Hops are one of the most important ingredients in modern brewing. They help flavour, add aroma and preserve beer. But despite having a long history in Europe they were not used in alcohol for a very long time, and it took a while for them to become the dominant force they are in modern brewing.
Hops are a wild indigenous plant to Europe. Chances are you’ve seen some growing wild yourself. This makes it a very hardy plant, that is well adjusted to our climate. The earliest record we have of hops being cultivated is 736AD. In the Hallertau region of Bavaria, now Germany. This is a name you may recognise from the German lager hop Hallertau. Along with Tettnanger, Spalt and Saaz it is a European Noble hop. These are a traditional variety of hops, more aromatic than bitter. There are other groups of important hops, such as the English hops Fuggles and Goldings. All these hops came from unique plants found in the wild. These hops are the ancestors for all our other varieties, such as Prima Donna being a descendent of Goldings.
Hops were used for many things before brewing, though we don’t recommend you try them without doing a lot of research yourself though. The Romans were known to eat hop stems, with many recipes expanding on the similarities to asparagus. Others used hops as medicine, with some suggesting it can help with pain or even insomnia. But what about beer before hops? Well people simply used whatever they could get their hands on. These unhopped beers were known as Gruit. Many had avoided hops, because despite some cultures eating them others thought of them as poisonous. Which the cones can be to smaller animals, if eaten in great quantities. Instead a large range of herbs were used, along with common ingredients like honey. Some like heather are still quite popular, but others have been replaced with more potent flavours.
It wasn’t until the 13th century that hopped beer started to be a noted phenomenon. Brewing with hops originated in Germany, and quickly began to spread across Europe. The hops preserved the beer better, by having a longer shelf life transporting beer became way easier. It could be exported great distances and be perfectly drinkable, if not benefitting the flavours by having extra time to mature. Mumme, a style from Brunswick, was one of the first beers to be exported huge distances. But it wasn’t all plain sailing to get to this point. One of the problems hopped beer faces was the Gruitrecht, or Gruit Laws. As brewing had become a larger industry, taxation followed. Hopped beer caused an issue as it was not clear if it fell under the same category. It was also stifled by the perception of hops in some areas like Britain, as mentioned above some thought they were poisonous. Many pushed for a distinction to be made between hopped beer and English Ale. But they were never successful on a countrywide scale. It took until the 16th Century for hopped beer to become accepted across Europe, and by the 17th century unhopped beer was no longer common.
Hops have become an integral part of brewing and have an important place in history. Without them the world of brewing could not have expanded as they did. Which is pretty good going for a weed.