A brief history of Sussex’s oast houses

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.

Image Source: Rye News

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 Oast
Image source: Great Dixter

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.

battle oast house sussex restoration

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What is an oast house?

A question we get asked from time to time is, what actually is an oast house?

For us, there couldn’t be a better symbol of Kent than an oast house. Their striking shape dots the countryside skyline, providing some Instagram worthy shots – but what exactly are they?

In a nutshell, an oast house or hop kiln is a building created to dry hops as part of the brewing process.

Oast houses or hop kilns have played a huge part in the agricultural history of both the county and the country. And, at the heart of their fascinating origins is one of the nation’s favourite tipples – beer!

Starting from the top, what are hops? Hops are the flowering clusters of a plant called Humulus Lupulus and they give beer its distinctive flavour and aroma. Like grapes in wine, hops come in different varieties, each with its own characteristic. For centuries, the garden of England produced hops on an industrial scale, bringing life and prosperity to the countryside – and building on mass the oast houses seen all over Kent.

Side note: If you want to know a bit more about Kent’s oast houses, please have a read at our previous blog post.

Ok, but what do hops have to do with oast houses?

After enjoying a long summer basking in the English sunshine (in theory), hops are harvested around September. But, before they can be popped into any brews, they need to be dried. That is where the oast houses come in.

When hops are picked, they have a moisture content of 80% – which is no good for brewing. However, after an oast house has worked its magic, the amount of moisture in them goes down to a tiny 6%.

oast house history

How did a traditional oast house work?

Sitting on the ground floor of the roundel was a furnace, halfway up the tower was a slatted ceiling covered by a horsehair cloth, then above that a cone-shaped roof, and at the very top a cowl.

First, the hops were placed across the slatted ceiling. The furnace was then lit, and as the heat rose through the slatted ceiling, moisture was removed from the plants. The excess steam rose through the conical roof and out through the cowl. Not only did the cowl act as a very effective vent it was also rotated by a wind vane, ensuring that air was always circulating throughout the roundel and that the hot air had a clear path out of the oast.

Henden Manor Oast Cowl image

After the hops were deemed to be dry, they were shovelled out and placed onto the barn floor to cool. Once ready to be packed, they were pressed into large jute bags and sent to market. Just like today, brewers would not just throw any old hop into their beer so, by law, each batch was labelled with the grower’s details. This ensured that the much-loved Kentish beer would never be compromised.

As the hop growing industry in Kent declined and imported hops fell into favour, the use of oast houses declined too. Now, many of these wonderfully clever contraptions have a new lease of life as beloved homes!

Dude & Arnette are the UK’s market leader for oast cowl manufacturing, restoration and repairs. We have been the go-to family business for oast house owners since 1937.

Sue & Les Hart - Cowl