Monday, 17 May 2021

The History of Hop Growing in Ireland - Part 3: The 20th Century to Date

'Hops can, no doubt, be grown in Ireland, but the enthusiast who should endeavour to make hop-growing a staple Irish industry would not be long in finding his way to the nearest lunatic asylum.'

In this, the last of the trilogy where I straighten the history of hop growing in Ireland (It starts here), we will look at the 20th century with a nod to the current one. We will see plans – both big and small - to set up hop farms either side of this country’s independence before we hit the most productive decades of commercial hop-growing in Ireland – or at least recorded hop-growing – where I can quote varieties grown, acreage, yield and even alpha acid content with a certain degree of accuracy from the hop-growing co-op of a sort that existed in Kilkenny for almost 40th years.

But first let us go back to the start of the 1900s and some reported endeavours to start a hop industry in the country, or at the very least a hop-garden or two...

1906 - A reader called 'Fidelis' from Graiguenamanagh wrote to the editor of the New Ross Standard, intent on trying to start a hop garden and looking for advice. He also felt that any farmers living near a country town should plant a hop field as 'there are plenty of poor people who would find the work of picking the hops a pleasant change in their yearly life' - I am unsure if he received any replies or whether any poor people took up his offer…

However, a follow-up letter appeared the next month in which Fidelis talks about a trip to England to his cousin’s farm and a discussion with hop brokers in London, where they tell him that soil is not the issue when growing hops but 'the atmosphere in which they are grown.' He says that they have not yet been tried in Ireland, which we now know is not true of course. But he then mentions that his cousin has 'grubbed up all the hops on his farm' as they were too labour intensive, and the price varied too much - but even knowing this the author still wants to pursue the idea of Irish hops further. (He also mentions, as an aside, that the 'Irish Militia regiments prefer the beer they are accustomed to, and there is now a large trade in Waterford and Kilkenny beer with Plymouth and Portsmouth.')

1908 - In an article in a Kilkenny newspaper the following sentence appears that I’m sure many would agree with over all of the centuries of hop growing. 'Hops can, no doubt, be grown in Ireland, but the enthusiast who should endeavour to make hop-growing a staple Irish industry would not be long in finding his way to the nearest lunatic asylum.' This is a reaction to a report that they were unprofitable even in England at this time and that imports into that country were affecting the price of the crop, although there is also a comment about the lack of much-needed sunshine in Ireland.

1909 - An article ran in The Dublin Evening Telegraph wondering why hops were not being grown in Ireland and interviewed a Mr. R. Grant of 46 Bessborough Avenue, North Strand, Dublin who was growing hops, but not it seems on a commercial scale. (A look at maps of the period would suggest he had a small garden but there was room behind - although I would suggest that like me just had some in his small garden or perhaps a separate allotment.) He comments on their history and requirements but does say they are 'profitable but at the same time a troublesome crop. No crop is more affected by the weather, nor more subject to destruction from blight, or attacks of insects. The profits on the other hand, in some cases have amounted to £100 per acre, and the average value of hop lands has been estimated at about £10 per acre.’

1911 - Taken from the London Standard, an article in the Donegal Independent about a 'novel German invasion' of Ireland where a German-American 'nobleman' called Baron von Horst - a 'well known Californian magnate' who was allegedly one of the biggest hop growers in America, had purchased 200 acres of land in Ireland - near Limerick allegedly - with the intention of starting a large hop farm here and had contracted 1,100 German workman to assist him in his endeavour! He proposed that the Germans would teach the locals how to grow hops and that he had even selected three varieties he deemed suitable for the climate - sadly they are not listed by name…

But an additional part to the vision of Baron von Horst printed in a different newspaper says of the varieties selected, 'These are male grafts from the vines in Northern New York State in America and from the famous hop-fields of Bohemia joined with female roots specially selected form his fields in California. This combination the baron is convinced will ultimately produce superior vines and a characteristic product which will be known, in spite of the alien nature of its introduction, as "Irish hops"'. So, it sounds like he had already bred a hop variety from this parentage, as if he were only starting at this point there would be a fair wait for any crop …

1913 - The Limerick Industrial Association announced in the Freeman’s Journal that they were getting a free consignment of hop roots from Baron von Horst for farmers to trial.

This whole endeavour deserves a separate post and more work than I’m prepared to give it here – I’ll return to it at a later date…

1914 - A slightly bizarre advertisement appears in an English newspaper for 'A man capable of growing hops, to undertake growing hops in Ireland. Must be an Irishman.'

Back in Ireland the farming section of the Weekly Freeman's Journal raises doubt on the ability to ripen hop cones successfully in this climate and states that it is quite a technical crop regarding setting poles and pest control that would require special training. It then states that there is no market for home-grown hops as brewers will only place orders where they can be sure of a certain quantity and quality – a fair comment I would say. The writer of the article states that they 'do not recommend you to attempt hop growing on a business scale.’

