Hops being cut down and harvested: six scenes.
14th June 2023
by Jonathan Reinarz
Created at:
14th June 2023
Jonathan Reinarz
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Hops being cut down and harvested: six scenes.

In the sixteenth century, brewing was a very domestic activity producing familiar scents. Brewing’s smells were therefore associated with ordinary households, its scents often mixing with other domestic odours and often overlooked given their everyday nature. Brewing for much of history was seasonal and associated with festivals, which dictated the times of year when its scents were more prevalent. Varieties of beer were extensive, and ingredients and methods would have resulted in products with distinct smells, even when produced in a particular region. Government regulations at various times tried to limit the ingredients of beer and ale, and with that determined its smells. With the rise of scientific brewing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the meanings associated with stenches in the brew house changed and were more often associated with spoilage in an age of bacteriology. Brewing was also more often conducted all the year round with the introduction of refrigeration technology from this time, and the odours of production became less associated with particular brewing seasons. With the growth of commercial brewing across Europe, the scale of production increased, and certain cities more obviously shaped olfactory cartographies, though the scents of beers and brewing often continued to vary regionally into the twentieth century due to difference in methods and materials used in production.

Odeuropa Smell Explorer

Like wine, beer is a product of the land, and its smell and taste is very much associated with the region, or ‘terroir’, in which it was brewed. The main ingredients have been grains, such as wheat or barley, water, which always has its own unique chemical properties, yeast and hops, which gave beer and ale greater durability. Each of these products had its associated smells, and every brewing region its distinct variations in recipes, which gave beers their unique tastes and smells. The sixteenth-century Rheinheitsgebot limited the ingredients of beer brewed in Bavaria and only later (from 1908) in Germany as a whole, but similar restrictions were introduced with concerns about purity in Britain for example with the 1880 Beer Act, which freed the mash tun and would have made for even more complex and unfamiliar brewing scents. Originally, a common breakfast drink in Europe, morning beer was displaced with the advent of coffee and tea and the smell of beer more regularly became associated with afternoons and evenings (Classen, et al, 1994, 68). In the second half of the nineteenth century, with the introduction of refrigeration technology, brewers began to brew the year round, and the smell of its production became associated with all the seasons, and not just the coldest months of the year when spoilage was less likely (Reinarz, 2003: 96). 

A key ingredient of beer was local water, and besides regularly being described as either soft or hard, regional waters were often associated with their own particular scents, which were subject to change over time with urbanisation. The drinking water of Brussels in the 1830s and 40s, for example, had acquired a ‘disgusting flavour’, a ‘foul odor’ described as ‘an extremely disagreeable smell of rotten wood’, and a ‘nauseating taste’ (Phillips, 2014; 188). That said, there is evidence of brewers being fined for polluting local water sources from well before this; there is evidence of a brewer in Ipswich, England being fined in 1421 for cleaning his vats and flooding the streets with 'the filth, excrement and malt dregs of beer, from whence a very bad smell arose to the nuisance of the people' (Rawcliffe, 2013: 198). Brewers’ chemists, who grew more common from the nineteenth century, and were often called on to test polluted water sources, but also treat and alter brewing water. Most had very descriptive, if not scientific, terms for the water sources they tested. Their products, not limited to sulphites, significantly altered brewers’ products and their smells, many promising to cure sour and spoiled brews (Reinarz, 2018: 15-20).

When all the brewer’s ingredients were mixed together and heated, they formed a unique scent that would spread more widely and become familiar in many brewing districts. Unlike many other smells associated with industrial production, these were not generally found to be disagreeable. In his memoir, Sidney Nevile, former managing director of Whitbread & Co., recalled an expert maltster from Devon, who was originally destined for the priesthood, but was so attracted by the smell of a brewery he passed after leaving Eton, that he decided to become a brewer rather than attend University (Nevile 1958; 39).  

Hops contributed their own unique aromas to beer and were gradually recognised for their preservative qualities. It was not until the eighteenth century that there was recognition of different types of hops, picking dates and the locations in which it was grown both determining aromas. New unsulphurated hops had an aromatic smell in the first year, but by the second and third years and its colours darkened, and its odour became ‘slightly cheesy’ (Bickerdyke, 1889, 82).

Figure 1. William Henry Pyne, 'Hops being cut down and harvested: six scenes. Sepia aquatint by W.H. Pyne, ca. 1804.', drawing and etching on paper, 1804, 22.7x29cm, Wellcome Collection 25801i

In his work, Hop Judging for Brewers (1910), C. Oscar Grindley suggests that ‘with care and little trouble a buyer by rubbing hops down and using his sense of smell together with his sight can, in most cases, become a sufficiently good judge of the intrinsic value of hops to be a guide for his purchases (Grindley, 1910: 10). 

