Old MacDonald Had a Farm: E-i, E-i, Oasts
Driving around the Kent countryside one can not help, but notice, the oast; a building designed for drying hops, as part of the brewing process. The oast consisted of two or three storeys, on which the hops were spread out to be dried by hot air from a wood or charcoal-fired kiln at the bottom. The drying floors were thin and perforated to permit heat to pass through and escape through a cowl in the roof which turned with the wind. Hops were picked from hops gardens by gangs of pickers, who earned a fixed rate per bushel. The green hops were put into large hessian sacks, called pokes, and the pokes were taken to the oast. Some oasts had a man-powered hoist, (a pulley and rope) used to hoist the green hops to the drying floor. Green hops had a moisture content of 80%, which needed to be reduced to 6%. The drying floors were 1 1/4 inch square battens nailed at right angles across the joists so there was a gap between each batten and this was covered with a horsehair cloth. The hops would be spread 12 inches deep, the kiln doors closed and the fire lit. Routinely, the men would have to turn over the hops, by walking across the boards and raking it over, in order for the hops to dry properly. What a hot and dangerous job that would have been! When the hops were judged to be dry, the furnace would be extinguished and the hops removed from the kiln using a scuppet, a large wooden shovel. The hops would then be spread out on the stowage floor to cool and afterwards be pressed into large jute sacks, called pockets, with a hop press. The pockets were then sent to market where the brewers would buy them and use the dried hops in the beer process to add flavor and act as a preservative. Next time you are in a local English pub and see the yellow-brownish, weedy, looking rope, strung about the ceiling and hearth, you’ll know you are looking at picked hops! Enjoy that beer!