by Roberta Milano
Hello Bob - Just love your column! Thought I'd give try writing
something but don't worry, if you don't like it I'll still be a loyal reader.
Anyway, I'm not a person who enjoys overly hopped beer. That got
me to thinking about the use of hops in the first place. I discovered
that the rise of the hop is a medieval development, though even at
that time their use was controversial.
Roman brewers, called cervesarii, did not use them during brewing.
Greeks viewed hops as a wild plant and Romans used them more as
an herb or perhaps a vegetable, both for flavoring and for some
medicinal purposes. Ah, the good old days if you ask me.
Elite Greeks and Romans largely looked down upon beer as the
beverage of the “barbarian.” Just as we do today, certain beverages
were connected to national identity and to socio-economic status.
Roman writers largely convey the idea that civil Romans sipped fine
wines and used olive oil, while the “barbarian” cultures to their north
(e.g., Celts, Germans) drank beer called cervesia and milk. Why,
these barbarians even used butter. Northern brews often had a
hefty amount of herbs and spices in them rather than hops.
Strainers were a must.
I went on to discover that it is likely that monks in the early 9th
century began to use hops cultivated in their hops gardens for the
beer made at the monastery. Although hops gave this beer flavor, it
had added value as a preservative. Beer with hops could now last up
to 6 months, and thus could be shipped in larger batches over
farther distances than in classical antiquity.
In 1380, the archbishop of Cologne outlawed hopped beers from
Westphalia (love this guy) in an effort to promote the use of his own
gruit in brews. In 1530, Henry VIII also tried to stop the use of hops,
preferring to maintain the standard of “Good old English ale.”
I can hear you saying so what about today. Well, there are several
historical styles that are trying to make a comeback which have either
a total absence or extremely limited use of hops. For example I
recently had a wonderful Poor Richard's Tavern Ale by Yards that's a
spruce beer. Spruce has a piney flavor (no surprise) that can also
come across as citrusy or floral. Spruce also contains some of its own
preservative compounds, making it a good substitute for some of the
chemical properties that hops typically bring to the party.
I can also recommend Williams Brothers Fraoch, which is a gruit.
Gruit is a catchall style that can encompass any beer made with a
single variety or blend of herbs in place of hops. Fraoch uses native,
wild ingredients to Scotland, heather and sweetgale to bitter the beer.
Also recently enjoyed Dogfish Head's Sah’Tea which uses black and
chai teas along with other spices instead of hops. It's worth a try.
Now don't get me wrong. I realize that the modern styles I prefer,
ones that are big on flavor from malt, yeast, and bacteria still contain
some amount of hops. After all, hops not only play a flavoring role in
beer, they also play a chemical role. Hops possess antibacterial
qualities, which extend beer’s longevity. They also play an important
role in countering sweetness from malt. For example, in a dry Irish
stout, such as Guinness, you wouldn’t detect any hop character, but
hops play an important balancing role in the background.
Hope I've given your readers something to think about. Even if
they like hops they might find they can also enjoy tasty beers
without being overpoweried by flavors of grapefrurit, citrus, fruits,
lemons, and tongue coating resins.
Thanks for sending your article Roberta. I agree with you that
many beers today are way over- hopped. You've certainly given
readers a good start on exploring the multitude of great beers that
provide so many unique flavors without relying solely on hops.
I'd like to invite everyone to send me their own columns about
anything related to beer/drinking/booze just as Henry did. I select
the best and publish them here. So join in and get writing.
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