History of Hops

Europeans have been engaged in the cultivation of hops, scientifically known as Humulus lupulus L, for a vast number of centuries. However, it was only in a later period that the brewing of hopped beer took on a significant role, becoming a highly sought-after trade item and the beverage of choice among brewers and consumers alike, particularly in nations such as France and England.

An examination of the origin of the word “hops” yields fascinating insights. Its etymological roots can be traced to both Ural-Altaic and Turkic sources. Initially appearing in Slavic dialects, the term eventually emerged in North Germanic languages. This linguistic trajectory, in conjunction with references to hops within the folklore of the northeastern European region, furnishes robust evidence that the practice of cultivating and utilizing this plant probably radiated outwards from Central Asia, extending both westward and southward.

In the context of ancient Greece, hops were primarily categorized as a wild plant species. Conversely, the Romans engaged in the cultivation of hops within their vegetable gardens, employing the plant not merely for brewing purposes but also for culinary and medicinal applications. The eminent Roman writer Pliny the Elder championed the utilization of hops as a curative for liver-related illnesses, while the Greek geographer Strabo documented an array of medicinal advantages stemming from the consumption of this particular plant. Among the Roman populace, wild hop tendrils were esteemed as a culinary delight, savored in a way analogous to the contemporary appreciation of asparagus

Life in the Hop Garden by Phoebus Levin 1859
Life in the Hop Garden by Phoebus Levin 1859

The use of hops in conjunction with the brewing of beer has a rich history that can be traced back to a specific date in early European civilization. The earliest known reference to hops being used in the beer brewing process is documented in the year 736 CE in a sacred monastery document that originated from the Hallertau region of Bavaria, located in present-day Germany. this period was marked by intense experimentation and discovery within the culinary and brewing arts, with monasteries playing a central role in preserving and advancing the craft of brewing.

In the year 822 CE, the abbot of Corvey England made a significant proclamation. He explicitly stated that hops were an essential ingredient for brewing and decreed that tenants of the monastery’s lands were expected to engage in both the production of malt and the gathering of wild hops for the benefit of the monastery. During this period, the quantities required were minimal, indicating that the cultivation and use of hops were in their nascent stages.

Over the course of the following century, a substantial shift occurred in brewing practices across Europe. Monasteries in regions such as France and Belgium began to expect, and even demand, significant quantities of hops and malt from their tenants. The sheer volume of these ingredients implied that cultivation on an organized scale had been firmly established by this time. This marked a pivotal moment in the history of brewing, as the cultivation of hops became not just a casual practice but a structured agricultural enterprise.

Among the historical figures who have contributed to the understanding of beer brewing, the renowned Benedictine abbess Hildegard, an enlightened and progressive figure of the Rhineland region in what is now modern-day Germany, stands out.  In her treatise “Physica,” penned around the year 1150 CE, Hildegard provided fascinating insights into the brewing process, particularly emphasizing the use of hops as an alternative to gruit in beer recipes that incorporated oats.

What makes her writings both captivating and perplexing is their surprising limitation in detail. While she illuminated the practice of employing hops in brewing, her writings fall short in explaining the specific methodologies or cultural environments in which hops were utilized. Moreover, she did not furnish precise information on whether the hops in question were systematically cultivated or randomly gathered from the wild. This absence of detail leaves a noticeable void in the historical record, creating an intriguing mystery about the true nature and development of brewing techniques during her time.

Hops have a rich and enduring history in the regions of Northern Europe. Dating back to a document from Norway in 1311, references to hops have been discovered in a monastery in Trondheim. Archaeological evidence from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries illustrates the prevalence of hop cultivation, particularly in proximity to monasteries and sizable households.

It’s worth considering that small-scale cultivation of hops was likely a common practice even several centuries before these documented references. This long-standing tradition was further embedded in the culture when farmers in countries such as Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland were mandated to grow 40 poles of hop as part of their obligations beginning in the year 1442.

The legal aspect of this cultivation practice is quite fascinating, with some laws enduring the test of time. In Finland, for example, a law requiring hop cultivation was in place until 1915, reflecting the importance of hop growing in the region’s agricultural history. Remarkably, a similar law from 1734 continues to remain in effect to this day, further emphasizing the deep-seated connection between Northern European culture and the cultivation and utilization of hops.

The Saaz hop, one of the earliest recognized hop varieties, continues to play a crucial role in the brewing industry, particularly in the crafting of traditional Czech pilsners. Its history extends deep into the past, with records tracing back to the Middle Ages, including specific mentions in documents from the 9th century. In the Czech Republic, the use of the Saaz hops in brewing commenced around the 13th century, when it was initially cultivated in a region called Žatec, known at that time as Saaz. Over the centuries, it has evolved and maintained its position as a vital ingredient, making it one of the most significant hops utilized in the brewing world today. Its enduring presence, quality, and unique characteristics have made the Saaz hop a symbol of tradition and innovation in the art of beer-making.

In the late 15th century, Duke Albert IV of Bavaria formalized a set of regulations for brewing beer in Munich. According to the decree issued in 1487, only four ingredients were permissible in beer production: barley, water, yeast, and hops. This regulation, known as the Reinheitsgebot, had its origins in Munich’s brewing laws dating back to 1447–1453. The Reinheitsgebot was later reinforced by Duke William IV in 1516, extending its reach to the entirety of Bavaria. This significant decree was then reiterated in the broader ducal laws of 1553 and once again in 1616. Through these repeated affirmations, the Reinheitsgebot established a standard for purity and quality in Bavarian beer that would eventually influence brewing practices far beyond the region’s borders.

Garden of Health, Woodcut hop image by Johannes de Cuba, 1481
Garden of Health, Woodcut hop image by Johannes de Cuba, 1481

Hop cultivation, likely made its way from the Flanders region to England during the closing years of the 15th century. Specifically, the introduction appears to have occurred in the Maidstone region of Kent. Before this period, the primary beverage in England was ale, unhopped and occasionally flavored with various herbs, including wormwood.

The importation of dried Flemish hops began, but issues arose with the quality, as these imported hops contained a high volume of extraneous materials. This led to the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1603, which imposed strict penalties on merchants and brewers dealing in hops adulterated with undesirable substances such as leaves, stalks, powder, sand, straw, and loggetts of wood dross. Initially, the utilization of hops was solely for preserving the beer’s quality, and the bittering effect was only reluctantly embraced by the English populace.

The economic significance of hops began to rise, and in 1710, the UK imposed a duty on hop imports for the first time. The Act further prohibited the use of any bittering agent in beer other than hops, considering hops to be a more wholesome alternative. The imposed duty fluctuated annually, leading to popular speculation on the tax, and it even became a form of betting. Furthermore, in 1774, legislation required hop growers to place their names on the hop sacks. During this era, the Goldings variety emerged, a hop still prominently used in contemporary brewing.

Hop cultivation was later introduced to North America in the 17th century. Although commercial production began as early as 1648 in Massachusetts, hop growing only gained widespread popularity in the 19th century. Modern American beers have become characterized by the utilization of the “four Cs” – Centennial, Chinook, Columbus, and Cascade hops. These specific hops impart American beers, particularly IPAs and pale ales, with distinctive floral and grapefruit notes, along with a pronounced bitterness. This development in hop usage has shaped the unique flavor profiles of American beers, highlighting the continued evolution and diversification of brewing practices that began centuries ago.

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