Isinglass, originally made from the swim bladders of the sturgeon, was added to casks to clear or fine, beer of yeast and other sediment, and settled at the bottom of vessels. The finest quality isinglass came from Russia, was widely distributed by Dutch merchants, who introduced the gelatinous product they called huisenblas to brewers. By 1740, isinglass had been universally adopted at London breweries, replacing its predecessor, elder-juice (Mathias, 1959: 51). In the second half of the eighteenth century, patents were taken out in Britain by manufacturers using ‘British materials’, essentially the gelatinous parts of fish other than sturgeon (Tizard, 1846, 554-5). Inferior isinglass was to be examined carefully, and all damaged parts or those that smelled offensively were to be removed before dissolving it in sour beer to make finings. 

The smell of stables and horses is an overlooked smell associated with brewers and breweries. In some European countries, such as the Netherlands, there was strict separation between brewing and the distribution of beer, but others built extensive stables (Unger, 2004: 206). For much of the period under consideration, horse-drawn drays were the dominant means of transport used by English brewers to distribute their products. Brewers stables in the nineteenth century housed dozens and, in some cases, such as at Whitbread’s Chiswell Street brewery, built in the 1860s, hundreds of horses (Peterson, 1999: 20). Their scents were a daily presence on the streets of brewers’ key markets.

Figure 2. Some breweries still use shire horses to deliver beer by horse-drawn dray. This includes shire horses, a rapidly declining and endagered breed. Hook Norton Brewery in Oxfordshire, England, are one Brewery still using shire horses.


When brewing was confined to the home and part of everyday domestic routines, streets might be suffused with the smell of beer, but with the concentration of the industry and scale, whole regions might smell of beer production. Prevailing winds could extend breweries’ zones of olfactory impact considerably further in the case of notable brewing centres (Cowan and Stewart, 2016), like Munich, Plzen, Dublin or Burton-on-Trent.

Local beers had always possessed their distinctive smells. The old traditional beers that were not pasteurised, for example, smelled strong compared to the new pasteurised varieties. While the scent of other trades and industry mixed with those of brewers in a city like London, authorities occasionally regulated smoke and stench so as not to corrupt the taste of beer, as was the case in Delft in 1547 when Charles V prohibited the construction and use of limestone ovens within half a mile of the town (Unger, 2001, 167). 

More often the scent and taste of the product was determined by local ingredients and practices. Before the extensive use of hops, for example, Dutch beer more often smelled of gruit, a mixture of herbs, including heather, ivy and mugwort, the combination of which might vary with each brewer (Verberg, 2022 : 63). Victor Hugo famously remarked that the beers of Louvain ‘smells of dead mice’ (De Vries, 2003: 167). English production had concentrated in London and Burton by the nineteenth century. Although certain districts of the English capital might smell of beer during production, Burton by the last decades of the century had become a ‘city of breweries’ in which ‘the smell of beer pervades the air’ (Bickersdyke, 1889, 336). In towns where brewers were situated alongside other ‘smelly’ industries, it was more difficult to identify and prosecute offending manufacturers, as proved to be the British legal case Rex v. Neil (1826) in which a varnish maker located near a brewery, gas-manufactory and melter of kitchen stuff, was being prosecuted for nuisance, but the defendant convincingly argued that the smell of one industry could not be separated from the rest. Either way, a concentration of production easily left its olfactory mark on an otherwise unindustrialised region; with 100 malthouses in the Hertfordshire towns of Ware and Bishop’s Stortford during the nineteenth century, the smell of roasting malt pervaded the towns and countryside around (Slater and Goose, 2008: 152). In his book Aromatics and the Soul (1923), ear-nose-throat specialist Dan McKenzie claims every city has its own particular atmosphere, including Dublin, which was dominated by the ‘warm, rich aroma of Guinness (McKenzie, 1923: 152).


Each stage of the brewing process is associated with its own scents. According to William Black, brewer and author of one of the best-known practical nineteenth-century brewing texts, ‘[a]n experienced brewer with a very sensitive smell, should be able to judge even by walking through a brew-house, whether or not it is trim, and I again repeat that no man who has not both a very sensitive smell and taste, can be a good brewer’ (Black, 1835: 82). This reliance on smell began with the purchase of the raw materials of brewing, each of which would have been assessed at the moment of purchase to ensure authenticity. Many items would initially have been selected by way of the look, feel, taste and smell of samples, and a brewer or, as production increased in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, another specialist member of the brewery staff was responsible for verifying that delivered materials matched those purchased by way of a sample. A brewer would therefore rely on his nose to ensure that barley, soon after it has been thrashed, was not laid out damp and exposed, so as to lose its freshness, and smell ‘strong and disagreeable’ (Tizard, 1846, 68). 

Brewers similarly judged and verified hop properties by manual sensory evaluation, as did hop producers. Soon after it was picked, hop was dried and its moisture reduced from roughly 80% to approximately 6%. The quality of the crop depended on the drier’s ability to remove the hops from the drying floor at the right time using smell and touch (Cordle, 2011: 42). Purchasers rubbed the hop between the palms and sniffed for signs of deterioration and to ensure it exudes the characteristics of the type it is purported to be. Hop pockets, like purchased grains, were then stored carefully to retain their qualities, which were subject to change with time.

