The Graveney Boat, a hop history mystery

In the history of brewing in Britain, the Graveney Boat is an archaeological anomaly almost as great as finding the skeleton of an Anglo-Saxon warrior with a hole in his skull that could only have been made by a 17th-century musket ball.

The boat – actually a clinker-built cross-channel cargo vessel, reconstructed as some 44 feet (13.6 metres) long, 11 feet (3.4 metres) wide and just three feet  (one metre) in draught – was abandoned more than a thousand years ago. It was discovered in 1970 under six feet of soil, during the widening of the Hammond Drain, a silted-up ancient natural water course linking Graveney village, a small settlement near the coast between Faversham and Whitstable in Kent, with the Thames estuary.

Dendrochronology suggests the Graveney Boat was about 55 years old when it was abandoned, since it was built from oak timbers cut in the mid-890s, and it had apparently been left to settle into the mud some time close to 950AD. When archaeologists analysed the boat and its immediate area, searching in particular for plant remains, they found evidence that pointed strongly towards it having carried a cargo of hops.

The Graveney Boat being excavated in 1970

Yet at the time the boat was stuck up a Kentish creek, (at a period when there was still a separate Viking King of Northumbria, contending with the King of England), English brewers were not using hops to flavour their ale – or at least, there is no good evidence at all that they were doing so. Hops stay unmentioned in the history of English brewing (apart from one brief and almost equally mysterious pop-up in the 12th century, to which we will return) until the 1500s, almost 400 years later, when immigrant brewers from the Low Countries started making the upstart Continental hopped drink bere, a rival to unhopped traditional English ale. So why were there hops on board the Graveney cargo boat?

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Befuggled: doubts about a hop’s birth

Bang, bang, another beery myth hits the floorboards, or at least staggers back badly wounded, after excellent work by Kim Cook in an article called “Who produced Fuggle’s Hops” just published in the latest (Spring 2009, issue 130) edition of Brewery History magazine.

The story repeated everywhere about Fuggles, one of the two classic English hop varieties, first appeared 108 years ago in an article called “The Hop and its English Varieties”, by John Percival (1863-1949), then professor at the agricultural college in Wye, Kent, in the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, vol 62, and reprinted in the Brewers’ Journal March 15 1902 edition, pp 10-16. Percival wrote of the Fuggle hop that

“The original plant was a casual seedling which appeared in the flower-garden of Mr George Stace, of Horsmonden, Kent. The seed from which the plant arose was shaken out along with crumbs from the hop-picking dinner basket used by Mrs Stace, the seedling being noticed about the year 1861. The sets were afterwards introduced to the public by Mr Richard Fuggle, of Brenchley, about the year 1875. (Letters from Mr John Larkin, Horsmonden, Mr W.J. Noakes, Goudbury and others.)”

Horsmonden and Brenchley are two villages in the Kentish Weald, about a mile apart. The Fuggles variety grows well in the stiff, damp, clayey soils of the Weald, and better than hops such as Goldings do in such soils. If a new, hardy, heavy-cropping hop, comparatively very rich in lupulin, and well-suited to Wealden conditions suddenly popped up in the district, a Wealden hop farmer was indeed likely to spot it and introduce it commercially. So do the records support Percival’s account of the birth of Fuggles?

Unfortunately, Kim Cook’s investigations show, they don’t. There was nobody living in Horsmonden in 1861 called George Stace: the census returns that year show no families called Stace, or anything like it, in the village at all, nor any Georges whose surname bore any possible resemblance to Stace. A wide-ranging search uncovered several people called George Stace living in and around the Wealden area at the right sort of time, but none with any good connection to Horsmonden. (Update – it turns out that the reason why no one can find George Stace is because his name was actually George Stace Moore– see comments below.)

Fuggles hops 1902

Fuggles hops 1902

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Mr Golding’s descendants

From all the iterations of Fuller’s Vintage Ale produced so far, my favourite is still the 2002. The only hops used were Goldings: coincidence? I don’t think so. Actually, I’m drinking one as I write this, and it’s still marvellous, at six years old: musky, biscuity, honeyed, marmalade and toffee, perhaps the faintest lick of lavender – yum! Goldings is one of my favourite hops: I love the apricot aromas Meantime in Greenwich gets out of the variety in its bottle-conditioned IPA.

There are surprisingly few “pure” Goldings beer on the market: Shepherd Neame’s Bishop’s Finger and Hop Back’s Summer Lightning being two. But the “classic” English combination of Goldings and Fuggles hops is used in a swath of bitter ales of high repute: Brakspear’s Special, St Austell HSD, Young’s ordinary, Wadworth’s 6X, Adnam’s bitter, Brain’s SA and Marston’s Pedigree. I wouldn’t rush past any pub selling those.

One remarkable aspect of the hop Mr Golding found more than 220 years ago is the degree to which its genes have contributed to other popular varieties of hops. Even in the 19th century different types of Goldings began to be recognised. One of the most important was Bramling, an early-ripening variety (about 10 days before “main crop” Goldings) selected, according to George Clinch, writing in 1919, by a farm bailiff called Smith on a farm run by a man called Musgrave Hilton at Bramling, a hamlet in the parish of Ickham, near Canterbury.

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Will the real Mr Golding please step forward

Considering what a huge impact he had on the taste of British beer, astonishingly little is known about the man who gave his name to the Goldings hop.

About all we do have comes from a book published in 1798 with the marvellously long title of The Rural Economy of the Southern Counties: Comprizing Kent, Surrey, Sussex, The Isle of White, the Chalk Hills of Wiltshire, Hampshire etc, and including the Culture and Management of Hops in the Districts of Maidstone, Canterbury and Farnham, written by William Marshall, which says (on p183), talking about hop varieties in the District of Maidstone:

In West Kent there are several varieties in cultivation. The ‘Canterbury’ is the favorite sort and is the most cultivated: it is a ‘white bine’ hop, of the middle size. The ‘Golding’ has, of late years, been in high repute. It is a sub-variety, I understand, of the Canterbury; which was raised by a man still living (1790) Mr Golding, of the Malling quarter of the district; who observing, in his grounds, a hill of extraordinary quality and productiveness, marked it, propagated it, and furnished his neighbours with cuttings, from its produce.”

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