A short history of hops

One of the great unanswered questions in the history of beer is why it took 9,000 years or so after brewing began for brewers to start using hops.

Today there are very few beers made without hops. They give beer flavour and, most importantly, they keep it from going off. The shelf life for unhopped ale can be as short as a fortnight or so before it starts to spoil and sour. Hopped beer can last for years. But it took many millennia for brewers to discover this, though they had been using a huge range of other plants to flavour their ale in the meanwhile: the bushy, aromatic moorland shrub bog myrtle, for example, the grassland weed yarrow, the hedgerow plant ground-ivy, even rosemary and sage.

The first documented link between hops and brewing comes from Picardy in Northern France, in 822, where Abbot Adalhard of the Benedictine monastery of Corbie, in the Somme valley near Amiens, wrote a series of statutes on how the abbey should be run. The many rules covered areas such as the duties of the abbey’s tenants, which included gathering of firewood and also of hops – implying wild hops, rather than cultivated ones. Adalhard also said that a tithe (or tenth) of all the malt that came in should be given to the porter of the monastery, and the same with the hops. If this did not supply enough hops, the porter should take steps to get more from elsewhere to make sufficient beer for himself: “De humlone … decima ei portio … detur. Si hoc ei non sufficit, ipse … sibi adquirat unde ad cervisas suas faciendas sufficienter habeat.”

It is important that the Corbie statutes should link hops with beer brewing, because hops had other uses they might have been collected for: to make dyes, for example (brown dye from hop sap and yellow dye from the leaves and cones). The stems can also be used to make ropes, sacking and paper. Thus any mentions in old documents of hops being collected from the wild, or even cultivated, does not mean automatically that the hops were going into beer

But Adalhard’s statutes do not say whether the hops were being used to preserve the beer, or merely to flavour it (the way brewers today dry-hop their beers). Proof that hops were being used the way they are today, as a preservative, does not come for three more centuries, at another Benedictine establishment at Rupertsberg, near Bingen, in the Rhineland. About 1150, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), mystical philosopher and healer, published a book called Physica Sacra, which translates best as “The Natural World”. Book I, Chapter 61, “De Hoppho”, or “Concerning the hop”, says of the plant: “It is warm and dry, and has a 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.”

By itself this does not prove hops were used in beer, just “in drinks” (in potibus in Hildegard’s original Latin). But in a later chapter, on the ash tree, the abbess wrote: “If you also wish to make beer from oats without hops, but just with grusz [gruit], you should boil it after adding a very large number of ash leaves. That type of beer purges the stomach of the drinker, and renders his heart [literally ‘chest’ or ‘breast’] light and joyous.” Clearly Hildegard knew about brewing beer with hops. The passage also suggests that Hildegard knew about boiling wort, without which just adding hops is not much help in keeping away “putrefactions”.

What probably kept the usefulness of hops from being discovered for so long is that the bittering, preserving resins in hop cones are not very soluble, and the hops need boiling for a long time, around 90 minutes, for what is called isomerisation – the physical change in the hop acids to a more soluble form of the molecule – to take place. Nobody would have boiled hops that long, and thus discovered the isomerisation, without a prior good reason (it takes a lot of fuel, a precious commodity when you have to gather wood by hand, to boil quantities of water for an hour and a half). How was it found out that a good long boil improved both the flavouring and the preserving ability of hops? One possibility is that a dyer, boiling hops to dye cloth, made the discovery that the dye water had a pleasant bitter taste, and told her friend the brewer. But this is just a guess.

When exactly hops began to be cultivated for putting into beer, rather than just being gathered wild from forests, is surprisingly unclear. German sources today claim that hop gardens appear in records dating from the second half of the ninth century in and around Hallertau, in Bavaria, Southern Germany, which is still the world’s largest single hop-growing area. However, they do not specify exact documents in which these hop gardens are mentioned, which makes it impossible to rely on their assertions. The best evidence seems to be that commercial hop cultivation happened in Northern Germany first, and not until the 1100s or 1200s, feeding the breweries of the Hansa trading towns, which were exporting hopped beer from at least the 13th century onwards. (Merchant beer brewers in North German cities eventually became rich enough to join the local aristocracy, something not found in Britain until the 18th century).

