Beer 101: Hops in History

07-18-2016, The BeerVibe Crew

Hops in history, doctor, blood and beer, beer

While beer has been around for a very long time, the use of hops in beer has only been around for a long time. The earliest history of hops in beer is a little hazy, but there is general agreement that in the eighth century hops were cultivated at the monastery of Weihenstephan in Germany. Beer is still brewed there.

In the ninth century there was the first documented use of hops in beer. In 822 the Benedictine Abbot Adalhard in Corbie, France; prescribed the gathering of wild hops for brewing beer. See the conflict in beer history making the early history of hops a bit hazy?

It was noted that hops had the effect of balancing the sweetness of the malt with bitterness, and preserving the beer for an extended amount of time. Not being aware of microbes, the brewers of those times did not know of the antimicrobial effects hops had on beer. They just knew that the beer lasted longer.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was a Benedictine abbess, nun, natural scientist, composer, polymath, and beer drinker. She was subject to having visions from a very early age and as an adult wrote, among many other things; the scientific and proper way to practice bloodletting to treat a variety of maladies. Also, the benefits of using hops in beer. We today are less certain of the benefits of losing blood as a medical treatment, but we can agree with her in the use of hops in beer. She lived to the ripe old age of 81, which was quite an accomplishment for that time. Some like to attribute her longevity to her beer drinking and try to copy her example hoping for similar results.

As it dawned on people that hops had a preservative effect on beer, the need for brewers and brewsters to be constantly brewing gradually diminished and the prospects of making bigger batches that could be stored and shipped to other markets grew and brewing became a bigger and more profitable industry that gradually crowded out the small home-brewer. In the 1100s hops cultivation in Germany became common, and it spread out to the Low Countries.

With these developments, it is reported that in 1360 the first beers brewed with hops were imported to England from the Low Countries. With the growing popularity of hops thrown into the brew, hops also became an item of international trade and subject to tariffs. In 1524 (or 1511, depending on what historian you are listening to) hops were first cultivated in Kent, England. In 1516, the (probably) first ever purity law for the protection of consumers was enacted in Bavaria. The Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Law which mandated only three permissible ingredients in beer: water, barley, and hops. Later, when yeast was discovered; it was added to the list. It wasn’t until 1987 that this law was finally repealed giving brewers the right to experiment and make products with other ingredients. However, even today some German brewers are proud to adhere to the standards of Reinheitsgebot and prominently display the word on their products.

It was with the use of hops that we find a distinction between what was called beer and what was called ale. Before this, the terms were rather synonymous. Ale was brewed without hops and beer (lagers) were brewed with hops. Today the distinction is that ales use yeasts that ferment on the top and lagers (or beers) ferment on the bottom. They both have hops. You can think of lager yeasts as bottom feeders.


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