Oast Houses

Introductionoast cowls
One of the most familiar sights and one that is puzzling to first time visitors to southeast England is the distinctive brick or stone built barns with their round or square towers topped by conical white cowls. These oast houses are a reminder of Britain's once thriving brewing industry.

Oast Houses are mainly found in Kent and parts of East Sussex, which were the heart of the hop growing industry in England. Kent proved to have ideal soil for growing hops, and plenty of wood for the charcoal used in oast houses to dry the hops.

History of brewing
Ale has been brewed in England since Roman times, if not earlier, and many households, especially in the countryside, would have brewed their Beerown ale. Each inn would also have brewed their own drink, which would be distinctive and peculiar to that hostelry. Ale was made from fermented malt, but in the 15th Century beers started to be introduced from the Low Countries that introduced the use of hops to add flavour and aroma and from this the English drink of bitter was developed. Very quickly hops started to be grown in Kent and a brewing industry started to emerge in nearby London.

The brewing industry grew rapidly in the 17th and 18th Centuries. By 1700 commercial breweries had almost entirely replaced the practice of inns brewing their own beverages, and by 1840 there were over 50,000 separate breweries. However, just 40 years later that number had dropped by half and by the turn of the 20th century only about 3,000 breweries were left. Today, after further consolidation there are only about 20 national brewers, some 250 independents and about 150 pubs that brew their own beer, resurrecting the old practice of brewing on site.

Hop Growing
Oast houses were designed to facilitate drying the female flowers of the climbing hop plants, which became a vital ingredient of the brewing industry as the beer took over from ale as the popular English drink.
As bitter grew in popularity, commercial growing techniques for hops were developed. Hops were grown in 'gardens,' which consisted of a wire framework suspended above chestnut posts. From these wires lengths of string were suspended and the shoots of the hop plants were trained up these strings from the hop crowns, planted in the ground. The gardens were strung and maintained by stilt-walkers (a highly specialised job) and the mature hops were harvested by hand in August.

The picking of the crop was very labour intensive and in order to ensure that the hops were picked many workers came from London and stayed in hoppers huts, treating the whole experience as their annual holiday. For many Londoners this would be their only experience of life outside the town and it was a particularly basic existence. The picking was organised by bin-men and paid by the 'tally' -- a token system based on the number of baskets or 'bins' picked by each person.

Once picked, the hops needed to be dried on the day of harvest, and this explains why there are so many oast houses in the main hop growing areas.

Oast Houses
An oast consists of a 'barn' section, together with the distinctive 'kiln' or 'roundel.' Many oasts had more than one roundel and Summerhill Oast is an excellent example of a two roundel oast. Summerhill some years ago

Fresh hops from the gardens were unloaded and taken upstairs in the barn section from where they were taken into the roundel, the upper floor of which consisted of a latticed floor of wood and wire onto which the green hops were laid. A fire was lit below and the air channelled through the floor to dry the hops. The distinctive conical roof of the oast is necessary to create a good draught for the fire. The characteristic projections at the peak of the roof are cowls, the fingers of which act like a wind vane so that they rotate to always have their backs to the prevailing wind, thereby creating just the right airflow for the kiln fire to draw properly and to ensure that the humid air driven off the crop was channelled to the outside. Kilns were fired by wood until the 17th century, then by charcoal and in the 19th century by coal or coke, but later gas and oil-fired burners took over. Before the use of gas or oil the task of maintaining the correct amount of heat to suit the particular crop was considered to be a very skilful job and specialists, called Oasties were employed for the duration of the hop harvest.

The dried hops were then raked out into the upper floor of the barn section to cool before being packed and pressed into large Hessian sacks called pockets, which hung under square holes in the upper floor of the barn section. Above these holes were presses that were used to force the dried hops down into the pockets. Two of these square holes are still visible in Summerhill Oast. The lower floor of the barn area would also have been used to store implements used for harvesting and carts to take the pockets of dried hops away.

The earliest oast kilns were merely converted barns, but then specialised buildings started to evolve, which were usually build with square towers, which were easier to construct. Sometime around 1840 hop growers decided that round kilns would be more efficient, giving a better heat distribution, with no cold corners. Consequently this became the most common design and many of the surviving oasts, of which Summerhill Oast is one, have the round kilns, or roundels. Later on, around 1890, science proved that square kilns were more efficient after all, as well as being cheaper to build, and, as a result, the later oasts are almost all of square design. The familiar and most recognisable feature of the oast house, the white conical cowl with its finger, often decorated with a Kentish Invicta or other design, was replaced as oil and gas fired kins became more common, because they did not have the same requirement for a through draft. Some oasts, particularly on the Kent Sussex border have a simpler, squatter, wooden Derelict Oast chimney type of vent.

In recent years the acreage devoted to growing hops in Britain has fallen dramatically, as imported hops flood the market and hops are today dried industrially. This initially left abandoned oast houses scattered across the former hop growing areas, but in the last twenty years or so many of these historic buildings have been converted for other uses and are particularly desirable as houses. Even those that remain on farms are seldom used for their original purpose, often becoming simply sheds for storage or stables for horses, indeed Summerhill Oast, part of Summerhill Farm, was used variously as a cow shed and an implement shed until its conversion in 1992.