Marc Meltonville

Heritage Hop Variety Chosen to Recreate 16th Century Tudor Beer

Dr Susan Flavin’s studies in Experimental Archeology led her to this research of 16th Century beer.   The FoodCult Project  began when she was researching the 16th Century diet in Ireland pre the introduction of potatoes.  You can listen to a Podcast by Associate Prof in History Dr Susan Flavin about her unique take on studying history by exploring what we ate and drank during the 16th century.  The Podcast is easy to listen to and their diet in 16th Century included a lot of beer!

Tudor home brewWe know that historically beer has always been closely linked with the ordinary working person’s diet.  For generations brewing was mainly done in the home, it was a basic skill any housewife worth her salt required. On larger estates it is quite likely that brewing was done by specially appointed farm hands. Research into beers and ales in past centuries shows that beer was often drunk in copious quantities, allegedly a manual worker could be given up to 14 pints per day!  Beer continued to be drunk by farm workers in the first half of 1900’s on this Sussex farm. Joe Eyres, the hop drier and cowman,  told me that they drank beer daily; tea was a luxury reserved for Sundays.

16th century brewing

The aim of this project was to recreate a 16th century Tudor beer. What better way than by using , techniques and recipes found on historic records and various old household accounts.  And where better for this to take place than at the Wealden and Downland Museum,  one of my all time favourite places to visit.   

The Foodcult project has been a major collaboration of many people, from historians to archaeologists, all experts in their own individual and diverse fields.  Artisan brewing equipment  was made to replicate what the Tudors would have used

The food historian Marc Meltonville had the crucial role as brewer.

Marc Meltonville

Dr Peter DarbySelecting the right ingredients was essential. Tolhurst hop variety was chosen as closest to the original Flemish Red Bine. This Red Bine is believed to have been brought to England from Flanders at the end of 15th Century.  The Heritage Tolhurst hop variety was chosen by Dr Peter Darby for this experiment, as the best hop to replicate what was available for 16th century brewing.  Except for the National Collection, A Bushel of Hops is the only grower currently offering this Heritage Hop variety to home brewers.  There should be some available next season for anyone who wishes to brew their very own ancient beer.

The other vital ingredient was malt and here the ancient Bere barley was singled out. Bere Barley has been grown in Orkney for over 1000 years, it was probably introduced by the Vikings.  

The three magic ingredients, water, barley and hops.  Bere barely for the malt, Tolhurst hop variety was chosen, water and this historical brew was ready to go, finally after almost 3 years of droughts and a global pandemic which had all conspired to delay original plans! The brewing took place at   Tindalls Cottage  and like any good reenactment Tudor costumes and accurately crafted brewing equipments were used.  

On 15th September 2021 everything was in place.  A trial run to test equipment had been made in 2020 but in September 2021 it was the real deal. Film crew stationed then it was all systems go – brewing and filming were finally underway.

Wealden and Downland filming

To have been a tiny part of a tiny cog in this very special historical brewing adventure has been a privilege.  At present the resultant beer   is undergoing analysis and Isotope testing.  Meanwhile along with everyone else involved, I am eagerly awaiting the final results, just for now many questions still remain unanswered. So after Tolhurst hop variety was chosen, was this 16th Century beer a flop or was it fit for a Tudor king?


For further reading – Martyn Cornell of the Historic Brewery Society has written this excellent article.  Apparently Shakespeare who was born in 16th Century ‘was a fan of ale, but didn’t much like beer.’


2019 Hops for Home Brewing

2019 hops for home brewing begin with stringing, getting it  in place ready for them to climb up in April.  Hop stringing is like the first page of a new notebook.   Who knows what 2019 growing season will be like, all we know is it is ahead of us, it’s a clean sheet and as always it’s exciting.

First coir yarn is soaked, it stretches slightly when wet, imperceptible over a short length but over a long distance it is noticeable.  By putting it on wet it tightens as it dries but prevents stretching in situ during rain.  The weight of the hops as they mature and get heavy encourages this too.



Stringing is soothing to watch, there is a gentle rhythm to it.  It’s a knack and like riding a bicycle once learnt you never forget how to do it.  Up down, knit one purl one, always careful not to drop a stitch.

2019 hops for home brewing


So preparations for growing 2019 hops for home brewing begin with stringing and just like each hop season before it, there is pleasure had working with the seasons. there are never two  the same.  This portfolio of photos was last month in mild weather, 2018 by contrast was cold.  Next job banding-in.

2019 hops for home brewing

2019 hops for home brew begin

hop twiddling stick, home brewing, english hops, in the hop gardens, seasonal hop work,hops for the home brewer

Choosing a Hop Twiddling Stick

Winter, is the best time choose your hop twiddling stick. The trees are still bare making it easier spot a good one and the sap has not yet risen.

hop twiddling stick, hop growers year


The Hazel is one of our native trees found growing in classic coppiced woodlands, it is a very useful tree. Its wood is used in many diverse ways from water divining sticks, traditional sheep hurdles, to the thick straight rods which have been used for generations of gardeners as runner bean sticks. Hazel provides all manner of riches but it is the tall straight rods of medium thickness which I am looking for,  I can select my new hop twiddling stick from amongst these.   These straight rods are called summer or sun shoots.

For the best hop twiddling stick ideally you need a straight rod with the right shaped fork, not too tight and not too wide, this fork will need to trap a hop bine head without pinching it thereby snapping the head off. The rod has to be the right thickness, too thin and it will not be up to the job and too thick it will be cumbersome and make your arms ache lifting it up to manoeuvre it above your head all day. So as Goldilocks said it has to be ‘just right’.

hop twiddling stick, handbill,So first find your perfect hop twiddling stick, then cut it out, trim both ends and debark it if you prefer. It does need to run smoothly in your hands so no untrimmed notches should be left. When I have cut a few I tie them to a length of wood to allow them to dry out and remain nice and straight. I actually like a fork with a kink one side like the one shown, I find this slight bend runs nicely up the strings.