1932 - An amateur hop grower with 30 years’ experience named Robert Ginn from Castlelyons in east Cork wrote into the Cork Examiner suggesting that we should start (or restart as we have seen) a hop industry here. He claims that his hops are as good or better than those grown in Kent and he had always had abundant crops.

1933 - An article in the Irish Press states that the Department of Agriculture were looking at the possibility of growing hops in 'suitable locations' such as Cork, Killarney, and Dublin. There were hops growing in the garden of a Mr. T. J. Geary in Sutton, Dublin and at the Botanic Gardens where the Keeper stated they 'grew splendidly' and he knew of no reason they could not be grown commercially here.

1930s - An experimental but unsuccessful attempt was made to grow hops in Ireland according to a 1963 newspaper article with no references – this may be related to the above mention.

1962 - Experiment carried out by An Foras TalĂșntais (the then agricultural development authority) in to hop growing in Ireland at Dungarvan yielded 84 cwt (hundredweight) of dried hops - which is roughly 4,200 kg - worth £29 per cwt. Yields grossed £580 per acre and expenses were heavy. It cost £600 per acre to establish the crop and it was susceptible to bad weather, pests, virus, and mildew - the 1961 crop was a total loss - but they were going to assess where might be suitable or better suited in the country.

1963 - Three experimental hop plots totalling 38 acres were planted in the spring of this year according to a 1966 report in The Irish Press.

1964 - A notice appears in the Kilkenny People from the Chief Agricultural Officer that 'the first commercial hop gardens in Ireland have now been planted in Co. Kilkenny' and asking members of the public to let them know of any wild hop plants, which were known to be growing in the area, as they may carry pests or diseases.

1965 - According to the Kilkenny People, Edgar Calder-Potts of Highbank Farm in Cuffesgrange in Kilkenny was harvesting 22 acres of hops and hoped to increase it to 37 acres the following year. Harvesting took 2 weeks, and 11 women and 16 men were engaged in the work, although the hops were harvested by machine. There were also three other growers in the county. Messrs. Stanley and Pat Mosse, and Captain A. Tupper (of Lyrath) all growing for the Guinness brewery. Mr Calder Potts was expecting to pack 100 bags of one and a half hundredweight each. The first crop was in 1964 and both years’ harvests were of good quality according to the horticultural instructor Michael Power, who helped greatly with the project.

1966 - There was a total of 58 acres of hops between the four Kilkenny growers with a further 30 to be added in 1967 - initial expenditure was in the region of £1,500 per acre according to an article by Maurice Liston in The Irish Press. The poles were being supplied by the Forestry Department and the wire, anchor rods and other items apart from the machinery were being produced in the country. Yields and quality compared favourably with English grown hops. Yield is reported here at 15 cwt per acre and the return was £35 per cwt. The varieties grown are predominantly Fuggle with Northern Brewer only being introduced in that year. The Mosses had a new drying unit for the hops containing 20ft by 30ft kilns and a lot of investment had taken place into the industry in this area. A survey carried out by the Agricultural Institute had found more suitable sites in northern Kilkenny and there were indications - according to the article - that the project would further expand. This all appeared incredibly positive at this point and there was a huge amount of enthusiasm, work and commitment coming out of this newspaper report.

Interestingly there were 426 cwt imported into England from Ireland – the first mention in the Barth report for Irish hops that I can find – I’m assuming that as Guinness had the contract for all of the Kilkenny hops that these perhaps were shipped over to Park Royal brewery, but I have no actual proof of that.

A quick note on the Barth reports that chronicle hop growing in Germany and around the world for over a hundred years. The finding of these, many of which are published in English, were a huge help with most of the facts and figures that follow here. (You can take it that this is the source I use for the rest of this post unless I state otherwise and I will put the link to their archive at the bottom of this post.)

1967 - It is reported that 794 cwt of hops imported into England from Ireland.

1968 - It is reported that this year 162 cwt of hops imported into England from Ireland

1969 - The Co. Wexford Federation of Rural Organisations discussed the concept of hop growing in the county but ‘investigation revealed that no future prospects in this field were envisaged, especially as trials were being conducted presently in Co. Kilkenny’ according to a local paper.

No mention of the crop itself in the Barth report but 99 cwt of hops were imported into England. 

1970 - The Barth report states that 119 acres of land were in hop production this year in Kilkenny, that strong winds damaged the crop, and that picking went from September the 4th to the 23rd, with the harvest being brought in by 3 machines. The quality was not as good as the previous year with 60% being Class I and 40% Class II and 988 cwt were harvested. England imported 122 cwts of Irish hops this year. (For reference again 1 cwt  -hundredweight - is approximately 50 kilograms.)

