A Brief History of Hops in Beer

     Hops are a relatively new addition to the brewmaster’s toolkit.  Prior to the widespread adoption of hops, beer was bittered and flavored with spice and herb mixtures sometimes called gruit.  Any number of herbs and spices went into gruit including henbane, wild rosemary, heather, ginger, spruce, juniper, and bog myrtle, just to name a few. In parts of Europe the blending of gruit was the closely held province of Gruit Guilds that had exclusive rights and kept the specific ingredients secret.  The first documented link between hops and brewing is from 822 AD when a Benedictine abbot wrote a series of statutes covering the running of the monastery that included gathering sufficient hops for making beer. Evidence suggests that commercial hop cultivation began in northern Germany during the 12th or 13th century and that the Germans were exporting hopped beer from the 13th century onward.  The first evidence of hopped beer being brewed in England is from 1412 and for a time English brewers produced both un-hopped “ale” and hopped “beer.”  On April 23, 1516 the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot was put into effect declaring hops one of the three allowable beer ingredients (Yeast hadn’t yet been discovered).  In 1710 the English parliament banned the use of non-hop bittering agents, at least in part to prevent brewers from evading the new penny-per-pound hop tax.  Thus, hops became the dominant bittering agent in beer throughout the western world.


What Are Hops?


     Hops (Humulus lupulus) are a perennial plant of the Cannabaceae family that also includes the genus Cannabis.  In beer hops provide bitterness to balance the sweetness of malt sugars, as well as flavors, aromas, resins that increase head retention, and antiseptics to retard spoilage.  Often referred to as a “vine”, hops are actually a “bine”, using a strong stem and stiff hairs to climb rather than tendrils and suckers to attach.  It is the flower of the hop plant that is used in brewing.  Hop flowers or cones resemble pine cones but are composed of thin, green, papery, leaf-like bracts.  At the base of these bracts are waxy, yellow lupulin glands that contain alpha acids responsible for bitterness and essential oils that give beer flavor and aroma.  The plant has separate male and female bines, but only the female bines develop cones.  If male plants are allowed to pollinate them, the flowers will produce seeds, rendering them useless for brewing. Aside from their use in beer, hops also have medicinal application as a sleep aid.  Hop filled pillows were once a common remedy for insomnia.



Hops History courtesy of “A Perfect Pint”.net

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