Hops have been grown in Sussex for around 500 years, meaning that oast houses have been a key feature of the Sussex landscape for half a millennia!
Our nation’s love of beer all started at Sussex’s Winchelsea harbour around the 1400s as the first recorded imports of hopped beer began arriving on British soil. This beer typically came from the Netherlands and Belgium and the flavourful imported beer gradually became the tipple of choice for many, not least because it lasted a lot longer and was often stronger than the local brew.
Hop growing soon took off across Sussex and Kent and the traditional English ale, which relied on herbs and spices to give it flavour, was mostly replaced by this new hopped beer. The demand for hopped beer only increased in the following centuries and by the 1700s London was regularly producing over a million barrels a year of the much-loved drink. Hop production in Sussex hit its peak during the 19th century, and records show that in 1835 a substantial 11,380 acres of Sussex countryside had been devoted to the growing of hops. And all that hop growing and subsequent drying would have meant a lot of oast house building!
Great Dixter in East Sussex offers visitors a taste of what a traditional working oast house would have felt like. Their renovated 500-year-old Great Barn and its adjoining oast houses offer a glimpse into the county’s past. The current oast house was built in the 1890s – sadly nothing remains of the original oast house – and the dates of the yearly hop drying seasons, from 1892 through to 1938, are still scrawled on the wooden joists.
The majority of oast houses in Sussex are scattered around the High Weald AONB. One of the best ways to explore the area is by bike. The Oasts and Orchards cycle route winds its way through the undulating East Sussex countryside and past the area’s famous oast houses. The bright white cowls are an impressive feature of the landscape and give you a good sense of what this area would have looked like when it was in its hop growing heyday.
Hop growing has declined in Sussex and many of the county’s original oast houses have been converted into homes, businesses and tourist attractions, but hop growing and brewing still remain a quintessential part of Sussex industry. In the past few years numerous microbreweries have popped up across the county and incredibly in 2005, a new hop was discovered growing wild in one of the county’s hedgerows – the aptly named Sussex.
Don’t miss our article on the history behind Kent’s oast houses too.