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John Wesley on Hops in 1789

A letter that Wesley published in the Bristol Gazette on September 7, 1789
Interviews February 8, 2006      
Written by JohnWesley

Oxford University, ENGLAND -

In the reign of King James I an Act of Parliament was made prohibiting the use of that poisonous herb called hops. It does not appear that this Act has ever been repealed. But in process of time it has been forgotten, and the poisonous weed introduced again. It has continued in use ever since; and that upon a general supposition, (1) that it was very whole­some, greatly promotive of health, and (2) that malt drink would not keep without it.

On these suppositions the use of it has not only con­tinued, but much increased during the present century. "I have lived in this town" (Whitechurch in Shropshire), said a gentleman to me sometime since, "above forty years, and have all that time brewed much malt drink. I use just the same quantity of hops that I did forty years ago; but most of my neighbors use four times as much now as they did then."

Nearly the same has been done in other counties, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in particular. Forty years ago, I well remember, all the ale I tasted there had a soft, sweetish taste, such as the decoction of barley will always have if not adulterated by bitter herbs. So it had two or three thousand years ago, according to the account in Ovid, who, speaking of the manner wherein Baucis entertained Jupiter, says, Bibendure Dulce dedit, tosta quod coxerat ante polenta: "She gave her something sweet to drink which she had prepared from parched malt."; whereas all the ale in Yorkshire as well as in other counties is now quite harsh and bitter.

But may it not be asked "whether this is not a change for the better, seeing hops are so exceeding wholesome a plant"? Are they so? Why, then, do physicians almost with one voice forbid their patients the use of malt drink, particularly all that are infected with the scurvy or any distemper related to it? Do not they know there is not a more powerful anti-scorbutic in the world than wort - that is, unhopped decoction of malt? What a demonstration is this that it is the addition of hops which turns this excellent medicine into poison! And who does not know that wort, unhopped malt drink, is an excellent medicine both for the gout and stone? But will any physician in his senses recommend the common malt drink to one that is ill of or subject to those diseases? Why not? Because there is no drink that more directly tends to breed and increase both one and the other.

"But whether hops are wholesome or no, are they not necessary to prevent malt drink from turning sour?" I never doubted of it for fourscore years. And there are very few that do doubt of it. It has passed for an incontestable truth ever since I was in the world. And yet it is as absolute palpable a falsehood as ever was palmed upon mankind. Any one may in a short time be convinced of this by his own senses. Make the experiment yourself. Brew any quantity of malt, add hops to one half of this, and none to the other half. Keep them in the same cellar three or six months, and the ale without hops will keep just as well as the other. I have made the experiment at London. One barrel had no hops, the other had. Both were brewed with the same malt, and exactly in the same manner. And after six months that without hops had kept just as well as the other. "But what bitter did you infuse in the room of it?" No bitter at all. No bitter is necessary to preserve ale, any more than to preserve cider or wine. I look upon the matter of hops to be a mere humbug upon the-good people of England; indeed, as eminent an one on the whole nation as "the man’s getting into a quart bottle" was on the people of London.

"However, are they not necessary on another account -- namely, to advance the public revenue? Does not the tax upon hops bring in two or three hundred-thousand pounds yearly into the Exchequer?" Perhaps it does. And yet it may be not an advantage but a loss to the nation. So it cer­tainly is if it breeds and increases grievous and mortal diseases, and thereby destroys every year thousands of His Majesty’s liege subjects. May not gold be bought too dear? Are not one hundred thousand lives worth more than two hundred thousand pounds? Each of these men, had this poison been kept out of his reach, had he lived out all his days, would probably have paid more yearly in other taxes than he paid for leave to put himself out of the world.

Oh that someone had the honesty and courage to inform His Majesty of this! Would the most benevolent Prince in Europe desire or consent to barter the lives of his subjects for money? Nay, but in fact, it is selling them for naught, and taking no money for them; seeing it is evident, upon the whole of the account, that nothing at all is gained thereby. For it is certain more money is lost by shortening the lives of so many men (seeing the dead pay no taxes) than all the hop tax through the nation amounts to.

"But do not many physicians, most of whom are now alive, and some of them of considerable note, affirm hops to be exceeding wholesome? and that both in their conversations and writings?" They certainly do; but who can imagine that they believe themselves when they talk so? If they did, would they deny, would they not prescribe malt drink to their gouty or scorbutic patients? But they do not; because they know, however good wort might be for them, add hops to it and it commences poison. Deny this who dare. With what face, then, can any man of character affirm them to be whole­some? But, whether they are necessary for raising money or no, certainly they are not necessary for preserving drink. This will keep for six or twelve months just as well without hops as with them.

Yet we must not suppose that any arguments what­ever, which ever were or can be used, will have any weight in this case with the planters or sellers of hops or those that are connected with them. They have a ready answer to the strong­est reasons that can be advanced on this head (although they may not always see it expedient to speak out): "Sir, by this means we get our wealth." And is it not easy for them to procure ingenious men to plead for them when the craft is in danger? When, therefore, we make observations of this kind, all which can be expected is that a few sensible men, who are neither blinded by interests nor carried away by popular clamor, will attend to the voice of reason, and be persuaded to save their money and preserve the health of their families.



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start quote Brew any quantity of malt, add hops to one half of this, and none to the other half. Keep them in the same cellar three or six months, and the ale without hops will keep just as well as the other. end quote