English Hops were introduced by Flemish farmers who had fled their homeland—a major hop producing area in the High Middle Ages—during the French–English Hundred Years War (1336–1453), but it is not entirely certain when the first hop was cultivated in England. The Flemish settled in Kent in the southeast of England, where, by the mid-16th century, hop cultivation was firmly established. The hop had a hard time getting established in England. By the mid-1400s, ales that were hopped became known as “beer,” whereas only unhopped brews continued to be called ales. In fact, while hops were being legislated into beer on the European Continent, it seems they were being legislated out of beer in the British Isles, notably by King Henry VIII, who in the 1530s—obviously taking time out from his strenuous philandering—forbade the use of hops outright at his court. He considered hops an aphrodisiac that would drive the populace to sinful behavior (such was the pious duplicity of a ruler who managed to go through countless mistresses—not to speak of six wives, two of whom lost their heads in the Tower). Even Samuel Johnson, author of the first Dictionary of the English Language, wrote in his seminal work as late as 1775 that “beer” is a “liquor made from malt and hops,” whereas “ale” is a “liquor made by infusing malt in hot water and fermenting the liquor.” By 1775, however, virtually all British ales were made with hops. Perhaps Johnson should have known better, considering that he wrote much of his Dictionary over pints of hopped ale in an alehouse along the Thames called The Anchor Inn, in London’s Southwark district, just a stone’s throw from the Hop Exchange.
During the hop growing season in England, roughly between April and September, the climate in England is wetter and colder than that of continental Europe, which is why, over centuries, very different cultivars survived the natural selection process in England and became commercial varieties.
Although modern British brewers are making increasing use of hops from far-flung regions (particularly the United States and New Zealand), British hops remain singular. The overall character of English hops trends to a certain stone-fruit earthiness of aroma that is distinctly different from the more citrus-like notes of New World varieties. Indeed, American craft brewers widely use English hops to help bring those flavors to British-inspired pale ales and bitters. Many British beer enthusiasts, although they appreciate New World hops, cannot imagine a classic British bitter without distinctively English hop aromatics.