Flemish immigrants taught the English to spice beer with hops, and Marjorie Dockerty's family has variously been growing or brewing ever since. A family bequest from the time of Henry VIII mentions brewing equipment.
Mrs Dockerty, who is 78, remembers charcoal being made to fire the oasts where the hops were dried. The charcoal was burnt from offcuts of the chestnut poles used to train the vines. The family still has a 1935 oast, fired by oil and used by local farmers. Behind it stand a couple of sets of more traditional towered oasts, one perhaps 300 years old. Both have been converted into homes.
The oasts are at the top of the main street (no name, no numbers) of Chiddingstone, an Elizabethan village near Edenbridge, in the Weald of Kent. This region's history (dating back to Jute law) is of small farms owned by fiercely independent families. Marjorie Langridge acquired the name Dockerty, complete with Anglicised spelling, when she married a man whose family originated from the brewing city of Cork.
The Dockerty farm overlooks the steep, broad valley where the river Eden flows to meet the Medway. To the south is the Ashdown Forest; to the east the hop-growing region of the Weald extends around Paddock Wood and Marden. This year's earlier varieties are being picked now, and the later ones will be in hand by mid-September. The sun has been too hot for them this year, and that may damage the crop, raising prices.
When hop prices were low, a few years ago, the Dockerty family stopped cultivating the vines themselves, though they have kept their poles in the hope of better days ahead. They do grow beer's bigger ingredient, barley - and they brew.
'We always brewed on the farm, for the workers,' recalls Mrs Dockerty, 'but it became a real passion for my son.' When small commercial brewing made its comeback in the Eighties with the Campaign for Real Ale, her son Bob, now 51, acquired a brewhouse. Today, he brews 10 barrels at a time, two or three times a week, between tending his barley. A brewing day lasts 12 hours. While Bob brews, his sister Jill and their mother run the office and deal with sales. The brewery's two employees deliver the beer.
The brewhouse (complete with stuffed owl to frighten sparrows from raiding the grains) is in a former cowshed. So are the fermenting vessels and the walled-off 'cellar' in which the beer is matured; these processes take anything from one week to three or more, depending on the beer's strength.
The local water rises from the sandy clay that makes the area so fertile, and the 'green' ironstone of Tunbridge Wells, the latter no doubt helping the characteristic firmness of the beer.
Given the family's background, it is hardly surprising that the beers have a very assertive flavour of barley-malt and hops. The juicy, barley-sugar sweetness comes in the first sip - followed by a rush of perfumy, herbal flavours to give the balancing dryness. As that bitterness lingers, it invites another pint.
Because Bob Dockerty is a small grower, his barley is sold through a co-operative, in bulk, and he cannot be sure that he receives his own grains back from the maltster. Hops are put into 'pockets' (long sacks) stencilled with the grower's name, then sold through merchants or a co-op. Mr Dockerty does sometimes manage to obtain his neighbours' hops, but his suppliers cannot always provide them.
The Bramling Cross Variety hops which he uses to bitter his beer are definitely from the Weald, but the Fuggles ('for that deep, aniseedy flavour that fills the bottom of your mouth,' he says) and the East Kent Goldings (for the beer's earthy bouquet) are grown nearer to Canterbury. The spent hops are sold to local gardeners, who use them to keep down weeds (it is the acidity that does the trick).
Bob Dockerty's pastures are on a farm owned in the 13th century by a family called Lovekin, whose name was corrupted into Larkin. The farm has always been known as Larkins, and that name passed to the brewery and beer from day one. The promotional T-shirts bear the slogan: 'Larkins - the Perfect Pint'.
The family was miffed when, during the television series The Darling Buds of May (based on the H E Bates tales about the Larkin family), a marketing man checked to make sure they were not infringing copyright on Pa Larkin's catch-phrase, 'perfick'. To add injury to insult, Yorkshire Television had a commemorative beer for the series made by another brewery.
Larkins' ales (in ascending order of strength: Traditional Bitter, Sovereign, Best and a winter Porter) are regularly available at about 60 pubs throughout the South- east, and as guest beers from Devon to Scotland.
I had a pint of Sovereign in Chiddingstone, at the Castle, a tile-hung inn dating back to 1420, then went in search of Best bitter at the Greyhound in Hever. There, I could not help noticing on the menu endive au gratin, carbonade Flamande and Belgian chocolate ice-cream. 'Where are you from?' I asked the landlord.
'My name is Luc Van den Bussche, and I'm from Flanders,' came the reply.
The Castle Inn, Chiddingstone (0892 870247).
The Greyhound, Uckfield Lane, Hever (0732 862221).
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