1971 - The Farmer’s Journal reports on the hop harvest under way in Kilkenny where Anthony Tupper grows 39 acres of hops in Lyrath. The article goes into some detail regarding the cost of setting up the hop production and ongoing expenses and points out that margins are very tight but at least expenses can be shared to a degree by adopting a co-operative system with like-minded individuals, which is what appear to have happened in Kilkenny.

The good weather that year had a favourable affect on the crop, especially the lack of strong winds. the harvest was 1,593 cwt [I am not positive about this figure.] and the acreage increased slightly to 28 acres of Fuggles and 30 acres of WFB 135 (Northern Brewer), with Fuggles being gradually replaced. 43 cwt of the crop was exported to England this year.

1972 - Poor weather and a lack of hop pickers hampered the harvest this year, but 55.7 tonnes (1, 096 cwt) of hops were brought in from a slight reduction of acreage to 138 acres, of which 62 acres were Fuggles and 76 acres were Northern Brewe,r as Fuggles was being replaced by ‘a better bittering hop.’ 

This year 23 cwt were exported to England, and just for context 7,279 cwt were exported from England to Ireland.

1973 - This was a good growing year with hardly any problems with pests or disease, but the crop was smaller than expected given the increased acreage. there were 67 acres of Fuggles and 77 acres of Northern Brewer – Bullion is also being introduced. No hops were exported to England this year.

1974 - A wet, windy and cold year meant that the crop was not as good as normal. The breakdown was 46 acres of Fuggles, 91 acres of Northern Brewer and 1 acre of Bullion – 61 tonnes were harvested. (The reporting of any imports into England whatsoever finished up in the report around this time, also the report changed to tonnes from this year onwards, so I’ve used that figure, but I have converted the areas to acres instead of the published hectares.)

1975 - A hot summer this year had a negative effect on the yield although the report also says that the harvest was 69.6 tonnes, which was more than what was reported the previous year so perhaps some of these figures may be a little off. The alpha content was higher than the previous year. The area in production dropped to 128 acres – 38 acres for Fuggles, 89 acres for Northern Brewer and 1 acre for Bullion. Northdown hops were also being introduced this year.

A report in the Irish Press says that Ireland’s hop farmers could get grants of £10,000 from the E.E.C. and that ‘they have now been invited by the Department of Agriculture to make their applications for this unexpected aid.’ Although according to the Barth report of this year, income supplements were paid in 1973 and 1974 too.

1976 - Another dry summer had a detrimental effect on the crop and the yield was down 13% to 61 tonnes although the alpha content was above average. Hops are still only being grown in Kilkenny according to the Barth report, on 156 acres – 39 ½ acres of Fuggles, 114 acres Northern Brewer, ½ acre of Bullion and 2 acres Northdown.

1977 - A relatively good year weather-wise saw the crop increase by 30% on the previous year, although the lack of sunshine meant the alpha acids were a little low, particularly in Bullion and Fuggles. 7 extra acres of Northern Brewer were planted increasing the total are to 163 acres which yielded 84 tonnes.

1978 - An outstanding year for the quality of the hops although the yield was down 13.5% to 72.5 tonnes. With the alpha on Bullion and Northdown matching the English ones and Fuggles and Northern brewer substantially higher.

1979 - 146 acres were in cultivation, with the area given to Fuggles and Northern Brewer reduced slightly. Picking was delayed due to weather issues, but the yield was back up to 82 tonnes alpha was 10 % lower than the previous years apart from Northdown. The entire crop is still being taken by Guinness.

1980 - After a cool and wet summer picking had to be delayed by a week to help with ripening. 75 ½ tonnes were harvested and judged to be Class I. The alpha values were 12% above the previous year in all varieties apart from Bullion. The hop acreage was enlarged back to 163 acres with increases space for Northdown and Northern Brewer so that the Kilkenny growers now had 29 acres of Fuggles, 118 acres of Northern Brewer, 15 ½ acres of Northdown and a tiny ½ acre of Bullion.

1981 - 178 acres in cultivation yielding 76.9 tonnes. (The report also says that there was 185 acres yielding 76.5 tonnes in 1980, which contradicts the information in last year’s report.) From this point there are no reports on hop growing in Ireland in the Barth report apart from two figures for acreage and yield, this went on for more than a decade.

Here they are …

1982 - 185 acres and 75 tonnes.

