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The Short and Bitter History of Hops

The Short and Bitter History of Hops

When you think of beer, you typically think of the four ingredients defined in the German Purity Laws of 1516 — the “Reinheitsgebot” in German — which are water, barley, yeast, and hops. But hops are a relatively new ingredient to beer production.

Beer is older than the very idea of civilization. Approximately 9,000 years ago — the age of the oldest known evidence of beer — most humans lived as hunter-gatherers and were nomadic. Somewhere around 6,000 years ago, the original proto-states started to form with things like centralized governments, militaries, and so on. That makes beer about 3,000 years older than what many scientists consider to be the formation of modern, civilized, organized states. In fact, Charlie Bamforth, Professor of Brewing Science at the University of California, Davis, and others have argued that “Beer is the basis of modern static civilization,” which made way for proto-states and civilization as we know it (1).

So, beer is old — really old. Hops in beer, well, not so much. Hops didn’t make their first appearance in written human history until Pliny the Elder’s “Naturalis Historia,” first published between 77–79 AD. Even then, Pliny the Elder considered the hop plant only as a botanist would, noting hops as a naturally growing plant, and spoke nothing of beer. It wasn’t until 736 AD that there was any mention of human cultivation of hops (instead of it just growing in the wild), and the first recorded history of hops in brewing doesn’t show up until 822 AD. That distinction goes to France — Picardy in Northern France, to be exact — where Abbot Adalhard of the Benedictine monastery of Corbie wrote down a set of rules determining how the abbey was to be run. Part of the rules addresses the porter’s collection of wild hops for making beer (and what to do if he failed at his task). Germany waited another 300 years to get in to the game — somewhere between 1150 and 1160 AD.

All told, the history of beer produced without hops is approximately 8000 years older than the history of beer produced with hops.

Prior to being used in beer, hops were enjoyed as a naturally-growing bitter vegetable by the ancient Romans, and in some parts of the world as a medicinal agent (and still are today). Hops actually have a relaxing quality about them, mostly due to the chemical dimethylvinyl carbinol, and were used to treat anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia. A pillow full of hops was at one time a common remedy for sleeplessness. (In fact, workers in hop fields were often known to tire out much more quickly than other farm workers, probably due to the transfer of the dimethylvinyl-carbinol-containing hop resin through the skin or mouths of the workers!) Hops are also known to be both anti-bacterial (they’re used in some all-natural deodorants) as well as an “antispasmodic agent,” which means not only can they help settle your stomach, they have even been used to treat painful menstrual symptoms. Even in North America, the Cherokee used hops to treat inflammation, as a sedative, and for other purposes (3) (4).

Interestingly, when hops finally DO appear in written history as a preservative in beer, its medicinal purposes are turned on their heads. The Abbess Hildegard of Bingen wrote about hops in the 1150s AD in the “Physica Sacra,” the first documented use of hops in the Germanic region and the first time in history hops were acknowledged as a preservative. She writes, “[The hop plant] is warm and dry, and has moderate moisture, and is not very useful in benefiting man, because it makes melancholy grow in man and makes the soul of man sad, and weighs down his inner organs. But yet, as a result of its own bitterness it keeps some putrefactions from drinks, to which it may be added, so that they may last so much longer(3)(5).” We finally have documentation of the benefits hops in beer, and it completely disregards the benefits to man!

For the 8000 years or so before the marriage of beer and hops, beer was flavored and preserved with a mix of spices and fruits commonly referred to as “gruit” or “grut.” Despite the use of hops in beer as early as 822 AD in France and 300 years later in Germany, common hop usage was eschewed for centuries for more traditional, gruit-based recipes. Much of this probably had to do with tradition — after all, change is hard — but hop usage was also harshly regulated in certain places. It wasn’t until the later part of the 13th century that hops actually started threatening gruit as the main preservative agent in beer in Germany. For England, it took even longer.

