Today’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?
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