Ale & Beer in England in 1722, the Hop Fair at Stourbridge

In his book A Tour through the Eastern Counties of England (1722), Daniel Defoe writes on hops and the hope trade at Stourbridge Fair in 1722, but also discusses some details of the brewing industry, such as the difference between ales and beers (as the terms were then used). He marveled at the woollen goods on sale, but also at other commodities that interested him more… namely, hops…  More beneath the cut.

Stourbridge fair map
A map of Stourbridge Fair from 1725, a few years after Defoe visited. Click for source.

After discussing one of the other major attractions of the fair–woollen goods–Defoe turns to the really exciting stuff–the hops:

… But all this is still outdone at least in show, by two articles, which are the peculiars of this fair, and do not begin till the other part of the fair, that is to say for the woollen manufacture begins to draw to a close.  These are the wool and the hops; as for the hops, there is scarce any price fixed for hops in England, till they know how they sell at Stourbridge fair; the quantity that appears in the fair is indeed prodigious, and they, as it were, possess a large part of the field on which the fair is kept to themselves; they are brought directly from Chelmsford in Essex, from Canterbury and Maidstone in Kent, and from Farnham in Surrey, besides what are brought from London, the growth of those and other places.

Enquiring why this fair should be thus, of all other places in England, the centre of that trade; and so great a quantity of so bulky a commodity be carried thither so far; I was answered by one thoroughly acquainted with that matter thus: the hops, said he, for this part of England, grow principally in the two counties of Surrey and Kent, with an exception only to the town of Chelmsford in Essex, and there are very few planted anywhere else.

There are indeed in the west of England some quantities growing: as at Wilton, near Salisbury; at Hereford and Broomsgrove, near Wales, and the like; but the quantity is inconsiderable, and the places remote, so that none of them come to London.

Not actually an English hop. Photo by LuckyStarr. (Click for source)

As to the north of England, they formerly used but few hops there, their drink being chiefly pale smooth ale, which required no hops, and consequently they planted no hops in all that part of England, north of the Trent; nor did I ever see one acre of hop-ground planted beyond Trent in my observation; but as for some years past, they not only brew great quantities of beer in the north, but also use hops in the brewing their ale much more than they did before; so they all come south of Trent to buy their hops; and here being quantities brought, it is great part of their back carriage into Yorkshire, and Northamptonshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire, and all these counties; nay, of late, since the Union, even to Scotland itself; for I must not omit here also to mention, that the river Grant, or Cam, which runs close by the north-west side of the fair in its way from Cambridge to Ely, is navigable, and that by this means, all heavy goods are brought even to the fair-field, by water carriage from London and other parts; first to the port of Lynn, and then in barges up the Ouse, from the Ouse into the Cam, and so, as I say, to the very edge of the fair.

In like manner great quantities of heavy goods, and the hops among the rest, are sent from the fair to Lynn by water, and shipped there for the Humber, to Hull, York, etc., and for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and by Newcastle, even to Scotland itself.  Now as there is still no planting of hops in the north, though a great consumption, and the consumption increasing daily, this, says my friend, is one reason why at Stourbridge fair there is so great a demand for the hops.  He added, that besides this, there were very few hops, if any worth naming, growing in all the counties even on this side Trent, which were above forty miles from London; those counties depending on Stourbridge fair for their supply, so the counties of Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridge, Huntingdon, Northampton, Lincoln, Leicester, Rutland, and even to Stafford, Warwick, and Worcestershire, bought most if not all of their hops at Stourbridge fair.

These are the reasons why so great a quantity of hops are seen at this fair, as that it is incredible, considering, too, how remote from this fair the growth of them is as above.

This supports Ron Pattison’s observations, made on his beer-history blog Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, about shifts in the nomeclature regarding “ale” and “beer” in English usage over the 17th and 18th century. (Ale may have been lightly hopped enough by that point that Defoe thought it wholly unhopped, I’m not sure. I’m still waiting for my copy of Peter Mathias’ The Brewing Industry in England 1700 – 1830, so I’m relying on online sources of information for now.)

Also as interesting in terms of the development of a hop-farming industry in England. Perhaps Stourbridge Fair deserves a place in my current novel project, though we’ll have to see…

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