There is a bit of controversy about whether or not hops were ever completely outlawed anywhere, but any legend that says so is directly related to England. The almost ubiquitous “A History of Beer and Brewing” by Ian Hornsey claims that Henry VI outlawed the use of hops as an ingredient in beer. Many documents dating back to the 1400s claim that petitions to Parliament were made to stop the cultivation of hops in England. But this generalization is not the whole truth, and more likely, this is what happened:

Despite current definitions of beer and ale, in 15th and 16th century England, “ale” was defined as a malted cereal drink often flavored with gruit, while “beer” was a cereal brew that could use other ingredients, including hops. The generic use of hops was never outlawed, but many municipalities did attempt to preserve the distinction between the common “ale” and newer “beer” by outlawing the use of hops in ale, while allowing its use in “beer.” For example, in March of 1471, the mayor of Norwich declared “ale” was to be made completely pure, “nowther with hoppes nor gawle [sweet gale] nor noon other thing … upon peyne of grevous punysshment.” But this distinction between “ale” and “beer” is what is important — Henry VI had even instructed the sheriffs of London to protect and allow “beer” producers to continue the use of hops in their trade, supporting the ban on hops only to the production of ale (5). In fact, Henry VIII enjoyed both, and had both ale and beer brewed in court at the same time. (Interestingly enough, the gruit market was almost completely dominated by the Catholic Church in medieval England so there was pressure to keep hop production down — but Henry VIII ended that relationship, probably helping hop usage as a side effect.)

This attachment to “ale” was very British. In 1544, England invaded Picardy (remember Picardy, the first place to document the use of hops in beer in 822 AD?) and ran out of ale. The commander of Henry VIII’s forces complained they were forced to drink hopped “beer” for 10 days.

This difference between ale and beer pervaded through the mid 19th century, and it wasn’t until then that hops had slowly but definitively taken over gruit as the main preserving and bittering agent in beer throughout the world. After that, however, it was anybody’s game.

At the beginning of the early 20th century, brewers realized it was the soft resin in hops that actually did most of the preserving, because that’s where most of the acids are produced. This led to hop varieties being judged on the quality of their soft resin. Naturally, the specific cultivation of hop varieties with higher soft resin content followed. Soon after, Wye College in Kent began the first program of cross-breeding hops to pull out specific qualities. North American hops had up to three times the soft resin as European hops, but European hops were more floral. The result? Very floral hops with high soft resin content.

Since then, it’s been a very continual, very modern race to the best hop. Even universities got in to the game. Oregon State University and the USDA combined forces to produce the most widely used hops in the US today — Cascade hops. The University of Washington and University of Vermont have intensely studied hop production across the world. Centennial hops, also widely used, were originally bred in 1974 but not released for use until 1990. Crystal hops? 1993. And it continues — in February, 2010, Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences was gifted almost $1M to start researching hop production and breeding specifically aimed at craft brewers (6).

So it’s really only in the last 200 or so years that hops have become synonymous with beer, and the term “ale” was repurposed to describe a variety of beer, usually WITH hops. In the miniscule 2.5% of the history of beer those 200 years represent, hop production has gone from simple farming to intense chemical scientific research and breeding programs sponsored by the highest levels of US and other world governments. It wasn’t an easy road, but hops made room for themselves in our beer and our hearts, both by being such an awesome preservative — and helping make our beer taste really, really good.


1. “Ale’s Well with the World” —
2. “Hops: Humulus lupulus” —
3. A myth states that the original writing, by the Abbess Hildegarde of Bingen is from 1079 AD. She wasn’t born until 1098. She did write about hops first in her “Physica Sacra”, written between 1150–1160. American beer writer John P Arnold did try to dispell the myth as far back as 1911, but to no avail.
4. “HOPS (Humulus lupulus)” —
5. “A short history of hops” —
6. “OSU receives $1 million gift for hops breeding” —

Photo Credit: Brad Day —

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