The buyers of this beer brewed in cities such as Hamburg and Bremen included the richer inhabitants of Flanders and Holland. Local brewers in the Low Countries reacted by brewing hopped beer themselves, and by the 1360s or thereabouts Dutch towns were growing hops to supply their brewers. From around 1390 brewing of hopped beer took off in Holland, with Flanders following a decade or so later.

The first import of Low Countries “beere” into England seems to have come in 1362/63, when James Dodynessone of Amsterdam paid a toll on beer at Great Yarmouth in 1361-62. (There is a reference in the Norwich Leet Roll of 1288-9 to cervesiam flandrensem, or Flanders ale, which “Ricardo Somer”, Richard Summer, was fined 2s for selling occulte, secretly, thus depriving the bailiffs of money due on the ale of ale. However, this was probably too early to be a hopped brew). Further mentions of beer imports followed, gradually increasing in frequency: Henry Vandale (a man with a Dutch-sounding surname) bought four barrels of “beere” in London in 1372. A ship’s captain named Clays Johanson arrived in London in July 1384 with a cargo that included earthenware dishes, Holland linen cloth and beer. Other records of beer imports in the late 14th century come from Newcastle, Scarborough, Lynn, Ipswich, Winchelsea and Sussex. At the end of the 14th century Great Yarmouth was importing 40 to 80 barrels of beer a month, while in 1397-8 Colchester imported 100 barrels of beer.

However, the first brewer of the hopped drink in England does not appear until 1412, when Agnes Smyth, “Dutchman” (sic – and “Dutch” meant “German” at this time, rather than “person from the Netherlands”), was making beer in Colchester. The English beer trade seems to have stayed in the hands of immigrants from the Low Countries for the next century, as the conservative-minded natives stuck to their unhopped ale. As a result, the first beer brewers in England apparently imported all their hops from across the Channel, with no attempt to cultivate the plant here until early in the 16th century.

When exactly the first hops were grown in England is, again, uncertain – dates given by different writers range from 1511 to 1524. But the place where they were first planted was almost certainly Kent: one tradition says the first hop garden was established in 1520, in the parish of Westbere, near Canterbury. By 1569 English hop cultivation was sufficiently advanced for one agricultural writer, the Sussex landowner Leonard Mascall (or Mascal), to claim that “one pound of our hoppes dried and ordered will go as far as two poundes of the best hoppe that come from overseas.”

Five years later, in 1574 the first book in English solely devoted to hop growing was written by a 36-year-old Kentish landowner called Reynolde (or Reginald) Scot. His A Perfite Platform of a Hoppe Garden, filled with woodcut illustrations to aid the less literate Elizabethan farmer, went to three editions in four years. By 1577 hop cultivation had reached Herefordshire, where a “hoppyarde” was running at Whitbourne, near Bromyard. The differences found in the terminology used between the West Midlands and South East England – hop yard for hop garden, hop kiln for oast house, crib rather than bin for the container the hops are picked into, for example – suggest hop-growing was started independently in the two places.

In 1655 hops were being grown in at least 14 English counties, including Somerset, though Kent accounted for a third of the total crop. The use of bitter hop alternatives such as broom and wormwood was banned by Parliament in 1710 to ensure brewers did not try to avoid the new hop tax of a penny a pound. However, although it was reckoned an acre of hops would bring in more profit than 50 acres of arable land in a good year, the hop farmer’s life was more insecure than any other branch of agriculture. An old Kentish rhyme said of hops: “First the flea, then the fly/Then the mould, then they die.” Annual yields swung wildly: 1.57 million pounds of hops in 1726, for example, 20.39 million pounds the following year.

John Banister of Horton Kirby in Kent, in a book called Synopsis of Husbandry, published in 1799, identified a long list of different types of hop, including “the Flemish, the Canterbury, the Goldings, the Farnham etc.” Goldings is still regarded as one of the great English hops, though it now comes in several varieties: it was supposedly propagated from an especially fine plant spotted not long before 1790 by Mr Golding of Malling, who was still alive in 1798.

