Category Archives: Hops

The long battle between ale and beer

How long did ale and beer remain as separate brews? Most* drinkers, I think, know that “ale” was originally the English name for an unhopped fermented malt drink, and beer was the name of the fermented malt drink flavoured with hops, a taste for which was brought to this country from the continental mainland about 1400. Some might be able to tell you that ale and beer then existed alongside each other as separate drinks for some time: but that eventually ale started being brewed with hops as well, and finally any difference between the two drinks disappeared, with “ale” and “beer” becoming synonyms. But when did that happen?

I used to think that their merger into synonymity was pretty much complete in Georgian England at the latest, agreeing with the historian WH Chaloner, who wrote in 1960, reviewing Peter Mathias’s great book The brewing industry in England, 1700-1830: “By the end of the seventeenth century the terms ‘ale’ (originally a sweetish, unhopped malt liquor) and the newer ‘beer’ (a bitter, hopped malt liquor) had come to describe more or less identical products following the victory of the latter drink.” But as I read more and more, I slowly realised that this was untrue: that in English, “ale” and “beer” maintained differences through until the 20th century that were, ultimately, from their origins as unhopped and hopped drinks respectively (and nothing to do with the modern American habit of referring to all “top-fermented” beers as “ales”, regardless of their histories and origins).

Beer geekery warning: if teasing apart the knotted and tangled threads of brewing history is your bag, stick with me for the next 2,500 words as we range over five centuries of malted liquors and watch meanings mutate: if you’d rather read something contemporary, Rob Sterowski, alias Barm, at I Might Have A Glass of Beer is always an interesting and often a provocative read, and he maintains an excellent list of other beer bloggers as well.

For those of you still with me: here’s a quote on ale and beer from 1912, less than a century ago, from a book called Brewing, by Alfred Chaston Chapman:

“At the present day the two words are very largely synonymous, beer being used comprehensively to include all classes of malt liquor, whilst the word ale is applied to all beers other than stout and porter.”

Why weren’t stout and porter called ales? This is a reflection, 200 years on, of the origin of porter (and brown stout) in the brown beers made by the beer brewers of London, rivals of the ale brewers for 500 years, ever since immigrants from the Low Countries began brewing in England with hops.

Continue reading The long battle between ale and beer

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.

Continue reading A short history of hops

Hopping mad at bitter untruths

Actually, I’m not mad so much as grumpy and depressed, after reading an article by a beer writer I know and admire that contained this piece of nonsense about the hop:

In 1079, the Abbess Hildegarde of St Ruprechtsberg in Baden referred to the use if [sic] hops in beer.

No she blahdy didn’t, because as the American writer John P Arnold pointed out in 1911, when this error was already being repeated, the Abbess was not yet alive in 1079: she was born in 1098 and died in 1179, something that is very easy to check. And actually, as I wrote in Beer: The Story of the Pint six years ago, the Abbess didn’t talk about hops in beer, she talked about using hops “in potibus“, “in drinks”, to prevent putrefaction. And while there are several variants of the name of her religious settlement near Bingen, in Germany, the usual German version is Rupertsberg.

Unfortunately the internet is the most efficient method of disseminating bollocks ever invented, and what depresses me is that my attempts to stem the tide of inaccuracies are wrecked by people like the writer referred to above, and like Laurie Gilchrist of Crush, “Southwest Florida’s leading food and wine magazine” (fill in your own sarcastic comment here). Earlier this year Laurie wrote an article about hops now up on the net and ironically headlined “The Bitter Truth”, which is full of untruths about hops, picked up by Laurie out of whichever book or article he (?) plagiarised to write his piece and now stuck on the net for the next plagiariser to come along and steal and repeat. Laurie’s regurgitated errors include the following completely mistaken statements:

“The first recorded instance of hops being used in the making of beer was documented by Jewish slaves in Babylon around 400 B.C., who believed that the resulting drink was a cure for leprosy.”

No – this is a misunderstanding of something actually written in the 11th century AD, and the original plant referred to was not the hop, which would be at the very limit of its growing range in Babylon anyway.

” Hop plants have been cultivated since at least the 8th century.”

There’s no evidence for this at all, despite this claim being made frequently.

“The Germans began using hops to replace other beer additives in 1079 A.D.”

See above. Note how the original claim that something was talked about in a particular year has now become a claim that something actually began in a particular year. Why is Laurie Gilchrist so unthinking, or ignorant of history, to believe that we could possibly know exactly which year something like using hops began, especially since we’re talking about events that supposedly took place over a millennium ago?

“Medieval brewers in other European countries were skeptical about the hop plant, calling it a ‘wicked and pernicious weed’.”

I tried to kick this myth to death here, which is actually the top hit if you bother to Google “wicked and pernicious weed”.

“The English … deemed [beer] a ‘saucy intruder’ and the plant was even banned for use in brewing in some parts of that country.”

Another long-standing myth that I tried to squash here, which is the number two hit on Google for the words hops ban England. (I’m kept out of the number one searchslot by a commentary piece on the possible ending of the ban on liquids in containers over 100ml in aircraft passengers’ hand luggage, which uses “hop” as a verb.)

