The Scratch of the Hop
Before Herefordshire journalist Marsha O’Mahony wrote a book on the British Hop Industry she studied anthropology and politics, worked as a BBC journalist, had a play she wrote performed, studied in Japan and worked with filmmakers. She has also interviewed a huge number of people in her work as an oral historian. Setting down the stories of farmers, MPs, teenage mothers, poachers, bailiffs, nuns, and the last man born on St. Kilda (an isolated Scottish archipelago largely abandoned during WWI).
Cover image courtesy Marsha O'Mahony
Hop: Can you give us some background on yourself?
Marsha: I am the seventh child of nine born to a large Irish family. When I was 21, I decided it was time to see a bit of the world, and set off, not returning for another four years. In that time, I filled shampoo bottles in Sydney, waitressed in a cocktail bar in an opal mining town, attempted teaching English in far-flung places like Hong Kong, Japan and Nepal, and even ended up in Tashkent (Capitol of Uzbekistan) on my way back to England, courtesy of Aeroflot.
I studied Anthropology & Politics at University, gaining a First-Class Honours and First Prize and publication of her dissertation, an examination of the Burakumin, Japan’s ‘underclass’. I was set on the path of PhD glory, when I won a scholarship to study for my MA in Anthropology & Development.
I moved to Herefordshire from Aberdeen in 1998 with my family two children, who have now flown the nest. I have worked as a reporter on weekly and daily newspapers, author and contributing writer to a number of books, a commissioned memoir writer, report writer, blogger, chief researcher and oral historian on a series of documentary film projects, one-time community reporter for BBC Radio Wales, reminiscence session worker, freelance journalist with features in national publications, and a ‘performed’ playwright. I have also designed and project lead on a number of large heritage projects, ‘River Voices: Extraordinary Stories from the Wye’, and ‘Life on the Levels’ in south Wales.
Hop: How did you come to write a book on the history of hop growing?
Marsha: I previously worked on a documentary film, Stories from the Hop Yard, which was based around an archive of photos, many of which were taken in Herefordshire hop yards, when the harvest was hand-picked requiring huge numbers of people. I met quite a few people in the industry then. It was fortuitous when my publisher (I had already written a book for them) approached me and asked if I would be interested in writing a book on hops in the area. They had actually met working on a hop farm. I was really excited about writing a book because the film was somewhat restricted by the photos. So, for example, it didn’t feature much around the drying of the hops, mechanization, brewing, beer, hop varieties etc., so I had a lot to get me teeth into.
Hop: Have you helped to harvest hops yourself?
Marsha: I’ve picked potatoes, apples, boysenberries, strawberries, but not hops! I have, however, visited yards at harvest time and watched the process, so have a good idea what is involved. I have heard plenty of tales from old hand pickers about how painful their hands could get after a while of hand picking. It was one of their comments that actually supplied the book’s title.
Hop: The book description also mentions a similar decline in Cider Apples- is there a link between their decline and hop production in Britain?
Marsha: I’m not sure if I am qualified to answer that. There’s no doubt, it is tough out there. I am full of admiration for these farmers. I think we need to educate/inform consumers about their choices and encourage them to take an interest in provenance of their beer/cider. I still meet people who have no idea that hops go into beer.
Hop: The book focuses on Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire counties. For people not familiar with those three regions, how would you describe them today?
Marsha: Jointly they are considered the West Midlands, with the industrial and commercial centre around Birmingham, pretty much slap bang in the middle of England. It was once home to some big industries in its time. However, all three, in particular Herefordshire and Shropshire remain deeply rural, with farming very much part of their identity and economy too. They are really quite beautiful too.
Hop: How does that description compare with 20, 50 or 100 years ago?
Marsha: Farming is still important. Local livestock market attracts customers from huge geographic area. Huge growth in soft fruit growing too, with many being grown under controversial polytunnels. And potatoes too, leading potato growers to be known as “Spudocrats”. Infrastructure has changed of course and efforts continue to be made to encourage industry/commerce/manufactures to set up base here.
Hop: What surprised you about the decline in British hop production during your research?
Marsha: That the blight that was wilt, could wreak havoc across the hop growing areas, and barely manage a few column inches in newspapers.
Hop: Your book talks about the “seasonal family that came together during the hop harvest from often quite diverse backgrounds. Can you talk a little about that?
Marsha: Locals provided some of the work force, but many more were required, and many of these came from industrial areas of the Midlands and coal mining areas of South Wales, a couple of hours drive away. Others came further afield, Liverpool and London. Different farms would employ pickers from different areas, so one farm might take Welsh pickers, and another pickers from the Black Country (the Midlands). And then of course a vital part of the workforce were the Gypsies, who would arrive en masse in their Vardoes (caravans), keeping themselves to themselves, and known to be very quick pickers.
Hop: Was there a personal connection for you that you knew of and confirmed or discovered during your research?
Marsha: No personal connection at all! The closest and most tenuous connection is my Irish granny having shares in Guinness (Guinness Breweries had a hop yard in Worcestershire). A lot of my work is around rural social history, so often draw parallels with different projects/stories.
Hop: Has there been a similar decline in the overall amount or type of beer produced in England as the hop production has declined?
Marsha: The last 20 years has seen a huge growth in craft brewing with small breweries popping up across the UK. While this has been good for our hop growers, it is the big brewers and their big contracts that hop growers covet.
Hop: Are all types of hops on the decline, or it is all hops? For example, are aroma hops declining just as quickly as those bred to be high alpha hops?
Marsha: I am no expert and don’t feel particularly qualified to answer this. Some varieties have lasted the test of time. Some are more popular than others, some more marketable, some more resistant to pests and diseases.
Hop: I’ve read that COVID-19 prevented most, or all, of the immigrant workers that continue to regularly come to England for harvest work. How has that impacted the current British hop industry?
Marsha: I’m actually not sure about this. I was head deep writing the book last summer. There is no doubt, with or without a pandemic, the issue of labour, and the availability of labour from the continent, is an issue for growers.
Hop: In addition to the social and economic changes to the industry, your book describes the many different steps from field to market. What surprised you most about the journey from farm to brewer?
Marsha: It was nice to discover the relationships that have been fostered between growers and brewers. They both need each other and, as far as marketing is concerned, is a good story to tell the consumers.
Hop: Your book is richly illustrated with 200 images, was there a favorite among those for you? If so, what makes it stand out?
Marsha: There are 200 images in the book and another 400+ that didn’t make the cut! So that is an almost impossible question. There are so, so many amazing images. Where to start? I have a soft spot for the black and white images of the hand-picked harvest days. The Gypsy pickers had the most expressive faces, I really liked them. It’s no good, I can’t think of a definitive one!
Hop: Can you talk a little about the current state of the British hop industry and where you think it’s heading?
Marsha: It is small and it is unique, and this helps make the British hop industry marketable worldwide. We have to trade on that uniqueness, and also tradition. There are also some very exciting breeding programmes taking place too, which will help the industry. There’s no doubt it is tough growing hops, but there is room for optimism.
Hop: Do you have a favorite hop? If so, what makes it special?
Marsha: The Fuggle. It is so emblematic of the British hop industry.
Hop: Where can people get the book?
Marsha: The book will be released in June of 2021. You can pre-order the book here: https://logastonpress.co.uk/product-category/coming-soon/
Hop: Where can people follow along with your future projects?