Stourbridge fair, just south of Cambridge, was the biggest hop mart in England in the late 17th and early 18th century. By the late 18th century Southwark, in London, which was handily placed on the road up from Canterbury, had become the country’s most important hop centre. (When “three-letter” telephone exchange names were introduced in London before the First World War, Southwark’s was HOP – even today, many Southwark telephone numbers still contain the numerical equivalent, 407.)

There were 35,000 acres of hops under cultivation in Britain by 1800, and 50,000 by 1850. Hop farming hit a peak of 71,789 acres in 1878, with hops grown in 40 English counties, though the tiny Scottish hop industry, which operated in just five counties, disappeared in 1871, and Welsh hop growing ended in 1874. Hops from Farnham in Surrey were regarded as the finest, followed by Kentish hops, though some brewers paid a premium for North-Clay hops grown on the stiff clays of Nottinghamshire, which were reckoned to be the best for strong keeping-beers.

New varieties of hop were still appearing: Bramling, an “early” variety of Goldings, named after the hamlet near Canterbury where it was discovered, was introduced about 1865. According to later writers, Richard Fuggle of Brenchley, Kent unveiled the hop variety that still bears his name, the second great English hop, in 1875, though this has since been thrown into doubt. The first Fuggles plant supposedly originated from a seed thrown out with the crumbs of a hop-picker’s lunch at George Stace’s farm in Horsmonden, Kent in 1861. A book on English hops published in 1919 listed more than 30 different hop types.

However, tastes were changing away towards sweeter, less-hopped milds, and at the same time imports of hops from Europe and the United States were increasing. total hop acreage plunged to 51,000 in 1900, a drop of almost 30 per cent in 22 years. The restrictions on brewing of the First World War also hit the industry, and by 1918 there were just 16,000 acres under cultivation.

At the beginning of the 20th century it was realised that the soft resin content in hops, that is, the part that contains the alpha acids, which was first measured in 1888, was the best test of the keeping qualities they would bring to beer. Gradually brewers began to buy hops on their soft resin content, and growers began to plant varieties that contained a higher proportion of soft resins.

Researchers at Wye College, near Ashford in Kent cross-bred English hop varieties with native American hops, which generally have twice the alpha acid content of Europeans, but a “fruity” aroma English brewers had looked down upon. One, Bramling Cross, born in 1927 of a female Bramling hop with a wild male hop from Manitoba in Canada, has become appreciated for its “blackcurrant” nose. Others have had the fruitiness bred out, and the high alpha acid kept in. Many hop varieties in use today in Europe, the United States and Australia are based on hops first developed at Wye College.

However higher alpha acid content in the hops means fewer hops are needed in the beer means fewer hops need be grown. Total hop cultivation in England in 1976 was 17,000 acres. By 1997 it was just 7,500 acres, with 2,400 acres in Kent, 2,300 in Herefordshire, 870 in Worcestershire, 300 in Sussex and tiny amounts in Surrey, Hampshire and Oxfordshire. In 2006 that total had dropped to only 2,400, just two per cent of the worldwide acreage.

56 thoughts on “A short history of hops”

  1. The alpha acids from hops don’t need 90 minutes to isomerise, the isomerisation starts immediately. The 90 minute boil is used to maximise isomerisation but shorter boils can be used and certainly there will be a noticeable bitterness much more quickly. After a quick google I found a table at http://www.howtobrew.com/section1/chapter5-5.html which shows the rate of isomerisation you might get for different boil times at different gravities.

  2. That’s true, but to make unhopped ale you don’t need to boil at all – for the mash, I don’t need to tell you, you actually don’t want to boil your water, only raise it to the best temperature for starch conversion, and after that you want to let the wort cool asap. So boiling the wort would not be something pre-hop brewers were used to. Did they boil the wort with pre-hop flavourings? AFAIK, these were either added in the mash, or in the run-out from the mash, or in the fermenting vessel.

