Beer Without Hops

Posted on 01.07.08 5:30PM under Herbal Beer, Style Profile

Hops in a BowlToday’s beer as we know it uses hops for spicing. Hops provide bitterness, flavor, and aroma to beer. Hops balance out malt character to improve beer drinkability. Hops act as a preservative, helping to maintain flavor stability in beer as it is aged, transported, and stored. But did you know that hops have only really been used in beer for about the last 500 years. It wasn’t until the 16th century that hops in beer was the standard.

Now five hundred years of hops might sound like a long time, but consider that beer has been around for at least 4000-9000 years or more. Sort of depends on what you’d consider beer, but there was a long time when other herbs, such as gale, yarrow, and rosemary, among many others. In fact, at first, the British and other classic brewing nations strongly resisted the use of hops.

There’s a bit of a debate, with two strong sides, about why they switched to hops from other herbs. One side says that brewers determined that the preservative qualities of hops were the major factor, and allowed the brewers to make less-highly alcoholic beer that could keep well for as long as the higher-alcoholic brews of the day. The other side says that it came from a temperance movement; the herbs had more narcotic and psychotropic effects, and the hops are more sedative in nature, so using hops helped to reduce the perceived problems associated with drinking herbed ales.

I don’t know who’s right here. The first side seems to underestimate the intelligence of the earliest brewers – they surely were familiar with hops preservative qualities, and furthermore, they have other preservative herbs available to them. But the second argument is a bit too conspiracy-theory for me – it is based on the concept of those in power promoting hops as a control mechanism.

The first side of the story is well-accounted here.

The second side is compellingly presented here.

There’s a sort of balanced perspective here.

Now, with the infamous hops shortage that the beer industry is facing, we might get a chance to test some of these herbal brews from our commercial brewing friends. Sure, there are a few already out there, like Fraoch Heather Ale, but chances are even if you go to the best beer store you know and ask for beer without hops, you’ll be met with blank stares, or at best the simple news that they don’t have any of that. We’ll see how this story develops as the year progresses.

In the mean time, I’ve tested my hand at a few herbal beers. I made one small beer with a little Wormwood. It was a bit harsh, to put it nicely. Better luck next time, I guess. I also just recently made a beer with Fraser Fir as the sole spice. It is still bubbling away in the fermenter, but we’ll see how that one turns out. The wort sample was tasty, so I am optimistic. My next herbal beer may be made with Yarrow – it is a bit more traditional for herbal beer, and supposedly pretty good.

A few reference books for non-hops beer are Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner, and Alewife’s Garden by Jillian VanNostrand and Christine V. Sarles. Both are full of recipes for herbal beers, and Buhner has tons of associated history, from his unique perspective.

Ever made or tasted a beer that has no hops in it? How was it?

Read Comments

  1. Posted by Prof. Pilsner on 01.20.08 7:32 PM

    Have tried and enjoyed Froach and Grozet at some beer dinners that I host at some local restaurants here in Melbourne, Australia. Because of the lack of depth and bitterness, we found they actually work better matched with some bold flavoured foods – Asian duck, roast game and twice-cooked pork. It’s just good to see that old styles are not being forgotten. I guess it’s up to beer people like ourselves to keep spreading the good news!

    Cheers,
    Pete (Prof. Pilsner)

  2. Posted by Keith Brainard on 01.20.08 7:56 PM

    I hadn’t heard of Grozet before. Thanks for the heads-up.

    I could see how a delicate beer could really provide a nice counter to big foods you’re talking about.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Posted by Vishwanath Chauhan on 01.18.09 6:47 AM

    garcina cola (which is used in coca cola) along with two other nigerian herbs has proven to be the closest substitutes to hops

  4. Posted by Keith Brainard on 01.18.09 7:31 AM

    Vishwanath, do you know of any beers available on the American market that contain these hops alternatives?

  5. Posted by Daniel Demaret on 06.07.09 8:15 AM

    I tasted privately brewed beer in SCA about 20 years ago.

    The best think I ever drank.

    If anyone have any suggestions on non-hop-beers, I would love to try them all.

  6. Posted by j on 07.22.09 6:02 PM

    i was in denver this past fall and had some great homemade Gruit, as well as a brew made with labrador tea. they were both quite tasty and strong.

  7. Posted by Add a Natural Herbal Remedies To Your Beer Drinking on 08.16.09 8:13 AM

    [...] recipe, but what about trying a beer brewed with coriander, oats, black currant or coffee? In fact, hops have only been the brewing herb of choice for the last 500 of beer’s more than 4,000-year [...]

  8. Posted by GrowARemedy Blog » Blog Archive » Add a Natural Herbal Remedies To Your Beer Drinking on 08.16.09 11:13 AM

    [...] recipe, but what about trying a beer brewed with coriander, oats, black currant or coffee? In fact, hops have only been the brewing herb of choice for the last 500 of beer’s more than 4,000-year [...]

  9. Posted by joshuare on 07.15.10 10:45 AM

    I have just brewed a hopless beer using dandelion root, yarrow, peppermint, sage and birch branches. I can’t wait to see how it will turn out!

  10. Posted by Keith Brainard on 07.15.10 2:18 PM

    I’d love to see the recipe, and I’m eager to hear how it comes out!

  11. Posted by Medicinal Beer | ByzantineFlowers on 03.19.13 11:39 AM

    [...] but what about trying a beer brewed with coriander, oats, black currant or coffee? In fact, hops have only been the brewing herb of choice for the last 500 of beer’s more than 4,000-year [...]

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