They are only there for the beer

DESPITE LIVING IN KENT for eleven years and having visited the county numerous times, it was only in October 2021 that I first stepped inside an oast house. Dotted all over the county with their tall conical (sometimes pyramidical) roofs surmounted by distinctive cowls, they play(ed) an important role in the production of beers.

An oast house with conical roof

Hops are the flowers (or seed cones) of the hop plant known by botanists as Humulus lupulus, a member of the Cannabaceae family of plants, whose members include Cannabis, the plant which is the source of marijuana. Only the flowers of the female hop plant are used in beer making. When dried to a well-defined degree, hops are added to the beer-making process both to add flavour and because of their antibacterial effects that prevent unwanted organisms growing whilst the beer is being brewed.

Traditionally in England, hops are dried out in oast houses. Picked hops are laid out on perforated drying floors in the upper levels of the oast house. A wood or charcoal fired kiln on the ground floor of the oast house produces hot air that drifts upwards through the layers of drying hops and then escapes through the cowl at the top of the oast house’s conical roof. The cowl has a vane that catches the wind and rotates the cowl so that the wind continuously draws the smoke from the kiln up through the oast house. The air that carries the smoke upwards is drawn into the oast house through perforations in the brickwork at the lower levels of the building. The tall conical design of the roof increases the draught of air through the hops. The drying process must be carefully monitored so that the hops are removed before they are dried out too much.

The earliest known record of hop cultivation was in a document dated 736 AD. It referred to hops being grown in Germany. The use of hops in beer production seems to have taken off in a big way by the 13th century. Before hops became used routinely in beer production, a mixture of herbs and flowers, known as ‘gruit’, was used for the same reason as hops. In Germany, hops became favoured over gruit in the early 16th century because unlike the latter, which were subject to taxation, the former were not (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hops).

Hops were introduced to England during the 16th century. The oldest description of an oast house (more accurately, a building for drying hops) was written in 1574. What was described was different in design to what we recognise as an oast house today. The earliest surviving oast house was built sometime during the following century. Today, hops are no longer dried in oast houses. They are processed in industrial premises that are not nearly as picturesque as oast houses, many of which have now been repurposed as dwellings and for other uses.

On the estate of Sissinghurst Castle, a former manor house rather than a castle, a set of former oast houses has been tastefully modified by the National Trust to create an exhibition space that includes information about oast houses and hop drying. Although the kilns are no longer present, the internal structures of the tall roofs have been preserved. By entering the exhibition space, I managed to see inside an oast house for the first time. I would be curious to see within an oast house that still contains its kiln and other equipment, but what I saw at Sissinghurst began to quench my thirst for knowledge about these curious looking buildings, which were only there for the beer and can be seen throughout the landscape of Kent.

The writing on the wall

WE USED TO DRIVE to France during the early 1960s when I was a child and before the M2 motorway was in use. The first part of the drive was from London to Dover and prior to the opening of the M2, it was a slow journey because the main road went through numerous small towns in Kent instead of bypassing them, which the M2 does. To break the tedium of the lengthy drive, I used to count how many Esso filling stations we passed as well as the number of Fremlin signs along the road. I liked the name Fremlin, but in my childhood, I was unaware that this was the name of a brewery based in Maidstone (Kent) and founded in 1861. It is a long time since I passed the time on journeys by counting signs such as Esso and Fremlins, whose name appealed to me. Recently, we drove through the centre of Hertford (in Hertfordshire) and I spotted several buildings bearing a name that intrigued me because we have friends with the same name (as surname). The name is McMullen and it, like Fremlins, is the name of a brewery.

Peter McMullen (1791-1881), the son of a Scottish nurseryman, founded his first brewery at Railway Street in Hertford in 1827. It was his wife’s idea. She suggested that it would be better to open a brewery rather than to continue his hitherto rather unsatisfactory life poaching and undertaking failed apprenticeships (www.mcmullens.co.uk/about-us/our-history).  Given that the first railway station opened in Hertford in 1843 (www.hertford.net/history/railway.php), Railway Street must have had another name when the brewery was established. The business was expanded in 1860 by his sons Alexander and Osmond McMullen, when they took over the brewery. They bought some other breweries and opened several pubs run by tenants. By 1910, McMullen was one of 1284 brewing companies that were in business in the UK. By the 21st century, it was one of the 38 of these that remains.  Now in 2021, it is run by the sixth generation of Peter McMullen’s family (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McMullen%27s_Brewery).