  3. I just ran across your blog. Loved all your posts about hops. I’ve been working in the American hop industry now for 10 years. I’ve been the director of Hop Growers of America, Chairman of the International Hop Growers Convention Economic Committee, published my own market report and now am a merchant. Not sure if that is a natural progression or not, but it has worked for me. You’ve provided some interesting information here and I just wanted to thank you for being such a hop head. It was great to read. I have a twitter account through which I post current hop-related news and am going to tweet your blog URL. If you’re interested, you can follow me on twitter at @darbagroup

  4. Martyn, that is an amazing drop in planted acreage, even allowing for better alpha acid yields today. Does the English production satisfy the domestic need completely for real ale, I wonder? Small as the domestic hops output is, is there enough to ensure that domestic real beer will retain a (more or less) traditional palate? Or is even real ale now using significant amounts of imported hops?

    Of course, I am well aware that in the past part of the hop bill for English beer was composed of imports. But the Goldings and Fuggles varieties seemed to me to define the best of English real ales in the last generation, will or has that changed? Putting it a different way, is the increased number of C-hopped real beers in England the product of necessity or fashion?


    1. I think tastes are changing, Gary, which is a great pity, as I love English hops, but I suspect enough brewers will keep the old hops going, as they have with MAris Otter malt.

  5. “So boiling the wort would not be something pre-hop brewers were used to. Did they boil the wort with pre-hop flavourings? AFAIK, these were either added in the mash, or in the run-out from the mash, or in the fermenting vessel.”

    With respect, I don’t think that we know, do we?
    As you have recently shown, St Hildegaard knew about a) hops as an additive that preserved drinks (and how many manufactured “drinks” were there in 11th Century Germany?), and b) about boiling the wort?
    Why make the link with hops and boiling, when the truth is that we don’t know? Why assume that for example, gruit beers weren’t boiled and hopped beers weren’t?

    1. Why assume that gruit beers, and pre-hop ales, weren’t boiled and hopped beers were? Because Hildegard’s comment about boiling the wort to make ash leaf beer contrasts with the ale brewing method described here, which doesn’t mention boiling the wort at all, suggesting boiling the wort was certainly not universal; because to my knowledge very few, if any, regular gruit beers require the wort to be brewed; and because Ockham’s razor says if a thing isn’t required it won’t be done, especially when heating the water to mash the grain and then heating the resultant wort will double or more your fuel costs. Oh, and because people who have done more research than I have on the subject, such as Judith Bennett, author of the excellent Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England, also conclude that the other big differencve between medieval ale and medieval beer, besides hops, was boiling/not boiling the wort. I have suspected for quite a long time now, incidentally, that much pre-hop English ale wasn’t flavoured with anythinghere is one chap’s experiment with making a very successful plain grain-only ale from unboiled wort.

      1. “Judith Bennett, author of the excellent Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England, also conclude that the other big differencve between medieval ale and medieval beer, besides hops, was boiling/not boiling the wort”

        That is very interesting, thank you – sounds like a book I should read. I didn’t realise that research in this area had been done – I thought it was simply not known whether unhopped worts were boiled or not, and I am grateful to you for pointing me in the right direction.

      2. “the ale brewing method described here, which doesn’t mention boiling the wort at all……”

        This account is extremely interesting, and certainly doesn’t lead you to believe that the wort was boiled. Boiling WAS a big step, not just because of the fuel needed to get the water to boiling point, but also because a mash tun could be made from wood, whereas a boiling vessel/kettle presumably would have to made of metal. I imagine that such a vessel in those days would have been extremely expensive.

        As an aside, it does seem to me that the author knew more about malting than he did about brewing. In contrast to the detailed description of the malting process,
        “E de ewe chaud ben enbeu,
        Des bertiz ver cervoyse”
        is all he has to say about the actual brewing. (Or am I being dim? Is that all there was to say about brewing in these times? “Steep the milled malt in hot water”)

        All very interesting, thank you.

  6. But surely hop addition is not the only reason to boil the wort, an equally important reason is to sterilise it. I think many bacteria etc can survive the mashing process, and malt is covered in the usual beer spoilage suspects . Given that unhopped ale is already at a disadvantage as far as preservation goes, and the well documented sorry state of water in those days, isn’t it likely that boiling would have produced better beer, hopped or not?

