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Hops in the old peasant society

Harvesting hop cones
Harvesting hop cones from a felled hop cone. A man, two women and a little girl. Halland.

Allmogens old hop yards are long abandoned. Something to change?

Today, 24 August, is Bartholomew's Day, which historically marked the start of the hop harvest in Sweden. A hop farm belonged to every farm, and its size was determined by the need for beer and sweets, together with the tax burden.
Hops (Humulus lupulus L.) are our only cultivated plant that has been legislated and thus strictly controlled. In the 17th and 18th centuries, hop cultivation in Sweden reached its peak, when there were millions of hop plants in the country. The surveyor always noted where hop farms were located. Even today, hop plants can be found on these long-abandoned hop farms.
There is an old overgrown hop farm in Lindö, Torsås parish, in Småland, which according to legend was planted by Nils Dacke himself.(Fabian Månsson, The cradle of the dachshund) The female flowers of the hop have been used in beer brewing since the Middle Ages. The acidity of hops has a weak antibiotic effect against gram-positive bacteria, which helps the yeast to develop and ferment the wort into a good beer.
Skåne. Hop picking between Vånga and Näsum. Photo Gunnar Lundh 1937.
Skåne. Hop picking between Vånga and Näsum. Photo: Gunnar Lundh 1937. CC-BY
Hops have also been used since ancient times as a soothing and sedative herb. For medicinal purposes, hops are known for their sleep-inducing effect. It stimulates appetite and digestion. Local harvesting traditions could of course vary. In Västergötland, it is said that harvesting could begin as early as the end of July, and in Småland it is said that hops were harvested before All Saints' Day. In Närke, hops were harvested in September. The sources also differ on how ripe the hop cone should be at harvest, says the Nordic Museum. "Some recommended that it be harvested when it is still green, and others thought it should be pale yellow. Today, researchers at Julita farm in Sörmland recommend that the hop cone be harvested when it is bright lime green and when the lupulin glands have turned lemon yellow. The scent should be strongly aromatic but not grassy." The harvest is done by taking down the hop stem and plucking the cone-like female flowers from the vine. The vine can be left in the hop yard to rot as manure.
One of the few remaining Swedish hop farms, 1928. Övre Värnäs, Värmland
One of the few remaining Swedish hop farms, 1928. Övre Värnäs, Älvdals härad, Värmland. Photo: G. Berg 1928. CC-BY
In Sweden, hops seem to be cultivated from the 13th century, when various provisions about hops start to appear in legislation. For example, legal texts have been preserved that deal with penalties for stealing hops. In Kristoffers landslag from 1442 it is stated that each farmer must keep a hop farm with 40 hops, and the requirements were extended to 200 hops in Kalmar recess from 1474 (Strese, Else-Marie; Tollin, Clas (2015). Hops: the green gold). The king wanted his beer, and then it was only for the subjects to obey. A fictional example of how things could go at the hop harvest is from Fabian Månssons trilogy of novels Gustav Vasa and Nils Dacke vol 1, where the bailiff's wife Malin and the bailiff Pelle Humpe have arrived at the farm of the farmer Germund Mola:

- How many hops have you harvested? Malin continued her questions to Germund.

Germund mentioned a sum. 'The old judge knows that, by the way,' he said, 'for he has received half.

Malin stood up, her eyes stinging.

- Half! she hissed. Did you say half, you thief? Don't you know that for years all farmers have been handing over to the Saviour all the hops harvested in their hop yards? Do you not think that the king has the same right as an ordinary commoner? All the hops from your farm shall be delivered to the king's bailiff. That is the king's command. Any hops you need you can buy from the bailiff.

- I have created the hop garden myself, said Germund. He had been standing with his head bowed, looking at her with a lurking gaze, but now he straightened up and looked into her little grey rat's eyes. When I came here there was no hop farm but a thistle country, where the hop farm is now. Neither the king nor his bailiff built the hop farm here, but I did. So I take half of what grows in it, or no hops grow there any more.

From Fabian Månsson's book Gustav Vasa and Nils Dacke vol 1
Månsson's trilogy is set in the 16th century, but it was on our oldest maps from the beginning of the 17th century until the end of the 19th century that we can see the hop farms plotted on the map, with the number of stumps usually indicated.
Hop picking in the Vångatrakten
Skåne. Hop picking in the Vångat area. Photo: Gunnar Lundh 1937. CC-BY
It was not until 1860 that the cultivation requirement was abolished, which was thus part of Swedish legislation for about 400 years (Swedish Parliamentary Administration. Swedish Constitutional Collection 1736:0123 1 Byggningabalk). Today about fifty Swedish hop varieties are grown on Julita farm in Södermanland as part of the Cultivated Diversity Programme. Only in a few places in Sweden has commercial hop cultivation started up again on a small scale after dying out in the 20th century. Swedish breweries are totally dependent on imported hops, mainly from Germany. Allmogens old hop farms have long been abandoned. Something to change?
Humlegård at Old Staberg
Modern hop growing at Gamla Staberg, an old well-preserved mountain manor near Kniva about 10 kilometres east of Falun, Dalarna. Photo: Edaen (CC-BY-SA)

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