Hopping through

I don’t like beer. More accurately, I don’t like hops. I know this for several reasons, one of which is that I’m quite fond of barley whiskey (scotch, irish whiskey, and such). But chasing this more fully led me to some interesting discoveries. I meandered through beermaking, and thought I’d share some notes of the journey.

If you ask brewers today, they’re going to tell you beer MUST have hops. They’re both right and wrong. We know this for several reasons. We know this because what’s now Germany passed a ‘purity law’ in 1633 for beer which said it must have (and only have) water, malted barley, and hops. (When they realized later that yeast wasn’t just something dropped from the air, they modified the law that much.) Or consider the Archbishop of Cologne, who in 1381 passed an edict with two instructions: All gruit must be purchased from ecclesiastically approved (and usually grown) fields, and hopped beers and ales were prohibited.

Gruit? That caught my eye and pulled me around for a bit. first, it turns out that hops were a type of gruit. A gruit is a packet of herbs and spices meant to balance the barleywater.

Barleywater – water in which a malted barley mash has been boiled – is sweet. It’s sugarwater. Even once it’s fermented it’s sweet. (Depending on which yeast happened by, it’s sweet and sour or sweet and yeasty – maybe all three). Now sugarwater alone is fine to a limited degree, but it needs something to balance it. The balance can be complementary – fruits, for example (which partially explains why koolaid is more drinkable than straight sugarwater). Or it can be an intentional counter – the aforementioned sour, or a bitter, or, well, you get the idea. A lot of herbs were used for gruit – coriander, rosemary, ale ivy (aka ground ivy), … even some things we know today are a bit risky to consume in any quantity (wormwood and tansy, for example).

So, why hops? Especially when you get to looking and discover that just about everywhere they were introduced the drinkers DID NOT LIKE THEM.

There are lots of reasons. Let’s start with conventional wisdom – hops are an antiseptic and so a bit of a preservative. Remember that brewing and keeping beer in an environment protected from unwanted bacteria did not happen until the past couple of centuries. Beer was fermented in wooden barrels and then stored in wooden barrels – both of which might be pitched (coated with a waterproof substance) but which still did not perfectly protect from the creeping advance of bacteria.

I need to write about wooden cutting boards some time rather than digress. Suffice it to say that bacteria can’t crawl through more than about a 16th inch of wood. They can, however, go through cracks between planks and through the wood itself if carried by moisture. Barrels containing liquids work in part by being wet enough the boards swell and join more tightly, with that wet sustained by the content. This leads to several consequences of which two I’ll chase later are aging and angel’s share. But for now the key thing is that the liquid in the barrel is vulnerable to bacteria.

Most gruisted beers go bad in a couple of weeks. Hopped beers on the other hand can last for months. Since it also balances the sweet you get two good roles for one herb – efficiency is to be admired. Every modern homebrew fan will tell you that’s why hops, in fact. It preserves and balances, so it’s good enough.

If you cook at all, you know why that jars on the ears. One spice? ONE? Gruists (most of which were trade secrets) had two, five, and even in one known case 11 different herbs/spices. And any herbalist can tell you there are plenty of antiseptic herbs that would give you the same preservative effect. (ahem… ginger, as in ginger beer. Sage, Thyme, Goldenseal…) hmmm. Let’s leave this for a moment.

I want to take a moment to go back to England and point to the 1500s. The beer guild was formed in 1493 as a separate organization from the ale guild – both calling themselves brewers, of course. The single difference between the two can be found in 1483 in a petition from the Alers to the mayor of London that, “no hops, herbs, or other like thing be put into any ale or liquore wherof ale shall be made–but only liquor, malt, and yeast.” Actually, around 1510 the Alers decided some herbs could be allowed, but NOT HOPS. By 1560 hops were the single certain distinguishing difference – hops were in beer and were not in ale.

By 1620 the difference was practically gone. In the 1790s it was killed by George Hodgson, creater of Hodgson’s Pale Ale which was the first India Pale Ale. Extra hops and a slightly higher alcohol content resulted in a beer that was still beer and not a slightly slimy, overly sour horse swill. (That’s not fair. Horses won’t drink it either.) It became the drink of the British army, and for several reasons (including you could have a gallon of it instead of a small ration of rum) it became a favorite of the navy as well. When THE empire’s men drink A drink, it becomes the standard. This, on top of the fact that most of the world’s so-called “master brewers” were from Germany and the Low Countries, all of whom used hops, well… By the mid-1800s pretty much nobody but historians knew anything but hops had been used in beer.

But again, why hops? At this point we run into speculation.

Speculation point one. Hops are easier. Yes, I know, ‘what about cooks’? Well, here’s an odd thing. Hops are hard on most bacterias and yeasts, but not so much on brewer’s yeast. If you mix with hops you’re more likely to get the yeast you want when you’re opening to air and hoping. Even when you’re using a specific yeast, hops will hamper all the competition more than it will your yeast. If you use ginger as your antiseptic, then, you have to add MORE yeast to overcome that barrier. In today’s extraordinarily clean brewing environments you shouldn’t have to worry about competing yeasts so that’s no longer a problem, but we’re looking at history.

Speculation two. Herbal properties. While most hops go to beer, some goes to various herbal medicine and drink areas. In the herbal world, humulus lupulus is a sedative. Ginger, to pick a popular alternative, is a stimulant. Now the alcohol is a depressant, meaning it shuts down something (in alcohol’s case, some of the mental brakes). With the brakes removed we can have replacement brakes or we can rev up the engine. hmmmm.

dunno. It might even be a third, or a combination. The bottom line is that today if it doesn’t have hops it isn’t beer, and all ales are beers. Since to my taste hops are a rancid factor that makes me want to clean my mouth out when I taste them, I don’t like beer.

But I may, someday, experiment with some … whatever we call them since “ale” has been stolen.

Oh, as a slight ending digression. You can make drinkable whiskey’s of many gruisted barleywaters, but you cannot make one of beer. The hops do very bad things to the taste.


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