oast house stained glass window

Oast House is a Quirky Building

An oast house is a quirky building. Their unique image is used by many landscape painters and advertising agents, the iconic white cowls instantly recognisable, quintessentially representing hop growing and certainly oast houses seem to be the image preferred to symbolise Kent.

Oast houses appear to play hide and seek, they coyly peek out from behind hills, their cowls periscope up through wooded vistas. They always seem to remain half hidden, they are never brash buildings. In reality traditional oast houses used for drying hops are almost extinct, working examples are an endangered species. As farmers went out of hop production most of these idiosyncratic buildings have been converted into residential houses or offices, so they are preserved which is better than falling into decay. It is also understandable for a another very practical reason, they are only used at harvest for a few short weeks each year and the rest of the time they cannot be used for longterm storage or for other farm enterprises easily.Completely clear, clean space is instantly required at harvest.

For most hop growers, modern buildings have replaced these traditional oast houses and more often than not the picking and drying is all done on the same concrete floor.Nowadays air can be forced and pushed by mechanical means.The end result is the same, it is undeniably efficient, but these modern buildings are not alive to the elements in the same way.

Below hops being unloaded from a kiln onto the cooling floor in an oast’s dim interior.However, when used as originally intended they come into their own, proving that a traditional oast house is a quirky building but it makes a fascinating workplace as well. I have never worked in either a windmill or watermill, but along with oasts all three harness a natural element, so there is of course an inherent day to day change as wind or water ebbs and flows. Oasts are built for air flow, they breath, and as such they are different to any other farm building. How many other buildings are built to produce as many possible ways to produce a draught? Once converted these draughts are naturally stopped and an oast looses something vital. Kiln floors are slatted so all these shadows are lost too.

oasthouse is a quirky building

Air flow is essential for drying hops but warmth is also needed, the buildings architecture is designed to be basically a giant chimney. It is the airflow to warmth ratio that determines the depth and amount of hops that can be dried at any one time. By opening doors or windows and adjusting slides on the kiln itself these drafts are adjusted and manipulated. Heat is kept to a minimum to preserve the natural oils in the hop cones. Hops are dried down to a moisture content of between 10% – 12% which is necessary to remove enough moisture to prevent them going fusty when stored. Over years floorboards become caked with pollen in front of a hop press.

The hop dryer is master in the oast house at harvest time and the art of a good hop dryer is to preserve the hops by retainingas much moisture as possible. Hops are sold by weight so growers want to keep as much as moisture in as possible but also dry enough to preserve the crop.Therefore on the kiln the aim is to preserve any load of hops, it is not to be dried right out or the hops would weigh almost nothing. A good hop dryer has to earn his key position over a long period and prove himself.He has to understand the foibles of this and how his own oast house is a quirky building even warranting a stained glass window.

root crop fork

Hovering Up Hops when Drying in an Oast House

It has been a week of unexpected treats, the foremost is that I have been given a hovering up fork and I am chuffed to bits. This was a super practical surprise gift from a very special friend and I could not be more delighted. This is the fork he had always used for hovering up his hops as they sat on the drying floor in the oast house for their allotted drying time and which he had found perfect for purpose. Hence he thought I might like it! Like it, well I am jumping for joy.

When traditionally drying hops with charcoal in an oast house I do not then have the advantage of the modern oil unit fans which force air through the bed of green hops. With this traditionally method of drying hops you utilise natural draft, so I needed to find a way of hovering up the hops as they sat on the kiln during their designated drying time. Hovering up basically means moving the hops very gently by lifting the hovering up fork through the bed of hops to carefully loosen any compact areas by shifting their positions.  This ensures even drying, hence this gift could not be more perfect or, more perfectly timed. When drying hops in this old-fashioned way, it not only takes longer but I keep the temperature within the lower drying range to preserve the natural oils in the hops.

I had been toying with different ideas of how to make a flat pronged wooden fork for hovering up the hops, but the round ends on this one prevent you getting all in a toe-tangle by catching up the lifter clothes under the hops.
root crop fork

Before my friend upcycled this fork it was not originally made for hovering up hops. I understand it was a root crop fork which would have been used to move root crops like turnips and mangels.  The rounded end simply prevented the roots from being spiked.

The second treat was that the sun shone this week making banding-in a pleasure and still no chilly fingers this year. I think this is a record and we should wrap up the banding shortly.

Thirdly, while not exactly a treat as such, I have finished a seasonal job which is satisfyingly shaving chestnut smrewarding. So with the sun shining I completed  debarking some chestnut poles for the new section of the hop garden. Normally the hop garden would go up before the hop setts were planted but this time, it is of necessity back to front. Then the ground was far too wet this winter to get on it with a tractor to auger in the hop poles prior to planting. So the hop setts went in and as soon as the ground is dry enough these poles can be put in to make the extension. Wirework and hooking for the stringing can then be added to the poles, as I said a very back to front. The Sussex Zig Zag is proving to be unorthodox all round!

Whilst shaving the chestnut I thought how amazing the patterns on the bark were, a close up shot could almost be mistaken as an image of the earth from space.

chestnut bark

Here in the High Weald we are blessed with acres of stunning ancient woodlands and miles of hedgerows, amazing in their variety of species. However, there are huge clouds in the landscape, I cannot say horizon as these problems are already upon us, we have a tree disease which is  affecting our sweet chestnut trees .  This is in addition to the serious Ash and Oak die back diseases, and horse chestnut problems. With that and the huge deer population now ensconced in this area, our beautiful woodlands are seriously threatened.