A Wolf Among Sheep - The Hop

Common herbs used in Gruit

Common herbs used in Gruit

Historically, the beer we know today tastes nothing like the spice and herb laden concoctions of the past. Modern beer utilizing the four main ingredients of barley, hops, water, & yeast is a fairly recent invention in the grand scheme. Typical beers of the ancients utilized juniper, coriander, rosemary, and other aromatics to both clarify & preserve these early brews. Some of these mixtures were called gruit, and modern examples are still brewed today. It is not agreed upon why brewers started utilizing hops in place of these other ingredients. The beer historian Michael Jackson proposes that “perhaps their superficial resemblance to the grapevine helped draw attention”, which is not that far fetched given the popularity of wine among the ancients. Also, Jackson proposes “a more contemporary association might be with marijuana, since both the hop plant and cannabis both belong to the same family Cannabaceae. Whatever, the reason, beer today is brewed with the hop a plant, which added greatly to both the flavor and preservation of beer.

Cross section of the Hop

Cross section of the Hop

Before we dive into the first historical uses of the hop, it would be of interest to discuss what this plant, specifically its flowers are, and what they do in the brewing process. The hop plant, Humulus lupulus, comes from a family of flowering herbaceous perennials, with the hop itself being the flower of the plant is also referred to as the strobile. The female plants flowers are the cones used in brewing with the wild male plant being a nuisance to hop cultivators as the seed of the female cone if fertilized with male pollen adds unnecessary weight and can cause problems in the “clarification of bottom fermented beer”. The cone itself is composed of overlapping bracteoles (the petals) and seeds, which contain sticky yellow glands where the brewer finds the resins and essential oils necessary for the brewing process. These essential oils, also referred to humulones create, through thermal reaction, alpha acids, which provide both aroma and bitterness to beer. While other acids are produced, that are utilized for the aromatics and flavor of certain styles, the alpha acid is the key to the preservation of beer due to its antimicrobial and preservative qualities. With the rise of hop utilization came a new era of beer that would preserve longer and could travel vast distances without spoilage from unwanted microbes.

Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder

The famed historian, Pliny the Elder studied hops and mentioned them first as salad plants, where the young spring cuttings would be used as what we can only think of as a severely bitter plate. He also mentions the Romans called the plant a “wolf among sheep” due to its wild growth among willows and its tenacity as a climbing plant to strangle its host. The Romans named it Lupus salictarius due to this observation and part of the historical wolf derived name is preserved in the plants modern botanical name. The first use of hops in beer is still widely speculated, while the first written use comes from the 9th century, however the ancients may have used the hop as records from the Jewish captivity in Babylon refer to “a sicera (strong drink) ex lupulis confectum (“made from hops”). Apparently, that drink was thought to prevent  leprosy. 

Hallertau region in Germany where one of four noble hop varieties originate

Hallertau region in Germany where one of four noble hop varieties originate

Of course, regions that are now Germany are the most associated with hop production starting in the 8th & 9th centuries. Our “noble” hop varieties come from these regions. The continental European countries took to hopped beer fairly quickly with the last holdout being England who viewed the hop with disdain and horror. Funny enough, our modern view of English beers all now refer to styles revolving around hop utilization. Another interesting point is that in Germany the hop was not taxable to the Catholic church making hopped beer a commodity for the protestants while Gruit still remained taxable. Whatever the final reasons are, we now have beer that is inseparable from hops, while some historic non-hopped styles still exist. 

Today some of the most well known styles of beer are hop forward ales, such as the American and English Pale Ale, the India Pale Ale (IPA), English Bitter, and many more. The cultivation of hops have given brewers an arsenal of varieties to play with that can bring spice, floral, citrus, grassy, herbal, and other notes into beer by selecting the right hop varieties and use in the process. Take and American IPA for example with its heavy citrus forward notes all coming from hops and compare that to the beautiful simplicity of a Pilsner and its bouquet of floral and spicy notes, once again coming from hops. That is the wonder and magic of this amazing plant, the ability to impart flavors and aromas that all come from what to the untrained nose and eye is just a simple vine but is truly the wolf among sheep.