Six more myths about hops

“Jewish exiles in captivity in Babylon (in 597 BC) drank hopped ale as a defence against leprosy”

They did not. The original Hebrew description (from the fourth century AD) of the herb used in the anti-leprosy drink was “cuscuta of the hizmé shrub”, that is, a Middle Eastern climbing plant of the dodder family. By the 11th century, rabbinical commentary on the Talmud was talking about hops, probably because these were more familiar to European Jews than cuscuta. In any case what was drunk to guard against leprosy was shekar flavoured with cuscuta, shekar being a Hebrew word which meant any strong drink, not beer specifically (although in Akkadian, a related Semitic language spoken by the conquerors of Sumer, the word sikar translated Sumerian kash, beer). Shekar became, via the Bible and its Greek and Latin translations, and then French, the source of the English word cider.

“Pliny, in his Natural History, says the Germans preserved ale with hops.”

No he didn’t. Pliny mentions “lupus salictarum”, or “willow wolf”, by which we presume he meant hops (the Italian for hop is still lupulo), only as a “delicacy” for eating, like samphire and fennel, not as a flavouring for ale.

“The first reference to hops in England is a document from AD 622 by the Abbot of Corvey.”

Two problems here – 622 is a typographical error for 822, and the abbey in question was at Corbie, in the Somme valley near Amiens.

“References are made to humlonaria, or hop gardens, given to the Abbey of St Denis [in Paris] by King Pepin in 768.”

The deed in question names lands in the forest of Iveline in France, near Paris (today the forêt de Rambouillet), that the king was granting to the abbey, which among “diversa loca” included one called Humlonariae. This is a place-name, and does not mean “hop gardens”, though it does suggest somewhere noted for wild hops.

“The Abbess Hildegarde of Bingen wrote about the addition of hops to beer in 1079.”

This canard is more than 100 years old, and despite an attempt by the American beer writer John P Arnold to kill it off in 1911 it was still being repeated in HS Corran’s A History of Brewing, published in 1975. The Abbess was not yet alive in 1079: she was born in 1098 and died in 1179. She did, however, mention hops in her book Physica Sacra, written about 1150 or 1160. There are also several versions of the name of her religious settlement near Bingen, in Germany: the usual German version is Rupertsberg.

“Hops were used for flavouring ale in pre-Norman England, and Himbleton in Worcestershire means ‘hop town’.”

The archaeological evidence that hops grew wild in England before the 15th century is pretty good: pollen remains dating back to the Neolithic and before from what were probably wild hops have been found at Thatcham in Berkshire and Urswick in Cumbria. The authorities are split, however: Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica says the hop is “almost certainly a native”, while the botanist Roger Phillips believes the hops found growing today in hedges around England are there “probably because it has often escaped from cultivation”, rather than as wild survivors.

Old English had the word hymele, which was the same as the word used for hop in Medieval Latin, humulus (and the modern Flemish dialect word hommel). However, hymele “may refer to the hop plant or to some similar [climbing] plant”, the Oxford Dictionary of Place Names says. A 10th or 11th-century Anglo-Saxon vocabulary glosses the Latin “uoluula”, that is, convolvulus, bindweed, as “hymele”, and the word hymele was also used for bryony, another climbing plant with hop-like lobed leaves. Even hemlock seems to mean “hymele-like”, perhaps because both it and bryony are extremely poisonous. The best we can say of Himbleton, therefore, is that it means “tun (or homestead) where hymele grows”.

If hymele meant hops, there are at least three places in England named after the plant: Himbleton; Himley, in Staffordshire (the grove or wood where hymele grows); and Humbleton, East Yorkshire, where the first element is the Old Norwegian humli, which did mean hop. However, the East Yorkshire name may have been altered from an original Old English hymele by Scandinavian settlers.

Even if hops did grow here before the Normans came, there is no record of hops, cultivated or otherwise, used for brewing in Britain before the 15th century. There was an ancient form of rent called “hopgavel” or “hoppegavel” in pre-Conquest Kent, which it has been suggested, indicated that hops were cultivated for brewing in the county before 1066. But hoppe in Middle English could also mean the seedpod of the flax plant, and hoppegavel is defined in one Middle English dictionary as a rent paid in flax pods.

There is the curious case of the Graveney Boat, which was abandoned at Graveney in Kent about 950 AD and discovered by archaeologists in the early 1970s. Investigations showed clearly that it had been either loaded or unloaded with hops just before it was abandoned: there were remains of hop flowers and hop nuts in the boat and on the brushwood platform that lay beside the boat.

However, in the absence of any evidence on what those hops were used for, the Graveney boat must remain an anomaly. The sometimes violent reaction of 15th and 16th century English ale brewers and drinkers against the use of hops by beer brewers from the Low Countries shows that if hops had once been put into ale for flavouring in these islands, their use had been forgotten. Yet if hops had ever been used by British brewers before 1400, the advantages they gave to the product, particularly in extending the life of the drink, would surely have meant hops would have been already widespread here long before Dutch and Flemish beer brewers began to arrive.