    1. Well, 1) medieval brewers wouldn’t have known about the importance of sterilising (even doctors in early Victorian England didn’t) and 2) their ale would have been pretty much brewed to be drunk right away anyway. So sterilising the wort wsn’t so important, as by the time the bugs had built up, the ale was gone …

  7. Very interesting read, thanks. Another compelling reason to start hopping beer/ale was that brewing was a fine way to use surplus grain harvests, but until hopping it was not a very good way to preserve those harvests. With hopping, a great deal of value could be added to the grain harvest; it kept much longer (and probably better than in granaries of the time); and could travel.

    There are some food historians who put hopping beer high on the list of reasons that Europe grew into a civilization after the Dark Ages. It allowed agricultural expansion and trade on scale not seen since the end of the Western Roman Empire. (And made for some very rich monasteries.)

    1. Reading this 3 years after the fact I was intrigued by this claim on behalf of hops importance for the rise of european civilization.Can you recommend any articles or books that develops this theory?

      Excellent blog by the way.


  8. An Oxfordshire Brewery (HN) Tour Guide explained the popularity of hopped beer was largely due to it being a relatively germ-free healthier drink than unhopped beer before mains-supplied clean drinking water was available. The germs are killed by the brewing process and the alcohol. Just adding hops is not much help in keeping away putrefactions unless you also boil the wort. When using hops, isomerisation of the alpha acids is desirable to maximise the efficacy of the hops. This was a relatively recent discovery in the history of brewing with hops, but precedes the arrival of mains-supplied clean drinking water. A 90 minute boil is used to maximise isomerisation of the alpha acids. Boiling the hops can happen separately or can happen with the wort boil. Either way, after the isomerisation discovery, the brewing process is more likely to include a long boiling period when hops are involved. So, brewing with hops is more likely to kill all the germs and make a drink deemed healthier than water, prior to the arrival of mains-supplied clean drinking water.

    1. Weeee-eeel – up to a point (Lord Copper). It was not so much the “more healthy” as the “lasted longer, so could be more widely distributed, so made a better business prospect” side.

  9. martyn
    everything about this blog is so perfect that i would like to point out the only blemish so that it can be removed! – evelyn waugh’s newspaper proprietor was lord cropper, not ‘copper’. (i love the phrase and use it frequently but the most common response is a puzzled frown!
    i’m writing a magazine article on worcestershire hops – may i quote some material from your blog, giving the source, naturally?

  10. Excellent atricle – I’m particularly interested in learning more about the short-lived hop industry in 19th century Scotland. I’ve seen about 3 or 4 different articles/publications that state hop growing took place for a short time in 5 Scottish counties all of which then failed to say which were these 5 scottish counties nor the source for this statement. I’ve researched old 19th century books on hop growing plus various 19th century parliamentary papers on hop duties but without any luck.
    Can anyone help & advise on where in Scotland hop growing took place and possible source of the information. Thanks.

  11. Actually there are several reasons to boil the wort other than hop isomerization “protein coagulation, DMS volatilization, and wort concentration being the three most relevant” – stolen from here: http://www.themadfermentationist.com/2012/07/standard-american-pale-ale-recipe-yeah.html
    Would ancient brewers have known about these in detail? Probably not, but if they had made the link between a longer boil and a better taste (regardless of hops) then it is reasonable to believe that brewers would boil their wort, at least in areas where fuel was not in particularly short supply or in Northern European areas where hops grow, people probably had a fire going all the time anyway. They would then quickly discover the difference that boiling has on the tastes provided by the hops!

    1. Yes, I’m sure brewers eventually discovered those other benefits of boiling, but we’re really talking chicken-and-egg here: which came first, boiling to get a good hot break and concentrate the wort or boiling to get a nice bitter taste and help preserve the beer?

    1. In an article in Allabout Beer, I read that “harvest beer” as a beer hopped with freshly harvested hop was “invented” by Steve Dresler of Sierra Nevada around 1999.
      In the same article, it is said that it was something done in Great Britain.
      Do you have any information about it?
      Best greetings

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