The steep, pyramid-shaped roofs and curvaceous roundels of oast houses are a traditional and much-loved part of the landscape in Kent, East Sussex and West Sussex. Although much less common, oast houses are also be found in other hop-growing and former hop-growing areas such as Hampshire, Surrey, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. There are even examples in the north of England, Scotland, Europe and as far away as Australia.
Oast houses first appeared in England in the 16th century, though most of the surviving examples are from the 18th and 19th centuries. Traditional oasts constructed in this later period normally have two to three drying floors and between one and eight kilns. The kilns could be circular, square, rectangular or octagonal. Materials used in the construction included timber, bricks, ragstone and sandstone. Traditional cladding could be timber weatherboards or corrugated iron.
Oast houses were used to dry hops as part of the brewing process. The green hops were spread out on drying floors within the kiln. These floors were thin and perforated to allow hot air from a wood or charcoal fire at the bottom of the kiln to pass through. The distinctive cowls at the top of the oast towers controlled the airflow and ensured that a good draught was created to keep the fires going.
As the hop-picking process became more mechanised, many oasts fell into disuse. Some were demolished, others became derelict. However, with increasing demand for housing, many oasts were converted into houses. One of the earliest examples was an oast at Meopham Green which was converted in 1903. Since then, the attraction of living in a property with such distinct character has seen many oast houses have been converted for residential use.
Finding an unconverted one has become increasingly difficult. In fact, such is their popularity, there are "oast houses" which have never had an agricultural past at all. They are new builds built in the style of a traditional kiln and oast. There are even companies which specialise in the construction of bespoke oast cowls - an item that would have no functional use in agriculture today.