Another Hop Myth

Written by Martyn Cornell for

No they weren’t, and nor were there ever any petitions against hops to Parliament, nor were any general bans on brewers using hops made by Henry VIII, Parliament, the mayors and corporations of Coventry or Norwich, or anybody else.

What did happen was that at different times and in different places between approximately 1440 and 1540 attempts were made to maintain the distinction between (unhopped) ale, the only malted cereal drink made in England before the last quarter of the 14th century, and beer, the hopped malted cereal drink brought into this country by immigrants from the Low Countries and Germany. Various authorities thus forbad the ale brewers – who remained an entirely separate group of men and women from the beer brewers until at least the reign of James I in the 17th century – from putting hops into their ale. Beer brewers, however, were allowed to hop away.

Henry VIII’s ale brewer at Eltham Palace, near London, for example, was apparently instructed in a document dating from January 1530, that was attempting to reform sundry “misuses” in the royal household, not to use hops or brimstone (which would have been used for fumigating casks) when brewing. Similarly the regulations laid down by the Treasurer of the Household at another of Henry’s palaces, Hampton Court, in 1539 included a rule that the ale brewers “put neither Hoppes nor Brimstone in their ale in the pipes [120-gallon casks], soe that it may be found good, wholesome and perfect stuff and worth the King’s money.”

But Henry did not “outlaw the use of hops”, as, for example, Ian Hornsey claims in his A History of Beer and Brewing – quite the opposite. As well as an ale brewer, Bluff King Hal had a beer brewer, to supply the royal household with the hopped drink. The royal beer brewer’s work was important enough for him to be given special privileges. John Pope, Henry VIII’s personal beer brewer in 1542, received permission to have as many as 12 “persons born out of the King’s Dominions” (meaning, almost certainly, beer-brewing experts from the Low Countries) working in his household “for the said feat of beer-brewing”, even though Tudor law said no Englishman should employ more than four foreigners at a time. The Tudor army ran on hopped beer when it was campaigning: in July 1544, for example, during an English invasion of Picardy, the commander of Henry VIII’s forces complained that his army was so short of supplies they had drunk no beer “these last ten days, which is strange for English men to do with so little grudging.”

Several municipalities also passed laws forbidding the ale brewers to use hops, but again, it was specifically only the ale brewers who were affected, and beer brewers were still free to hop their drink. In Norwich in March 1471 the “common ale brewers of this citi”, who were evidently copying the habits of the beer brewers, were ordered by the mayor and council not to brew “nowther with hoppes nor gawle [sweet gale] nor noon other thing … upon peyne of grevous punysshment.”

In 1483 the London ale brewers, again trying to maintain the difference between (unhopped) ale and (hopped) beer, persuaded the city authorities to rule that in order for ale to be brewed in “the good and holesome manner of bruying of ale of old tyme used”, no one should “put in any ale or licour [water] whereof ale shal be made or in the wirkyng and bruying of any maner of ale any hoppes, herbes or other like thing but only licour, malt and yeste.” But beer brewing was not banned: only 10 years later the beer brewers of London received permission from the City authorities to set up their own guild or fellowship of “berebruers” to regulate the craft. Similarly the mayor and aldermen of Coventry forbad the use of hops in “all” (ale), not beer, in 1520.

Unfortunately in the 17th century writers began to assert the existence of “petitions”, particularly “petitions to Parliament” against the hop. Walter Blith, for example, writing in 1653 in a book on agriculture called The English Improver Improved, claimed that: “It is not many years since the famous City of London petitioned against two nuisances, and these were Newcastle coals, in regard of their stench, &c, and hops, in regard they would spoil the taste of drink and endanger the people.”

A decade later, in 1662, Thomas Fuller in The History of the Worthies of England, wrote that hops were “not so bitter in themselves, as others have been against them, accusing hops for noxious; preserving beer, but destroying those who drink it. These plead the petition presented in parliament in the reign of King Henry the Sixth, against the wicked weed called hops.”

Dozens – possibly hundreds – of writers since have repeated Fuller’s claim that there was a Parliamentary petition against the use of hops. Others have tried to stop the tide by pointing out the complete lack of evidence to back Fuller’s assertion: in 1843, for example, 164 years ago, Albert Wat wrote in a book published by the British Museum that “no record of the prohibition [on using hops] has been found, and the petition does not appear on the Rolls of Parliament.”

That did not prevent Frederick Hackwood, for example, insisting in 1911, in Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England. “Henry VI had prohibited the brewers from using hops, and the prohibition was repeated by Henry VIII.” But Hackwood was more than wrong: he was 180 degrees out. As we have seen, Henry VIII’s household, and his army, drank hopped beer, and Henry VI was also a good friend of the beer brewers: in 1436, when the ruler of much of the Low Countries, the Duke of Burgundy, was at war with England, nationalistic Englishmen began circulating rumours in London that the “biere” brewed by Hollanders and Selanders was harmful and unhealthy. Henry VI ordered the sheriffs of London “to make proclamation for all brewers of biere within their bailiwick to continue to exercise their art as hitherto, notwithstanding the malevolent attempts that were being made to prevent natives of Holland and Seland and others who occupied themselves in brewing the drink called biere from continuing their trade, on the ground that such drink was poisonous and not fit to drink, and caused drunkenness, whereas it was a wholesome drink, especially in summer time.”

In common with other types of urban myth, the “ban on hops” appears in print with many variations: a book called A General View of the Agriculture of the County of Somerset , published in 1794, said that “a petition was presented against [the hop] to parliament, in the year 1528, in which it is stigmatised as a most pernicious and wicked weed; and the national vengeance was requested to be hurled at the heads of those who should propagate it on their lands.”

The magazine Notes and Queries, in an entry in the edition for September 27 1856, turns this into a claim that ” in 1528 [hops’] use was prohibited under severe penalties.” But as with the “petition to Parliament” said to have been made in Henry VI’s reign, no trace of this petition, or ban, appears in the Parliamentary records. The phrase “a pernicious and wicked weed” turns up again, reversed, as “a wicked and pernicious weed” in 1805 in a report on an alleged ban on hops in Shrewsbury in 1519, and later writers have seized and paraded it: Charles Bamforth in Beer: Tap into the Art and Science of Brewing in 1998, for example. But there is no known contemporary Tudor document that uses the phrase.

It took three centuries from the first arrival of hopped beer in England for the drink to wipe out its unhopped rival, and for ale and beer to become, almost synonyms (though beer, even in the 19th century, frequently meant a hoppier drink than ale). It makes a good story to write about attacks on hops as “wicked” and bans by kings and parliaments. Alas, the actual evidence does not back up the stories.

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