coherent account of this most prized of hops.
Richard Bradley, writing in 1729, shows that Farnham was already an important hop growing area:
"I should have been more particular concerning the building of the hop-kiln but there are so many of them to be seen about Canterbury and Farnham that everyone may be easily satisfied of their structure". (1)
He provides no details of specific hop varieties though, saying instead:
"Most of the hop planters make three sorts of hops, one of them they n
ame the good or master hop, or the manured or garden hop. The other they call the unkindly hop, and some call this the Fryer, others call it the male hop, but without reason. The third sort is that which they call the wild hop, and some likewise call this the savage" (2)
Hops were first named for the character of their cones, e.g. Long White, Oval, Long Square Garlick; or by the colour of their bines, e.g. White Bine, Green Bine, Red Bine. (3)
Early hop varieties will have originated from landraces, and genetic analysis shows that "at least two populations existed in ancient times and the hops cultivated in England originated from or are related to both populations". (4)
Propagating cuttings from the best plants, or plants with desirable characteristics, has for centuries been how most hops are grown commercially. Whether the Farnham White Bine originated as a cutting or a seedling wasn't mentioned in the first account I found of its origins, Valerie O'Rourke's history written in 1973, but it did name the man behind it:
"Around 1750 a new strain of hop was introduced to the Farnham growers by a Mr Peckham-Williams of Badshot Place, Badshot Lea (a small village in the parish of Farnham). This was a White Bine Grape hop, and was to become famous as the Farnham White Bine, which would be grown in the Farnham hop grounds until the disastrous inter-war years, when the blight hit so badly the growers changed to another variety". (5)
This lead me on to further research that says it was grown from a cutting (12):
"Several varieties of hops are here grown; but the best, and that which is cultivated to the greatest extent, is the whitebine grape-hop, which was first raised from a single cutting about fifty years about by Peckham Williams, Esq. of Badshot Place, near Farnham, who whould never suffer any other sort to be grown on his plantation, which is still kept up by that alone."
Unlike Mr Golding or Mr Fuggle it's clear cut who Mr Williams was, and some sources even accord him a similar honour by naming the hop after him: William's White Bine (13). My brief research has revealed he was born 1718 (or 1719) and died in 1785. I'll leave it there though. The lovely Lisa have been very patient with my Farnham White Bine obsession but she started wailing and gnashing her teeth when I began whittering on about Peckham Williams as well.
Farnham White Bines were considered the best hops in Britain and commanded the highest price:
"The Farnham hops generally fetch one-third more, and sometimes double those of other districts." (6)
Quite why this was the case was the cause of much speculation by William Stevenson in 1809:
"It cannot be scribed to the particular variety of hop which is cultivated at Farnham [...] cuttings from the best Farnham hops have been sent into Kent, and if this were really the case, we may be assured it would long before this have produced the same effect there as at Farnham. (7)
Farnham White Bines grown at Canterbury in Kent were called Canterbury White Bines, and white bines grown at Mathon, Worcestershire were called Mathon White Bines or simply Mathons (14). Though the last white bines in Farnham were grubbed up in 1929, Canterbury White Bines and Mathons are still grown to this day, though they're both sold (to brewers, if not to hop merchants) as Goldings.
Farnham hops were particularly prized for their pale colour and delicate flavour. Stevenson doesn't seem overly impressed by this and says Farnham hops are picked before they're ripe adding rather sniffily:
"We shall not examine whether such hops ought to be called more delicate, or weaker than those of other districts." (8) He concludes that the reason Farnham hops get the best price is due to "the name of Farnham hops" (9) i.e. the brand value.
This doesn't really tell us how Farnham hops got to be such a good brand, but fortunately for me a previous researcher looked at this issue in some detail so I shall quote Ashton Booth on this (10):
"In summarising the factors which lead to and maintained their higher price we discover some factors necessary for commercial success in any enterprise.
First, natural advantages, in the case of soil and topography. Secondly, a high quality product, with quality control maintained through all the growing and processing operations. Thirdly a grading system which ensures evenness of the quality. Fourthly, high quality packaging, prestige wrapping and publicity. Fifthly, a monopoly hold on the best selling site; sixthly, the continued existence of the market demand."
The practices of the hops growers in Farnham were quite distinct from those of the growers in Kent, which I may return to later. I'll note at this point that unlike the hop gardens and oast houses of Kent the Farnham growers it seems had hop grounds and hop kilns.
East Kent and Farnham undoubtedly have the right soil and climate for growing hops. The Farnham growers took more care in their picking and packaging than in other hop growing areas and they were dried without sulphur:
"Mr Lance observes, that sulphur is made use of in Kent and Sussex with a view to give a light colour to the hops. The truth is, that this sulphuring is a process of bleaching, an abstraction, and not addition of colour. The slow combustion of sulphur produces sulphurous acid, and that acid (which does not contain a full does of oxygen), acts upon the hops as it does straw in the manufacture of bonnets. It removes the brown tint, and gives brightness in lieu of it. On this subject Mr Lance says, that at Farnham they avoid sulphur "and yet obtain a delicate colour, because they sort out the bruised hops, and pick early before they are injured by the wind. These Farnham hops are found to keep their strength longer than the Kent, because they have not any brimstone in them. In Kent, the most delicate coloured hops are likely to be the most inferior in strength. The oil and flavour of the hops are exceedingly volatile; the atmospheric air will take them away in a short time, and more particularly when sulphur is incorporated with them. In drying them with sulphur much of the aromatic bitter passes off with the fumes of the sulphur" (11)
Farnham hops were carefully graded and only the finest were sent to the fair at Weyhill near Andover. They held pride of place in their exclusive booths on Blissimore Hall Acre, some of which still stand and were particularly prized by West Country brewers and private gentlemen.
With the coming of railways improved transportation diminished the importance of Weyhill fair and increased competition made it harder for Farnham hop growers. Their premium price became eroded, which made it more difficult to recover after bad years as their land rent and other costs were higher.
Extremely bad summers from 1875 to 1884 caused the start of the decline and many hop growers gave up, and the land was used for other crops, housing or quarrying for gravel.
A series of bad attacks from downy mildew in the years 1925 to 1929 spelled the end of the Farnham White Bines and they were grubbed up and replanted mainly with Fuggles (15), a popular English variety but not one that will have commanded a premium price. The last Farnham hop ground at Holt Pound closed in 1976, the owner blaming EEC regulations (16).
- The Riches of A Hop-Garden Explain'd. Richard Bradley. 1729. p99.
- ibid. p37-38
- Hops. Burgess, AH, 1964. p39.
- Hop Variety Classification Using the Genetic Distance Based on RAPD. A Murakami, Journal of the Institute of Brewing. Volume 106, No. 3 2000. p157-161.
- Hop growing and its decline in the parish of Farnham 1873-1973. Valerie D O'Rourke. 1973. p7
- The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Nov 14th 1835. p445.
- General View of the Agriculture of the County of Surrey. William Stevenson. 1809. p372.
- ibid. p373.
- ibid. p374.
- Farnham and District Museum Society Newsletter. Ashton Booth. Vol 5, Dec 1978.
- The Quarterly Journal of Agriculture. Vol V, March 1834-March 1835. p525-526
- The Beauties of England and Wales. Frederick Shoberl. Vol XIV, p242.
- The farmer's encyclopædia, and dictionary of rural affairs. Cuthber William Johnson. 1844. p632
- Hops. A H Burgess. 1964. p64.
- Valerie D O'Rourke. Op cit. p50
- Ashton Booth. Op cit. p59