1983 - 188 acres. and 109.7 tonnes

1984 - 188 acres 109.7 tonnes again – not likely to match exactly the previous year so I suspect it is an error

1985 - 178 acres and 86.5 tonnes

1986 - 84 acres and 17.2 tonnes

1987 - 84 acres and 43.3 tonnes

1988 - 54 acres and 28 tonnes

1989 - 54 acres and 25.6 tonnes

1990 - 42 acres and 34 tonnes

1991 - 30 acres and 17.9 tonnes

1992 - 30 acres and 20.8 tonnes

1993 - 32 acres and 19 tonnes

1994 - 30 acres and 16.5 tonnes, and this year we get a brief report to say that there is just one hop grower left in Ireland and just one variety – Northdown, and it was to get worse …

1995 - 15 acres and 10.3 tonnes

1996 - 15 acres and 8.3 tonnes. (Lett's of Enniscorthy claim in a local newspaper that the Wexford Cream ale they were brewing at Greene King in Norfolk was 'made with Irish hops and Irish malt.’ – if true this surely must be Kilkenny hops?)

1997 - 15 acres and 8.8 tonnes, the report now shows the alpha content, this year it was 10%

1998 - 15 acres and 9.5 tonnes - alpha 10.6%

1999 - 15 acres and 8.4 tonnes - alpha 9.2%

2000 - 7.5 acres and 2.7 tonnes - 11% alpha. There was a note regarding subsidies available of €3,360 this year.

2001 - 7.5 acres and 2.4 tonnes - 11% alpha. Subsidies dropped to €1,104

2002 – In one last, almost poignant, footnote the Barth hop report tells us:

‘Hops were grown in Ireland until 2001, latterly on an area of only 3 ha. As of 2002 production has ceased.’

And that was it, the end of a great idea that appears to have been professionally executed and doing relatively well for a time, and I’d imagine those reported issues with yield, damage and varying quality were similar to other countries – and better than some. But, from a peak of 188 acres, 4 hop varieties and 110 tonnes in 1984 the Kilkenny hop production - our Irish hop production - dropped like a stone in a little over a decade and a half to just 7 ½ acres and 2.4 tonnes of Northdown at its sad demise in 2001. To analyse what happened would take a separate post, some interviews and delving deeper than I have done here. I’d imagine it was a number of factors - mostly to do with financial viability - but you can hear Simon Mosse that last grower speaking here about that hop growing period in Kilkenny in an interview from 2011.

The Calder-Potts family at Highbank are still connected with drink with their Cider range and distilling amongst other products - here is their website, and it does mention their hop growing.

Lyrath estate changed hands and became a hotel  - it has a bar called 'Tupper's'...

So where to next? Well, the new breed of microbrewers were next to start growing hops, lead by White Gypsy who were the first of the new batch of hop farmers and were followed by others including Wicklow Wolf, Canvas, Farmageddon and Ballykilcavan, and at one point Hop Social were using their community grown hops at Rascals in Dublin. I am not sure if some of these hop initiatives have survived the last couple of strange years, but perhaps this smaller more manageable way of doing things is the future of hop growing in Ireland on anything resembling a commercial scale?

Regardless of where we go from here, I have shown that we can – and did - grow hops in this country, although question marks remain over the commercial viability of the crops. What is very evident in all of this is how much we have forgotten of our hop-growing history – even those relatively recent forays into the industry. This is partially because regardless of the large-sounding acreage mentioned at times in these posts we really were operating on a tiny scale compared to other countries, but we did do it, and that is worth recording.

The other reason we have forgotten so much is because we are poor curators of our edible and drinkable history. Perhaps too many history writers prefer to wallow in the endless tragedy of death, revolution and oppression than look behind those tall walls of woe into how we lived, what we ate or drank, and what we grew on our small island? I'm not sure, but I would argue we could and should do both…

So perhaps we peaked too early in our endeavours to be self-sufficient hop growers, or maybe we could not get up to the acreage needed for profitability, or the climate was unsuitable, or it could be that our timing was poor ... or were we just not good enough growers? No, that certainly was not the case – we are good growers in this country…

Regardless, I would love to be able to wander through acres and acres of tall hop fields on a warm, late summer evening, past pretty modern-takes on oast houses, sipping a beer and rolling nearly-ripe cones between two fingers, the delicate smell of hops in the air and the last of the summer swallows flitting between the hop bines…

But then again, I always was more of a romantic than a realist…

Thanks for reading.


P.S. I have purposely omitted the actual sources of exact newspaper mentions as there are quite a few and it was pain-staking research, but if anyone needs them please email or DM me and I’ll send you on the details.

The Barth reports are here, I couldn't find many of them in English without manipulating the address. Contact me if you have any problems finding what you need. 

All written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission, full credit to its source and a link back to this post.

Top newspaper image Dublin Evening Telegraph - Tuesday 14 September 1909 © The British Library Board - All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive ( from whom I have received permission to display here. The image below is from the hop fields in Highbank from the Irish Press from September 14th 1966 via my local library.

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