Finally, if the Old English had a word for hop, hymele, it would be odd for Medieval English to have to adopt the Middle Dutch word hoppe for the name of the plant. It seems much more likely this was a new plant to the English, which needed a new name.

27 thoughts on “Six more myths about hops

  1. A great source of information as always and although perhaps this comment is a little off topic I would like to use it to ask a question, if I may.

    I am currently researching the use of flowers as flavouring agents by the Celts and Vikings. In particular I am trying to uncover a recipe which includes the use of gorse flowers instead of hops. It is an aromatic flower which gives a striking yellow colour to the brew (the flower was much coveted in the past for its use as a source of dye).

    Is there any instances that you are aware of where this flower has been used or any references that you are aware of that may be of use to me in my search?

    Any help would be much appreciated!

  2. An excellent question: there’s a fair bit about gorse’s relative broom being used in brewing: the young green tops of the plant were probably regularly used in season to give a bitter flavour to ale. (see my book Amber Gold and Black, indeed, where the history of brewing with broom is given a fair airing) but there’s less in the literature on gorse. Gorse wine turns up around the place, and there’s a mention of using gorse in flower to strain home-made beer through in this book about Welsh cooking traditions ( which sounds similar to what Scandinavian brewers did with juniper), while this 19th century book speaks of gorse flowers and broom flowers in the same breath as bittering agents for ale. Stuart Howe at Sharp’s brewery in Cornwall has apparently tried brewing with gorse and couldn’t get the elusive aromas to work, so tried another trck – you can read about that here. I’d be very interested in anything else you find out – do let me know.

  3. I may have uncovered another myth: that in the Middle ages, everyone swilled beer morning , noon and night.

    “Let me illustrate the consequences for Domesday England by supposing an average daily consumption of one gallon of ale per person. If ale were really the only drink, a gallon would not be very much. Estimates for the Domesday population vary, but I will assume a relatively low count of 1.5 million people.[27] If they drank nothing but small beer, brewed at one quarter of grain for every three barrels, that implies an annual allocation of nearly 6 million quarters, 48 million bushels, of grain to brewing. If crops yielded an average of ten bushels per acre, 4.8 million acres of arable land would have been required just to grow beer grains, which is two-thirds of the all the land in England that Lennard estimates was under cultivation at the time.[28] These numbers, of course, are very rough, but they assume low population and high crop yields for the time. In other words, they postulate the best plausible situation for surplus grain to devote to brewing. Even with such conservative figures, however, universal ale consumption would have required most grain to go into beer production rather than serving as a primary foodstuff. For a society that did not produce extraordinary surpluses of food to start with, that seems an implausible situation. Grain, in the form of bread and grain-based porridges, made up the base of the diet for the vast majority of medieval English and beer brewing always had second priority.[29] During times of poor harvest, as happened for example during the Great Famine of 1315-1322, communities might ban the use of certain grains for use in beer.[30]

    In the later Middle Ages, of course, improvements in agriculture led to higher crop yields, reflected in additional ale production. Norfolk harvest workers, for example, received larger and larger allowances of ale as the centuries progressed.[31] Nevertheless, ale consumption, at least by the poor, must have been much more occasional than is often admitted; agricultural production simply could not sustain it. Well-to-do peasants probably, and monks and gentry certainly, had enough ale available to have lived in a continual drunken haze if they so wished. Overall consumption, however, must have been very much less.”


  4. I am a brewer by profession (now retired) and I have homes in Edinburgh and just outside Oslo.

    One of the most striking discoveries I made when I first went to Norway was that the hop was among the most frequently grown garden plant and certainly the one with the greatest distribution. Tromsø, 350 km inside the Arctic Circle as well as having the world’s northernmost brewery, also has hops growing in specially made cages along the main street, and in summer, the south-facing wall of Macks brewery is completely covered with hops.

    The Botanic Garden in Tromsø has hop plants which were rescued from the garden of an ancient seminary in the town when it was demolished. Amazingly in the Botanical Garden the hop plants are now grown against the northern wall of an old farm building, i.e only get “night” sun between 18:00 and 06:00 when it is at its weakest, yet still grow to 5 metres and produce hop cones.

    As a student studying brewing in the 1960s I learned that worthwhile hops could not be grown north of Hereford, clearly this is not so. Right in the center of Stockholm is a park called Hulmegården,+Sweden&hl=en&ll=59.339252,18.072724&spn=0.007496,0.022724&sll=53.800651,-4.064941&sspn=17.83271,46.538086&vpsrc=6&hnear=Stockholm,+Stockholm+County,+Sweden&t=h&z=16

    This area was used by the Swedish Navy to grow hops for the beer ration given to sailors.

    During the first lecture I had on brewing I was told that “ale” was beer flavoured with hops. The Norwegian word for beer is øl (pronounced url or earl) – clearly the two words have the same origin but the word was in use in Norway long before Viking times.

    In England there are arable farms, dairy farms, fruit farms, mixed farms, no matter how land is used to produce food, that area of land is described as a “farm” – the only exception is when it is used to produce hops, then it is called a “hop garden”; the Norwegian for “farm” is “gard”, the Norwegian for “the farm” is “garden” (the definite article “en” has been added to the end of the word gard)

    I believe hop use in England was introduced by the Vikings. Although the earliest mention of hop cultivation is in France, don’t forget the Vikings also invaded France, Normandy is so called because of the Norsemen who settled there.

