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What is an Oast House?

An oast house or hop kiln is a building designed for the drying of hops as part of the brewing process. These historical buildings can usually be found in the majority of former hop-growing areas. Many oasts are now redundant and have been converted into houses or museums. The names oast and oast house are used interchangeably in the counties of East Sussex and Kent. 


These architecturally striking buildings tend to consist of a rectangular one or two storey building (the "stowage") and one or more kilns in which the hops were spread out for drying. The rising of hot air from either a wood or a charcoal-fire would allow the hops to dry out. The drying floors were thin and perforated to allow for heat to pass through and escape through a cowl in the roof which turned in the wind. The freshly picked hops from the local fields would be raked in to dry and then raked out to cool. They would then be bagged up and sent to the brewery to be turned into beer. 

The oldest documented oast house is at Golford in Cranbrook near Tunbridge Wells and dates from sometime in the 17th Century. The early oasts were barns that had been adapted in order to produce dried hops. By the 18th Century, those in the industry began to develop tall buildings and cone shaped roofs in order to allow for an increased draught. 

The roofs were initially square but it is estimated that 1800 roundel kilns were developed as a result of the well held belief that they were more efficient. Square kilns remained popular in both the areas of Hereford and Worcester. They later came back into fashion in the south east of the UK in the later 19th Century. In the 1930s, the cowls were replaced by louvred openings as electric fans and diesel oil ovens were employed.  Today hops are dried industrially.

Hop Drying

The drying of hops is achieved by the use of a continuous flow of heated air through the kiln, instead of a firing process.  Gangs of pickers were employed to pick in the hop gardens. These workers worked on a piece work basis and so earned a fixed rate per bushel. The workers would then put the green hops into large hessian sacks called pokes and these would be transported to the local oast at first floor level. Many oasts had a man-powered hoist for this purpose which consisted of a 5 feet (1.52 m) diameter pulley on an axle to with a chain or rope attached.  


Freshly picked green hops had a moisture content of around 80%. Before the hops could be stored, this needed to be reduced to 6%. In order to achieve this, the hops were spread out in the kilns. The floors were around 1 1/4-inch (32 mm) in diameter, square battens were nailed at right angles across the joists and then placed together so that there was a similar gap between each batten. They were then covered with a horsehair cloth. The hops would be spread some 12 inches (300 mm) deep before the kiln doors were closed and the furnace was lit in order to dry them out sufficiently. 

When the hops were successfully dried, the furnace would then be extinguished and the hops removed from the kiln using a large wooden framed shovel with a hessian base. The hops were then spread out on the stowage floor to cool down before being pressed into large sacks called pockets with a hop press. Each pocket was filled with the produce of an estimated 150 imperial bushels (5,500 l) of green hops. It weighed a hundredweight and a quarter (140 pounds (64 kg) and was marked with the the details of the grower. The hops were sent to market, where brewers would buy them in order to use the hops in the beer making to add flavour and to act as a preservative. Oasts are associated with the county of Kent. 

Oast House Diagram


 
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