Hop twiddling sticks are needed for ‘Heading’ which is the third and final stage of hop training every year. Each hop plant is trained by hand at least twice during their growing season but usually 3 times. By mid May the rapidly growing bines of most varieties are far out of reach for easy hand work. In order to put any heads back onto the strings it is then that we need our hop twiddling sticks.

hop twiddling sticks, growing hopsLike any personal hand tool you just get used to your own hop twiddling stick, It is just easier to use your own, but it is not something you can share easily either. You would always be waiting for the other person to finish using it. Whilst most people would not dream of sharing their special stick, if you are lucky they might offer to do your hop instead!

Another use for your hop twiddling stick is to mark your hop plant with it, it is now surprisingly easy to stray off course and loose exactly where you were in the hop garden. You can leave it in the plant you have got to at the end of the day or simply mark your hop when you go for lunch, as I said earlier it is very easy to loose your place once the hops are full size.

If you find a stick you like, look after it and keep it oiled between seasons. They can be found tied onto the beams in barns etc.  Someone moving into a cottage in this area found a twiddling stick which had been carefully tied above the stair well by its previous owner.

I have an assortment of three hop twiddling sticks. A short one, only 3 foot long for bines only just out of reach slightly above head height and then a longer one for the main heading work when the hops are much higher, this is about 8 foot long. The wirework can be up to 18 foot high. Again as with most jobs, there is a knack to heading hops but it is easy once you have got it, rather like learning to ride a bike. If you are right handed you hold the stick in your right hand. You don’t try to put the heads back onto the strings which seems logical, but rather twist the string and allow the hop to stay still. To do this you hold the string in your left hand and twist the string around towards you in a clockwise direction, then catch the head of the bine into the fork of the stick, place the ‘v’ of the stick with the head held in it against the string and untwist the string anti-clockwise. That way the head will normally seat itself back easily following its clockwise natural twist. If you get an awkward hop you sometimes feel like your head will fall off instead!!

Sun glasses are essential kit, not only to protect your eyes from the sun but they stop any small bits of plant debris from falling into your eyes as you move the plants.

Sometimes after summer storms and the hop bines have been off their strings for a while they can become long and heavy, then it is not so easy. I then find using two sticks which while it may look awkward, is the easiest way of dealing with the problem without damaging the bine or breaking the head off.  So holding the offending hop with one hop twiddling stick and putting the head back on with the other prevents this damage and is much easier than it looks. I have to admit it does looks downright plain awkward, so best solution don’t watch anyone else doing it.

The pictures below show the same stick before and after cutting, it is the one on the left of the group.

hop twiddling stick, hops for the home brewer

Once the hops are safely up and over the top wires, we all breathe a sigh of relief, that will be the last of heads coming off for this year. Traditionally bines should be over the top wires by Midsummer’s day but some varieties can be over the top long before then.

dried hops for home brewing

1/2 Bushel Traditionally Dried Hops for Home Brewing

When purchasing a trug you want the real McCoy, sturdy and beautiful, but also supremely practical to use.

The genuine article is made in Sussex with cleaved sweet chestnut and cricket bat willow, it will last a lifetime. This is recycling at it best, made with left over willow from local cricket bat makers and sweet chestnut from coppiced woodland in the area. Even the left over shavings from making the trugs are used, nothing is wasted. There are cheaper ply wood impostors on the market, but their price is really their only attraction. They may be trug shaped, and yes some are made in Sussex but they are not made with the traditional materials and like the old saying goes “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”, the real deal is the real thing.

I am super fortunate to live relatively close to two master trug makers Richard Bingham who made the bushel trug pictured earlier on this website with my fabric in and Charlie Groves who has his own shop near Lewes in East Sussex. The bushel trug is not easy to find as it needs much longer lengths of cricket bat willow than are normally available for the boards. It does not have feet. It is a very workmanlike size originally made for farm produce, we used one for many years to measure corn for tipping into an old Massey Ferguson drill.

I mentioned earlier this month that I had received 2 super exciting surprise gifts, each being a prototype. One of these was a half bushel trug from Charlie which was the prototype for the limited edition of trugs produced especially for the 2015 Chelsea Flower Show ‘A Trugmakers Garden’ which won a coveted Gold Medal.

half a bushel trug full of hops for home brewing1/2 Bushel Traditionally Dried Hops for Home Brewing

During Chelsea, Charlie was present with Sarah from the Truggery at Herstmonceux to demonstrate trug making on site. The half bushel trug has feet but the shape is much deeper than usual and the actual ‘basket’ has 11 boards instead of the normal 5 or 7 .depending on size. It was made as a copy of an old one found in a redundant farm building. You can read about the discovery of the old bushel trug here.

Professional trug makers like many other specialist craftsmen do not find it easy to make a living from their craft and as such are a dying breed (There are only 5 craftsmen in the world left now making traditional Sussex trugs). Proactively, to try to redress this trend they have joined forces to apply for official certification. If successful they will then be able to give a guarantee that their produce is the genuine article. This will hopefully cull out any interlopers and highlight the cheap copies on the market.

trug full of toile

For further reading about Sussex Trugs & trug makers this recent (16th September 2015) article in COUNTRY LIFE magazine is worth a read – “The Great Trug Revival” by Tessa Waugh. Digital editions are available via the Country Living website.