    Attention Darren Nugent. If you are still interested in the use of plants by Vikings and have come across any references to the use of the butterwort (Norwegian tettegras) – Pinguicula vulgaris – I would love to hear from you

    1. I really hope you still check this, very interesting conversation.

      I’ve begun to do some research on the wild hops in Newfoundland. There are many, many reports of wild hops across the island. I’ve heard reports of them on the Northern Peninsula, in particular, where we having a Viking settlement in Lance Aux Meadows.

      The best data I can find suggests that they likely wouldn’t have been using hops in their brew….but it sure does make a lot of sense of a long voyage.

      I hope to do some more reading on the matter.

      Either way, hope this reaches you. Thanks.

  5. Just on this point that you raise at the end
    “Finally, if the Old English had a word for hop, hymele, it would be odd for Medieval English to have to adopt the Middle Dutch word hoppe for the name of the plant. It seems much more likely this was a new plant to the English, which needed a new name.”

    Old English had two words for moustache, kenep, and granu, neither of which survived into modern English. And yet the moustache defined the English fighting in the Bayeux tapestry. Did it go out of style? Who knows. But clearly English speakers sometimes borrow words for things they already have words for.

    (None of this affects your general point that there’s very little evidence of hop use before then)

  6. As modern brewers well know, hops can be used for bittering or for flavouring. Let me suggest that hops may have been used for flavouring long before they were widely used for bittering/preservation.
    For bittering, wort with hops must be boiled for a relatively long time – something difficult to do without large metal pots. These of course were once difficult to make and expensive, especially in the sizes needed for beer. This property of hops is also not obvious – they are very aromatic and flavourful on the vine, but not bitter.
    Yet, for starch conversion, the mash needs only to be held at near 67C. So beer need not have been boiled – water in wooden tubs can be heated with hot stones, etc. and added to malted grain to achieve conversion temperatures. Flavouring herbs can be added to the water/mash to infuse like tea, including hops.
    I’ve made non-boiled beer – it is much simpler to make than regular beer and is very palatable; unfortunately it doesn’t last long before souring, but then, it’s not for export…

  7. “Finally, if the Old English had a word for hop, hymele, it would be odd for Medieval English to have to adopt the Middle Dutch word hoppe for the name of the plant. It seems much more likely this was a new plant to the English, which needed a new name.”

    To be fair, English hasn’t retained a very large number of Scandinavian loanwords (‘ombusdman’ being a notable exception; vestiges such as ‘shaggy’ from ‘skaeg’, or beard; and certain place names), so I don’t find it surprising that ‘hymele’ (or ‘humle’ in modern Danish, for example) might have been lost, especially when the use of hops was so contentious for so long, to be replaced in later centuries by a loanword from another source.

    1. “Vestiges”? Hardly! Sky, window, skirt, egg, just off the top of my head, not to mention Yorkshire dialect (and elsewhere) like garth, kirk, etc.

  8. No probs Martin, Windsor & Eton want us at London Amateur Brewers to brew a Magna Carta beer for them (high ABV), so I wanted some Berkshire hops. I will probably use EKG and Fuggles

  9. Help! I would like to quote the fantastic “If [beer] is … the people’s beverage – and nobody…” by John P Arnold at the beginning of my dissertation for legal history, but I can’t find the book to find the page number it is taken from. If you DO own the book, would you pretty please give me the page number, so I can reference the quote properly? I would really appreciate any help with this.

  10. Interesting article. While I agree that shekar was not exactly what we would call beer–and was usually made from dates–I do not know why you are so confident that they were not using hops? While the notable Marcus Jastrow does translate the Aramaic “כשות ” as cusceta, many other notable commentators disagree, and translate it as hops. Although I do not know anything about the historical growing locations of hops, I would not be so quick to write off the hops option.

    1. “Many other notable commentators” don’t know what they are talking about. Hops won’t grow below 35º North (or South), because the hours of daylight are wrong. So they won’t grow in Israel (or Babylon). Attempts were made to grow hops in Egypt, but they failed, for that reason. Cuscata, however, DOES grow in the region. So we can confidently be quick in asserting that the Israelites did NOT use hops, for those reasons alone.

  11. Very Very interesting for a forester, hedge planter who also happened to study ancient near-eastern religions and some of their languages many years ago.
    I would like to know whether it is possible to grub out some hop rhizomes from nearby hedges to plant in his own hedge? They get damaged, but presumably they survive that, like splitting rhubarb. I’ve been unable to answer this question by googling.

  12. “Six More Myths About Hops” on Zythophile is a compelling read that debunks common misconceptions surrounding this essential beer ingredient. The article challenges traditional beliefs and provides a fresh perspective on the history and use of hops in brewing. As a beer enthusiast, I appreciate the in-depth research and factual information presented, helping us gain a deeper understanding of the role of hops in shaping the beer world. Zythophile continues to be a reliable source of knowledge for the brewing community. Cheers to dispelling myths and embracing the truth about hops!

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