One of the first beers brewed by Mcmullen, which has been available since 1833, was Mcmullen AK. This and several other brews are cask ales. The company also produces bottled beers including McMullen Hertford Castle, which is named after Hertford Castle, where Queen Elizabeth I visited frequently during both her childhood and her reign. The castle still exists: the remains of an early motte; Norman encircling walls; the so-called Gatehouse, built by Henry VIII; and other more recent additions. Incidentally, the Castle was the home of The East India Company College between 1805 and 1809, which then moved to Hailey, also in Hertforshire. The college’s presence in Hertford was before McMullen began producing beer in the town.

The company produce an IPA (Indian Pale Ale), suitable for exporting to tropical climes, but I do not know whether this was ever shipped out to India. The company’s history relates:

“The McMullen relationship with IPA can be traced back to the 1800’s when Peter McMullen recorded the brewing of an East India Pale Ale with connotations of the brew being commissioned to quench the thirst of the British Army at the East India Company College originally in Hertford.” (www.mcmullens.co.uk/blog/2019/04/mcmullen-rebranding#.YJKaSrVKhPY)

Well, you do not have to travel as far as India to sample beer brewed by McMullen. It can be drunk in pubs in the English counties of Hertfordshire, Essex, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Middlesex, Berkshire, Bedfordshire, and more (www.mcmullens.co.uk/our-locals).

After seeing the name of our friends prominently displayed on buildings in Hertford, I rang them and asked them whether they are related to the brewing family. As far as they know, they are not, but they did tell me that there used to be a pub near where they live in north London, which did serve McMullen’s beers, but sadly that has now gone out of business.

Next time, we visit the charming town of Hertford, one of the things I plan to do, which I have not yet done, is to sample some of McMullen’s beer or maybe beers.

PS: One building prominently bearing the name McMullen in Hertford was part of a former seed merchants, A McMullen, established by a brother of Peter Mc Mullen.

Beer and biryani in Hampstead High Street

MANY PEOPLE HAVE FAVOURITE restaurants. My parents were no exceptions. Amongst the restaurants they frequented often in London during the early 1960s were Mon Plaisir in Monmouth Street; Otello in Soho; Cellier du Midi in Hampstead; and the Tung Hsing in Golders Green, one of the first restaurants in London to serve ‘Pekinese’ cuisine. For Indian food, they patronised the Shahbhag in Hampstead High Street. 135 feet west of that still extant restaurant there is an archway decorated with sculptures depicting sheaves of barley and an inscription that reads:

“Established 1720. BREWERY. Rebuilt 1869”

The archway is at the street entrance of a covered cobbled lane that leads to a converted Victorian industrial building, now named ‘Clive House’, within a yard of varying width. The yard contains a well-head covering a well that looks quite old, and certainly not of recent construction.

The brewery was that of the ‘Hampstead Brewery Co. Ltd’ founded in 1720 by John Vincent (died 1755).  In about 1713, Vincent, already a landowner, acquired the Jack Straws Castle pub near Hampstead’s Whitestone Pond (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp66-71). He founded the brewery behind a pub called the “King of Bohemia’s Head” in 1720. In 1733, he was granted a 33-year lease of a spring by the trustees of an estate in Hampstead, which contained it and other wells including those with curative mineral waters. It was:

“…used only to supply the Vincents’ brewery in High Street and a few adjoining houses, was of little value to anyone other than the brewer.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp169-172).

