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Friday, June 15, 2012

The Original Hop Revolution

One of the more interesting chapters in brewing history is the ver-r-r-y slow shift from sweet ales spiced with gruit to hopped beers.  The first time anyone mentioned using hops in beer was 822, when the abbot of a French monastery wrote about it.  It would be something on the order of three hundred years before hopped beer enjoyed any kind of popularity, though.

It's not hard to see why it would have taken so long.  For one, hopped beer is hard to make.  In order to get the full benefit, brewers have to boil the hopped wort for an hour or more.  Gruit beer may not even have been boiled; why would brewers have gone to the trouble to collect and burn wood when they could extract the flavor from spices without a long boil?  (Brewing, a domestic chore until the monks took it up in the seventh century, was little-documented.)  When brewers started working with hops, they wouldn't have understood this feature, and it would have posed technical challenges.  Perhaps more importantly, the flavor of gruit beer and hopped beer is quite different.  It's clear this was the main barrier.  An acquired taste, people initially rejected the new product wherever it was introduced.  In Britain, the last frontier, locals managed to stave off the stuff until the 1500s. 

The reason hops won out was not aesthetic, it was biological.  The Hanseatic towns of Bremen and Hamburg were the first to perfect hopped beer, and they had a huge market advantage: their beer kept.  They could brew it, ship it to Amsterdam, and even then it would outlast beer brewed locally.  Until the introduction of hops, beer had a shelf life of days before it would curdle into vinegar.  Hopped beer was still saturated with wild yeasts, but fewer, and the hops delayed the souring process.  Hops made it possible to ship beer and turned it into a regional commodity--and therefore a commercial one.

I recount all of this history because a thought occurred to me that I wanted to bounce off you--for you are collectively smarter than I.  Breweries long avoided brewing in summer because the wild yeasts were too virulent to make decent beer.  Until as late as the 19th century, lots of breweries quit making beer in the summer because of this.  Of course, beer was hopped, so it would keep long enough that people could drink beer throughout the summer.  Here's the question, though: before hops, there's no way beer would have kept throughout the summer.  Wouldn't brewing have been a strictly seasonal pursuit?  If so, it's no wonder it remained a domestic chore, not a viable commercial activity.  Am I missing something?


  1. "The Hanseatic towns of Bremen and Hamburg..."

    Check with Hornsey. I recall (here from the desk at work) that hops move up from south-central central eastern Europe earlier than that. It is just that the Hanseatic League (aka the HLB) were the post- Black Plague traders freed of the shackles of commercial tradition who get the stuff moving outside of ecclesiastical control.

    [I want a jersey, btw, from the HLB all-star game.]

    On the "keeping" idea, somewhere Pattinson and I had a one sided conversation (me questions, he astonishment at the vague nature of my questions) about sourness and beer and tradition (ie medieval) but you have to check out Unger on this stuff. Beer was constantly supplied when it was the main carb source in the Low Countries. It was either very fresh ale style essentially drunk from the primary or it was soured for those who had the means to store beer for later.

  2. BTW - Unger is on your side of the continent. You should pay a visit to him at UBC.

  3. I tend to go with Unger on the earlier stuff--especially where the continent's concerned--and he's my source for this. Eg: "After the first period of development...came the second, perfecting of the use of hops in making beer. How and when that happened remains obscure, but the exports from Bremen, then Hamburg and other north German Hanse ports after 1200 are a sure sign of the production of large quantities of durable hopped beer."

    The earlier period would require me to speak Latin and have the time to pore through monastic records--all, possibly, on a goose chase. That's why I used "perfect," not realizing until just now that I'm totally ripping Unger off.

    Interestingly, Unger does argue that earlier beer had to be brewed strong so that the alcohol would act as a disinfectant. This is an interesting hypothesis, but I wonder how long it prolonged a beer's life.

    That Unger is over on our coast illustrates why he is the clear authority on hops. :-)

  4. I've heard about records from the 11th c. in Hamburg mentioning Saaz hops arriving by barge, and there's also the hop tithe of the Price Vladislav II in 1088 in Prague, which could imply that hops were widely used for brewing already at that time.

    Another thing, Ron Pattinson mentions that Berliner Weisse didn't go through a boil until relatively recently and that the hops were boiled separately and then added before fermentation, or something like that. I wouldn't be surprised if that practice was common in Central Europe.

  5. Goose chase? Of course it is all a goose chase. Have you seen Unger's other writings? Shipping records!! Taxation records I ger but who the hell reviews shipping records??? We are kindergaardeners. And stopping at latin is not excuse ;-)

    Evidence is not only the problem in the sense that they are not clear but we know they are partial and not available. Where we have a record of activity X we should be certain that the activity and the recording of an activity is not concurrent. Sucks but that is life.