Anyway, to try to make myself feel better, I’ve stuck up Six More Myths About Hops in the “FAQ – False Ale Quotes” section of this blog, in the hope that future Laurie Gilchrists will Google first and write later. Some time in the next few hours I’ll also be putting up a short history of hops, which should give the plagiarisers something more accurate than most sources on the net to nick from.

Doesn’t the BBC Food Programme read this blog?

I just caught up with BBC 4’s Food Programme from last Sunday, which was about the British hop industry, and as a side issue, IPA in a couple or so of its current incarnations – there are just two days left before it disappears from the BBC website, so if you’re quick, and you’ve got RealPlayer or similar installed on your computer, you can catch it here (oh, and you have to be in the UK, or be able to fool the BBC’s website that you’re in the UK, or it won’t let you listen – sorry.)

Anyway, I though it was a fair treatment of the subject, with a quick scamper through what hops do for beer (flavouring and preserving – but you knew that), and interviews “in the field” with David Holmes, head brewer at Shepherd Neame; Tony Redsell, a Kentish hop grower; and Dr Peter Darby of the National Hop Collection at Queen Court Farm, near Faversham, who talked about the more than 300 different oils found in hops, and the different flavours that, singly and in combination, they bring to beer, from mint to passion fruit.

Back in the studio, the presenter, Sheila Dillon, talked to Roger Protz, and to Martin Dickie, brewer and co-owner of Brewdog Brewery. In a quick tasting, bottles were opened of Brewdog’s Punk IPA, made with Chinook and Ahtanum hops from the US and Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand, and Atlantic IPA (which spent two months in cask on a fishing boat being rocked by North Atlantic waves and will cost you £10 a bottle), and, for contrast, Meantime Brewery’s IPA, flavoured with nothing but finest English Fuggles and Goldings. It was excellent to hear Sheila Dillon saying “Wow, that’s good!” as she tried the Punk IPA, and expressing surprise that, at 65 or 70 units of bitterness, twice as much (at least) as, say, a best bitter, it didn’t pucker your mouth, as Roger and Martin explained that this was because the bitterness was balanced by the alcohol, at 6.5 per cent by volume. Continue reading Doesn’t the BBC Food Programme read this blog?

Befuggled: doubts about a hop’s birth

(Update December 2014 – for more on this subject, answering several questions, see here)

Bang, bang, another beery myth hits the floorboards, or at least staggers back badly wounded, after excellent work by Kim Cook in an article called “Who produced Fuggle’s Hops” just published in the latest (Spring 2009, issue 130) edition of Brewery History magazine.

The story repeated everywhere about Fuggles, one of the two classic English hop varieties, first appeared 108 years ago in an article called “The Hop and its English Varieties”, by John Percival (1863-1949), then professor at the agricultural college in Wye, Kent, in the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, vol 62, and reprinted in the Brewers’ Journal March 15 1902 edition, pp 10-16. Percival wrote of the Fuggle hop that

“The original plant was a casual seedling which appeared in the flower-garden of Mr George Stace, of Horsmonden, Kent. The seed from which the plant arose was shaken out along with crumbs from the hop-picking dinner basket used by Mrs Stace, the seedling being noticed about the year 1861. The sets were afterwards introduced to the public by Mr Richard Fuggle, of Brenchley, about the year 1875. (Letters from Mr John Larkin, Horsmonden, Mr W.J. Noakes, Goudbury and others.)”

Horsmonden and Brenchley are two villages in the Kentish Weald, about a mile apart. The Fuggles variety grows well in the stiff, damp, clayey soils of the Weald, and better than hops such as Goldings do in such soils. If a new, hardy, heavy-cropping hop, comparatively very rich in lupulin, and well-suited to Wealden conditions suddenly popped up in the district, a Wealden hop farmer was indeed likely to spot it and introduce it commercially. So do the records support Percival’s account of the birth of Fuggles?

Unfortunately, Kim Cook’s investigations show, they don’t. There was nobody living in Horsmonden in 1861 called George Stace: the census returns that year show no families called Stace, or anything like it, in the village at all, nor any Georges whose surname bore any possible resemblance to Stace. A wide-ranging search uncovered several people called George Stace living in and around the Wealden area at the right sort of time, but none with any good connection to Horsmonden. (Update – it turns out that the reason why no one can find George Stace is because his name was actually George Stace Moore– see comments below.)

Fuggles hops 1902
Fuggles hops 1902

Continue reading Befuggled: doubts about a hop’s birth

Mr Golding’s descendants

From all the iterations of Fuller’s Vintage Ale produced so far, my favourite is still the 2002. The only hops used were Goldings: coincidence? I don’t think so. Actually, I’m drinking one as I write this, and it’s still marvellous, at six years old: musky, biscuity, honeyed, marmalade and toffee, perhaps the faintest lick of lavender – yum! Goldings is one of my favourite hops: I love the apricot aromas Meantime in Greenwich gets out of the variety in its bottle-conditioned IPA.