Thomas J Barratt, a historian of Hampstead, wrote (in 1912) that Vincent selfishly believed that:

“… he could utilise the water to his own profit and the benefit of some of his neighbours; therefore, with the leave of the trustees, he laid down pipes and conveyed water from the pond not only to his brewery but also to a number of better-class houses in the town. He charged the householders for the water, and no doubt did well out of the transaction; but when, after many years, the Chancery decree brought about a day of reckoning he was ordered to pay £322 for arrears of rent, and the water was advertised to be let to the highest bidder. When Gayton Road, a thoroughfare now connecting Well Walk with High Street, was being formed, remains of the pipes conveying this water to the brewery were discovered a few feet below the surface.”

In addition to the brewery, Vincent acquired much other property in Hampstead including several pubs. On his death in 1755, Vincent’s brewery and other properties passed to his younger son Robert, who is thought to have continued running the brewery with his elder brother Richard (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp111-130). Richard entered Wadham College, Oxford, in April 1736 and became a barrister (Inner Temple) in 1743 (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Alumni_Oxoniensis_(1715-1886)_volume_4.djvu/270).

In 1787, Robert’s widow Elizabeth became involved in running the business and some of the Vincents’ pubs in Hampstead including the ‘George’, the ‘Black Boy’, and the ‘Coach and Horses’. She retained an interest in the brewery until 1812, which is well after it was taken over by Messrs Shepheard and Buckland in 1797. The brewery was rebuilt in 1869 with two shopfronts on the High Street, and by the 1880s, it was owned by Mure & Co. In 1928, the company had 184 employees, but it closed in about 1931. Reffell’s Bexley Brewery acquired it in 1931 (https://builtforbrewing.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/on-hampstead-high-street/).  

The brewery buildings had become quite dilapidated by 1959 when they were being used for motor repairs. Later, the structure was converted for use as office space and an attractive group of residences were built within its compound.  The main brewery building is now named Clive House. It is currently the offices of the Pears Foundation, which is:

“…an independent, British family foundation, rooted in Jewish values, that takes £15 ‐ 20 million of private money every year and invests it in good causes.” (https://pearsfoundation.org.uk/who-we-are/).

The Brewery’s grounds were adjacent to the grounds of a church, which has been converted into residential dwellings, which retain some of the original windows topped with ogival arches. This building is labelled as ‘Trinity Presbyterian Church’ on a map surveyed in 1866. It was founded in 1844 and had its roots in Calvinist theology. The church’s story is as follows (https://search.lma.gov.uk/scripts/mwimain.dll/144/LMA_OPAC/web_detail/REFD+LMA~2F4352?SESSIONSEARCH):

“Trinity Presbyterian Church began after a report by the Presbyterian district visitor for Hampstead that Scottish inhabitants needed a preaching station … By the end of 1845 the average attendance was 130 in the morning and 80 in the evening … The congregation moved to Well Walk Chapel in 1853, however, the building was dilapidated, so a site at 2 High Street, on the corner of Willoughby Road, was bought in 1861. The new church opened in 1862. It was demolished in 1962 … Shops were built on the site and the hall was converted into Trinity Close.”

So, what can be seen today was the church hall.

All this history is making me hungry. So, let us return to the Shahbhag, which my parents enjoyed back when I was a youngster. I went there once in the early 1970s and had a pleasant meal. Then, I did not return to it until the mid- to late 1990s.  It looked different to what I remembered of it, but its location was the same as of old. I sat down and ordered a meal. While I was waiting for it to arrive, I looked around at what was arriving on the plates being served to other diners and I did not like what I saw. It looked and smelled far less attractive than the food that I was used to having in other Indian restaurants at the time. I was beginning to regret having entered this restaurant, mainly for nostalgic reasons. I waited and waited for an extremely long time, but my food did not arrive. I looked at the time, almost 45 minutes had elapsed since giving my order, and realised that soon I had to meet my wife and some friends. I called the waiter and told him that I could wait no longer and that I would be cancelling my order. He seemed undismayed as I walked out of the restaurant.

Recently (January 2020) when I explored the grounds of the former Hampstead Brewery, I noticed that the Shahbhag was still in existence but closed for the time being because of the current viral pandemic. I am glad it still exists as it is something that reminds me of my parents, but I doubt I will be entering it again when it reopens. When restrictions relating to covid19 ease up, I would rather have a beer than a biryani in Hampstead.