The family who brew the local Kentish beer, Larkins, have been farming and brewing in Penshurst and the surrounding area for generations (a family bequest from the time of Henry VIII mentions brewing equipment). As recently as 1976 Robert Langridge, grandfather of the current brewer, was presented with the “Order of Knights of the Hop”, shown in the illustration.
The tradition of livening beer with hops was
introduced into England by Flemish immigrants
and immediately became the established
method. Hop gardens sprung up all over the
county. The hops were trained up strings laced
between tall chestnut poles – a job originally
done by a man standing on stilts.
Until the 1950’s, Londoners would travel down
to Kent by train from the East End to pick hops
and earn a bit of extra money whilst enjoying
a healthy family holiday in the country at the
same time. They would arrive with their bedding,
some small items of furniture and pots and pans,
often arriving on horse drawn carts. Whole
families would pick all day, with hands turning
first brown then black, then retire to basic
accommodation known as hoppers huts, with
shared rudimentary sanitation. Rows of these
simple single room dwellings sprung up on farms
and the remains of some brick-built ones can
still be found in parts of Kent. During what
leisure time they had they would make their own fun and at the end of the harvest would gather together and celebrate round a big bonfire, and sing and dance before returning to London the next day.
Hop pickers disappeared as machinery took over the picking and the hop fields in Kent diminished. Larkins no longer grow their own hops because the price fell so low. Instead they buy the Bramling Cross variety from neighbouring or other Weald of Kent farms and the Fuggles and East Kent Goldings varieties which are grown nearer to Canterbury.
Traditionally the hops were dried in ‘Oast Houses’ which can be seen all over the area, although most are now converted into homes. They comprise roundels, with a cone-shaped roof. A fire was lit on the ground floor and the hops were spread and dried on a raised floor with the fumes being drawn upwards and out through the white wooden cowl on the top, which swiveled round with the wind.
Nowadays the Larkins oast is fired by oil and is one of the most modern, being built in 1935, but beside it stand some of the oldest traditional oast houses in the country. The Larkins brewhouse is in a former cowshed along with the fermenting vessels and the “cellar” in which the brew matures, the whole process taking one to three weeks depending on the strength. The strongest is Porter, followed by Best Sovereign then Traditional Bitter.
The locally grown and malted barley, Kentish hops and the local water which rises through the sandy clay and ironstone of the area all contribute to the wonderful characteristic taste of this beer. No sugars or brewing adjuncts are added. Enjoy a glass of Larkins at “The Rock Inn” and you will also find it in many other local pubs in the area.