The initial malting process was also carefully regulated by smell. A good maltster using smell alone could judge on entering the malthouse whether the floors are in ‘a health or unhealthy state’ (Black, 1835: 19). The whole process is to convert the starch into fermentable sugars, but unless the grain covered floors of the malthouse were continually turned and kept cool, they smell of the moist grains quickly became unpleasant (Tizard, 1846, 75). By the sixth or seventh day, the malt will begin to emit a ‘peculiar fruity smell’, the entire germination process being regulated from start to finish by way of sight, smell and touch (Pooley, 1880, 399). The quality of the malt was judged throughout production using only sight and smell, the poorest malt, according to authors in trade journals, smelling of ‘rotten apples’, the best smelling of ‘cucumber’ (Reinarz, 2019: 165).  

Figure 3. A kiln tile from a malthouse near Grantham in Lincolnshire. Malt was spread over the perforated tiles and dried as heat from furnaces underneath passed through, fired clay, Museum of English Rural Life, Reading, 80/63

After mashing, when all the malt has been well blended with the water, or liquor, the whole emitting a ‘mealy smell’. It was this smell of the boiling copper that most nearby residents describe as the ‘brewery smell’ (Monckton, 1966: 20-21). Once yeast was added, a sulphurated smell was often detected, which frequently caused brewers concern, but as the science of brewing was understood, the sulphurous smells of primary fermentation caused less concern than the stenches that arose in mature beers ([Anon.], 1898: 582). The addition of hops gave beer its general hoppy aroma, which discerning noses might break down further as grassy, citrusy, or floral, but most others might describe as bitter, especially if hops was added after the boil and aroma compounds were less likely to evaporate.

The distribution of beer was also preoccupied with scents and smells. Most beer left breweries in casks, which were kept clean and maintained by staff in a cooperage department that could often number dozens of coopers at the largest breweries. Returned casks were often cleaned, repaired, inspected and smelled to ensure their suitability for further use. At some point, most brewers had to deal with older, infected, rotten casks, known in the trade as ‘stinkers’ (Sweatman, 1917: 175). At the largest breweries, such as Guinness’s St James’ Gate Brewery in Dublin, this task was undertaken by a senior member of the cooperage staff, who was designated the ‘smeller’. Smelling casks at the bung-hole, the smeller only marked clean casks for racking, or filling, if found to be ‘sweet’, by which he implied ‘clean’ (Barnard, 1889: 28). Those that did not pass his olfactory test were subjected to further examination and cleansing.

Figure 4. A ‘smeller’ sniffs casks at the Guinness brewery in August 1953.

Feelings and Noses

Given brewing’s seasonal nature, the smell of brewing in most communities would clearly indicate the passage of time and the onset of a new season and all the emotions this entailed. As brewing industries expanded locally and regionally, the strong scent of brewing would also have conveyed a sense of wellbeing and instilled a degree of satisfaction and contentment among both brewery workers and the wider community, especially those that relied on sales of beer for their livelihoods. With increases in the scale of production, the presence of a ‘stench’ would instil fear in many brewers as this could portent the loss of an entire batch and represent a huge financial loss ([Anon.] 1898: 582). The smell of beer and brewing in neighbourhoods and towns would equally have inspired a certain amount of frustration and anger among individuals who associated beer and drinking with sin and social disorder. 

Beer’s smell could also have wider political meanings. An early expression of this was in popular drinking songs. During the English Civil War, Cavalier drinking songs took swipes at ‘the Brewer’ Cromwell, alternatively called the Brewer of Huntingdon, due to his mother’s associations with the trade. Beer and ale therefore became associated with the populace during this period of civil strife and wine with Royalists, and thereby politicising lyrics stating ‘’From Hopps and Grains let us purge our braines; /They do smell of Anarchie’ (Earnshaw, 2000; 91). Such divisions also easily distinguished beer drinkers from people originating from the southern, wine-drinking regions across Europe. Temperance campaigners two centuries later may have shared Royalist sentiments, but for different reasons. Many teetotallers would have preferred nothing more than a reduction in the scale and frequency of brewing, as well as a diminution in the number of licenced premises, restrictions of which would have reduced the scent of beer within communities, or simply on the breath of working men. 

Although the cessation of brewing within many European communities inevitably occurred in the twentieth century, this was not due to the efforts of temperance campaigners, but rather the continued growth of the brewing industry, including a period of consolidation and mergers, which gradually led to the closure of many regional breweries. With the redevelopment of Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, once home to approximately 30 breweries, lost much of its industrial heritage, including the dominant Scottish & Newcastle brewery. Some residents can still recall the days when: ‘The whole area was dominated by the brewery. . . You could smell the malt from the brewery quite strongly. The smell was as strong a part of my memory of the impression of the place. You could smell it down at Haymarket and up at Tollcross. It would even drift up to Polwarth and Bruntsfield on occasions’ (Buckley, 2018: 202). In similar ways, the absence of brewing smells in many other European towns formally associated with the trade conjure strong feelings of loss and nostalgia.

Jonathan Reinarz
Jonathan Reinarz, “Brewers,” Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, accessed June 15, 2024, https://encyclopedia.odeuropa.eu/items/show/13.

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