On the Hop...

Scott Lloyd takes a brief look at the ubiquitous Hop? (Humulus Lupulus)

On the Hop - Beer Searcher
"Beer is the basis of modern static civilisation," so cites Dr Charlie Bamforth, Professor of Brewing Science at the University of California.. which also made way for proto-states and civilisation as we know it.

It is almost tempting to leave it at that! But, we need to reach the 21st century, and so a few more facts and figures from the Beer Searcher archives must follow.  It is no secret that beer produced without hops is a stonking 8000 years older than the history of beer made with hops.


All recent beer converts might need reminding that historically hops were hugely enjoyed as a vegetable by the Romans, in the manner of a medicinal herb and as a preservative. A pillow containing hops was regularly used as a remedy for insomnia. That might explain why hop-pickers would often complain of feeling unnaturally tired. We now know that hop resin could be transferred through skin abrasions and by mouth when eating. An interesting experience for those pickers walking on 20ft stilts between tall trellises.

Hop Picking
So, what of Beer or perhaps ale, some 8,000 years ago. Well, firstly all cereals containing sugars can undergo impromptu fermentation with the abundance of wild yeasts in the air, in fact the oldest surviving beer recipe some 4,000 years ago mentions beer production originating from barley via bread!


In the absence of hops, beer was flavoured and preserved with a mix not akin to Cromwell's mince-pies. More recently called "gruit", "grut" or "gruyt" a German word for herb.

Historically, a mix of varied spices and fruits enabled ancient brewers to brew with "the indigenous, natural ingredients at hand. The artistry, creativity and diversity of these beers were as colourful and contrasting as the varied cultures in which they were brewed." As reports Dogfish Head, a brewery in Milton, Delaware, who have developed a range of historic ales created by Dr Patrick McGovern, a molecular archeologist. Evidence of grapes, honey, saffron, hawthorn fruit, chrysanthemum flowers and sake rice have all been identified as early beer flavours and preservatives. Germany then took the lead in the late 13th century, scoring perhaps the first goal when experimenting with hops as an alternative to "guist" as a preservative.


England played by the rules, with Henry V1 (1422-1461) initially outlawing the use of hops as an ingredient in beer. This probably led to the first distinction between "beer and "ale". Ale was always a malted "gruit" concoction, while "beer" (from the Old English beor) had a freedom of ingredients including hops! Yet, the law created an early distinction by Henry's insistence that eventually only "beer" producers, not ale producers could use the hops available at the time!

Henry V111 (1491-1597) enjoyed both, but then he was something of a hedonist!

With the Roman Catholics favouring the "gruit" market, in an attempt to keep hops suppressed, Henry's love of beer would seem almost symbolic with his split from the Catholic Church.

The distinction however, remained. As Roger Protz reminds us, in his 2008 annual hop lecture.."By the middle of the 16th century there were 26 commercial or "common" brewers in London, most of them based in Southwark, close to the Hop Exchange, where hops from Kent were bought and sold." While brewers adopted the hop, they continued to use other ingredients from the past. The Nethergate Brewery in Suffolk found a recipe for a London Porter dating from the 1750's, once trialed by Taylor Walker. "As well as brown malt, darker malts and hops, the recipe included coriander and bog myrtle - the result is a remarkable, spicy beer called Umbel Magna." Roger tells us that Kent brewers had even shown an interest in Spanish liquorice - surely one for the Brew Dogs!


Gruit finally gave way to hops around 1850. As a preserving and 'bittering' agent, nothing compared. In that eureka of scientific discoveries, around the turn of the century, Chapman, Adrian Brown, Barth, Bamberger and others from the Institute of Brewing proved the existence of hard and soft resins as preservatives. In addition, along with the accompanying essential oils, the alled lupulin glands of the female hop cone finally revealed its properties.

It is here we find the acidity and how different resins can be judged to improve or detract from the quality of many different hop varieties now on the market.

Cultivation would eventually see intense scientific development to improve and soften the resin quality,and to create hardier and pest resistant crops. As we entered the 21st century well over 100 dominant hop varieties are available to both large brewers, micro brewers and brewpubs. An essential ingredient to flavour and preserve.


It all started with grain, water and yeast.....in our next piece we take an in depth look at new hop growing developments, harvesting techniques and the strange migration of hops to and from the Americas.

Scott Lloyd - Beer Searcher