Why were British brewers in need of foreign hops? Simple. Not enough could be grown locally to meet demand. The same was true of many agricultural products in the 19th century. Industrialisation caused a surge in population growth and drew people away from the countryside. The result was a dependence on imports for many basic foodstuffs.
Between 1857 and 1871, production of beer in the UK rose from 18 million to 26.5 million barrels. That's almost a 50% increase. But the area under hop cultivation didn't increase. In fact hops were only grown in a few areas of Britain: Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Worcestershire and Nottinghamshire. There was little possibility of seriously increasing production. Imports were the only solution.
As Loftus states below, initially Bavarian hops were most popular. By the 1880's this had changed and American hops dominated imports. By the end of the 19th century a sizeable proportion of the USA hop crop was being exported to Britain. Though German hops continued to be used in Britain, even after WW I.
"Of late years, Bavarian and occasionally American hops are getting into general use in this country. It has been found that in ordinary pale ale or bitter beer one-third of common hops may be employed to give the flavour and bitter required, while another and finer kind is resorted to for the superior odour it imparts. The powder or pollen which falls through the meshes of the hair-cloth or wirework of the kiln-floor in the course of the drying is of considerable value to brewers. It is known in the trade as "hop dust," and, when collected free from extraneous matter, is nearly equal in efficacy to the hop itself. In porter brewing especially, a certain amount of this dust may he used with great advantage.
Fumigation with burning sulphur is frequently practised, as in the case of malt, to give hops a pale colour; but the effect of the lingering sulphurous acid is detrimental to the success of fermentation, and hops which have been bleached in this manner, however slightly, should be avoided if possible by the brewer.
The counties of Kent, Sussex, and Hants are the principal sites of the cultivation of the hop-plant in England; a mild, delicate variety is extensively grown in Worcestershire. The Kentish hops have the greatest strength and flavour; the colour of these is a rich, golden yellow, with a greenish shade; when rubbed in the hands they leave yellow traces, exhale a strong, agreeable odour, and are in a marked degree oily and clammy to the touch. "Farnhams" or "Goldings" are the the finest flavoured of all the Kentish hops, but they are not so strong as the best growth of other parts of the county. The Sussex hops possess much of the general characteristics of the Kentish produce, and are esteemed of nearly equal value. "Worcesters," as already stated, are milder than either Sussex or Kents; they have a delicate flavour, and are chiefly used in pale ale and bitter-beer brewing. "Kents" are best for old ales and stout; the crop, however, is uncertain, the plant being one of the most tender cultivated; these hops are the heaviest grown, possess the greatest amount of "condition " and have the smallest flower or leaf. The "Canterbury grape" is a very useful and abundant hop. The kind produced in the district of North Clay in Nottinghamshire, is also in high repute, as having great strength and condition, although coarse in flavour until mellowed by keeping.
Fresh hops are much more valuable than those which have been kept any considerable time. A fourth more is, at least, needed when hops a twelvemonth old are used. At one year old, hops are called "yearlings." At the end of two years they retain little else than the bitter, and are then termed "old hops." After the lapse of three years they receive the name of "old olds."
The best hops are packed in bags or "pockets" made of strong canvas, which when filled weigh from 168 lbs. to 196 lbs. each. The darker and more strongly flavoured are put into coarser sacks, called "hop bags;" these usually weigh about 3 cwt. Hops of this kind are chiefly consumed in porter-brewing.
Nearly the whole of the hop trade for the kingdom, that is, the business of buying and selling on a large scale, is carried on in the Borough of Southwark, London. Owing to the precarious nature of the crop, the amount of annual production of marketable hops is very uncertain, and when an Excise Duty was chargeable on the article, speculation and betting prevailed to an extraordinary degree as to the total of the tax that would be derived from each season's growth.
The importation of foreign hops is rapidly increasing. On the 1st of January, 1862, shortly before the duty was repealed, there were 11,991,2641bs. of foreign hops in bond. In England the number of acres under cultivation for hops has varied from 38,281 to 58 000, and the price per cwt. from £27 10s. in 1817 to as low as £2 15s. in 1848.
In choosing hops the heaviest pockets should always be preferred, as the greater part of the weight is given by the farina or pollen, and it is the abundance of this constituent which mainly determines the value of the hops. As previously observed, the hops should feel clammy when squeezed in the hand, and give out a strong, characteristic odour; the colour should be uniform; there should be no greenish particles in the flowers, and the mass of leaves should be full of hard seeds aud pollen .or "condition."
Mould may be considered as present in the sample if the stalk of the flower is, partly bare of leaf. Rust, proceeding from damp or bad storage, should also be carefully looked for, as it impairs the value more than age.
It is hardly necessary to say, that brown or dark-coloured hops should be used for brown or black beer, and pale hops for pale beers. Hops of a fine straw colour, as having been riper when picked.and better cured or dried on kiln, are generally esteemed the best for pale ale or bitter beer. Fine Sussex or Worcester are well adapted for beer intended for immediate consumption."
"Loftus's Almanack for Brewers, Distillers, and the Wine and Spirit Trades" by William Loftus, 1869, pages 14 - 15.
What else do I want to point out? I know. That the hop trade was based in Southwark. Close to the Barclay Perkins brewery. There's this weeks Barclay perkins reference.
Then there's the variation in price. Hops are susceptible to disease, especially mildew. The harvest varied enormously from year to year, which was reflected in the price. As you can see from the example Loftus, this could vary by a factor of 100 between good and bad years.
Most of the important brewing centres in Britain were well away from hop-growing districts.The only exception was London. Burton, Edinburgh and Dublin were all a long way from hop growers. Yet it didn't seem to have any impact on the quantity of hops they use. Well not if you go by evidence rather than stories.
Farnhams and Goldings were the most valued hops for the whole of the 19th century. Goldings remain highly sought after to this day. It's a remarkable record. Especially of you consider the commercial barley varieties grown today were all developped after WW II. You may remember a quote from a Bass brewer I posted a while ago about the use of Worcester hops in their Pale Ale. There's confirmation of that above.