There are surprisingly few “pure” Goldings beer on the market: Shepherd Neame’s Bishop’s Finger and Hop Back’s Summer Lightning being two. But the “classic” English combination of Goldings and Fuggles hops is used in a swath of bitter ales of high repute: Brakspear’s Special, St Austell HSD, Young’s ordinary, Wadworth’s 6X, Adnam’s bitter, Brain’s SA and Marston’s Pedigree. I wouldn’t rush past any pub selling those.

One remarkable aspect of the hop Mr Golding found more than 220 years ago is the degree to which its genes have contributed to other popular varieties of hops. Even in the 19th century different types of Goldings began to be recognised. One of the most important was Bramling, an early-ripening variety (about 10 days before “main crop” Goldings) selected, according to George Clinch, writing in 1919, by a farm bailiff called Smith on a farm run by a man called Musgrave Hilton at Bramling, a hamlet in the parish of Ickham, near Canterbury.

Continue reading Mr Golding’s descendants

Will the real Mr Golding please step forward

Considering what a huge impact he had on the taste of British beer, astonishingly little is known about the man who gave his name to the Goldings hop.

About all we do have comes from a book published in 1798 with the marvellously long title of The Rural Economy of the Southern Counties: Comprizing Kent, Surrey, Sussex, The Isle of White, the Chalk Hills of Wiltshire, Hampshire etc, and including the Culture and Management of Hops in the Districts of Maidstone, Canterbury and Farnham, written by William Marshall, which says (on p183), talking about hop varieties in the District of Maidstone:

In West Kent there are several varieties in cultivation. The ‘Canterbury’ is the favorite sort and is the most cultivated: it is a ‘white bine’ hop, of the middle size. The ‘Golding’ has, of late years, been in high repute. It is a sub-variety, I understand, of the Canterbury; which was raised by a man still living (1790) Mr Golding, of the Malling quarter of the district; who observing, in his grounds, a hill of extraordinary quality and productiveness, marked it, propagated it, and furnished his neighbours with cuttings, from its produce.”

Continue reading Will the real Mr Golding please step forward

Kent hops, hedgers and Pale India Ale

Here’s another titbit* from the Times archives: a report from 1840 on the hop harvest with some fascinating clues about what hops went into IPA (I was wrong, incidentally, in saying the archive is not available to the public – if you can use your public library card to access resources like the Oxford English Dictionary from your home computer, you can probably use it to access the Times 1785-1985 archive).

One of the reasons The Times carried hop harvest reports was because of the betting that went on over the yield of the hop tax. By the mid-19th century, according to Peter Mathias’s magisterial The Brewing Industry in England 1700-1830, as much money was being bet on the hop tax yield as on the Derby.

This was not simple gambling, however, but a way for hop growers and hop dealers to lay off, or hedge, the risks that came with involvement in a trade that could see prices triple one year and halve the next, as yields went down and up depending on the weather, outbreaks of pests and the like. If you were a hop buyer and you thought yields would be low, and the tax take (based on quantity) subsequently low as well, but the price high because of scarcity, you bet on a low tax take, and at least made some money as you paid top whack for your hops. If you were a seller and feared a big harvest and low prices, you bet on a high tax yield, and made up for the smaller amount you got for your hops by winning on the hop betting.

The most interesting part of the Times report from September 12 1840 on “Hop Intelligence”, however, is not the details of the bets being made on the size of the hop harvest, at 25 guineas or 50 guineas a time (huge sums when a guinea – 21 shillings – was as much money as a labourer might earn in a fortnight.)

Continue reading Kent hops, hedgers and Pale India Ale

Pernicious myths and a ban on hops

When I worked on a local newspaper in one of Hertfordshire’s duller towns in the mid-1970s, the news editor rushed in from the pub one lunchtime frothing with excitement – he had just been given a story by a guy in the bar that was bound to make the week’s front page splash.

This man’s mate knew a young woman who was getting into her vehicle in the town’s only multi-story car park, when a little old lady appeared. The old lady asked if she could possibly be given a lift home. “Of course”, the young woman replied, getting into her car to let the old lady in. But as she lent across to open the passenger door, she noticed that the old lady’s hand, reaching out for the door handle, was extremely hairy …

Immediately the young woman slammed her own door shut, reversed out of her parking space and hurtled as fast as possible round to the town’s police station. A squad car shot off to the car park, our news editor was told in the pub, and though the old lady had gone, the police searched the area and found, behind a pillar alongside where the young woman’s car had been parked, a large axe …

Yeah, yeah, many of you will now be saying, and you’ll be unamazed to learn that when the newspaper sent a reporter, notebook ready, rushing round to the police station to check the facts and get a comment, Herts Constabulary said they had no record of this alleged “incident”. Meanwhile, of course, the news editor’s saloon bar informant could not give him a name or address for the young woman driver – our head newshound had fallen for a popular urban myth.

Continue reading Pernicious myths and a ban on hops