Hops: A Brief History

This article first appeared in a special issue of Zymurgy, 1990.

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The hop. Without it, where would we be? Perhaps sipping a beer with “just a kiss of the gruit,” an herbal mix popular before the hop’s ascendancy. Gruit blended herbs and spices like bog myrtle, yarrow, St. John’s wort, coriander, rosemary or wormwood, and was added to the boil to make gruit beer. But even a beer so lushly fortified spoiled quickly.

Without the hop’s preservative qualities, beer could not keep. Without the hop, there could be no beer stored for the summer when heat and pollen made fermentation unreliable. Even highly alcoholic ales — sweet, thick and sticky — were prone to spoilage, especially if subjected to the motion of travel. They needed to be drunk quickly and close to home.

So without the hop, brewing could not be pursued successfully on a large scale. As you can see, the hop changed more than flavor; it changed history. It was the addition of hops to beer that enabled brewers to ship their beers, to taste their first real commercial success and to relegate the home-brewer and pub-brewer to the status of novelties for several centuries.

Among the earliest references to hops are those of the Romans, who brought hops to Britain for use as a vegetable, and the Babylonians, who took a step in the right direction and used hops to brew a strong beverage. People who eventually migrated from Babylonia into Central Europe probably carried the knowledge of hops with them.

The earliest reference to hops in continental Europe is a mention of a hop garden in the Hallertau district in 736 AD. The first European mention of hops being added to beer dates from 1079, but it would be six centuries before the hop was universally accepted. As Michael Jackson notes in his New World Guide to Beer, wherever hopped beer was introduced, it was met with suspicion and hostility from established brewers and those whose livelihood depended upon the cultivation and sale of other plants used in brewing.

So it was in Germany. In Cologne, brewers who wanted to use hops ran afoul of the archbishop who held the monopolistic rights to gruit. But the hop flourished in spite of such roadblocks, and its preservative quality made the brewing, storing and eventual shipping of the German lager style possible.

In Holland in the 1300’s, the Dutch developed a taste for hopped German beer from Hamburg, much to the dismay of Dutch brewers of gruit beer. Over the protests, prohibitions and high import duties imposed by the nobility, Dutch drinkers imported hopped beer, then the hops to brew their own.

Once hops had won Holland, England was next. To the detriment of their traditionally unhopped ales, the English developed a taste for hopped Dutch beer while soldiering in the Low Countries in the 14th century. They imported the new beer as early as 1400, and hops were planted in English soil by 1428.

As with all change, there were sufficient English enthusiasts on both sides to keep the debate going for more than a century. Written testimony to the beastly nature of hopped beer and the equal evil of hopped ale is available in quantity. In 1424, hopes were condemned as an adulteration, and as late as 1651, hopped beer was described in John Taylor’s Ale Ale-vated into the Ale-titude as “a Dutch boorish liquor… a saucy intruder.”

By the same token, as early as 1436, Henry VI commended hopped beer as “notable, healthy and temperate.” And by 1695, written records show that ale itself was finally hopped.

The advantages of the hopped drink to the quaffer and the brewer were so great that hopped beer was bound to triumph over unhopped ale. Drinkers liked the flavor, and for the brewers, hops clarified the wort, gave the finished beer a good head and helped it to keep. While ale needed to be strong to keep for any time at all, beer was protected by the hop and could be milder, and equal amounts made with half as much malt.

The shift to the greater use of hops was described by historian Peter Mathias in The Brewing Industry in England as a “slow change in public taste encouraged by brewers searching for greater efficiency in their product.”

Once brewers were convinced of the hop’s value, however, they had to learn to live with its whimsical nature. The hop seemed peculiarly defenseless against the attacks of natural enemies, and almost every adversity could prove fatal. As Mathias writes:

“A whole series of misfortunes was always possible, developing with an almost tropical luxuriance: the little black ‘bob’ insect and lice on young plants in the spring, the long-winged fly at midsummer, aphids, grubs and more summer lice which only heavy rain could wash away; ‘fire-blast’ (intense heat following damp which withered and parched the leaves) and the ‘mould,’ ‘fen’ or blight — the greatest killer of them all.”

Thoroughly capricious, these killers might devastate one crop and leave one on the other side of a tilled field in the full bloom of health. All this served to create huge swings between good and bad harvests, which in turn sent the price of hops falling or soaring. Perversely, the uncertainty created speculation and a booming industry.

Hop growers unashamedly waited for the dream season when misfortune would destroy their fellows’ crops and send prices for their own healthy hops up through the clouds. Conversely, growers dreaded a boom season, when they would have to pay the maximum labor costs to harvest the crop, which was then practically worthless because of its abundance.

Not surprisingly, it was the brewers with deeper pockets and larger storehouses who were able to weather shortages and high prices, and take advantage of low prices. If consecutive bad seasons created dire shortages, the brewers would be forced to lower the hopping rate. If they still sold every drop they brewed, they were encouraged to leave the hopping rate lower to save money. And so beer became less bitter over the years.

Shortages had the additional effect of encouraging imports from other countries, and as the North American hop industry grew in the mid-1880’s, it occasionally benefited from a bad year in England. But for the early American colonists, it was all import. At first, English hops were shipped to North America, where spruce bark and sassafras root often served as the “gruit” of the day. In 1629, the Massachusetts Bay Co. ordered hop seeds shipped from England. (Talk about a patience builder.)

The colonists had many uses for hops. Sanborn Brown, in his Wines and Beers of Old New England, notes:

“The hop cones used in the beer brewing were not the only part of the plant that the farmers found useful. It was a common vine in the settler’s kitchen garden. The young shoots in the spring were eaten as a special treat in salads… a wax extracted from the tendrils was used as a reddish-brown vegetable dye, the fibers were used in textiles as a substitute for flax, the stalks were used for basket and wicker-work, and the leaves and spent hops were an especially excellent food for sheep.”

By 1640, observers noted that hops grew “fair and large” in the colonies. But hop growing was still not an industry, and imports would make up the majority of hops used for many years to come. Even in 1798, when Matthew Vassar began producing his famous ale, he gathered wild hops for the brewing.

Although the first commercial hops were said to be harvested in Massachusetts in 1791, it was New York that was to be the new country’s first major producer. The first hops were planted there in Madison County in 1808. The first harvests were insignificant compared to English imports, and sold for just 12 cents a pound. But a series of English crop failures increased the demand after 1822, and the new Erie Canal opened up transportation to the east and west in 1825. Soon brewers in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois were demanding and getting New York hops. In 1859, seven-eighths of the nation’s hops were harvested in New York. The area led in hop technology as well, building the first hop extraction plant in 1871, and moving it to the center of the hop-growing industry in 1876.

California began hop production in 1857, when a hop grower from Vermont settled there. Wisconsin began hop cultivation in the 1860’s. On the West Coast, Washington’s first hop grower was a brewer who harvested a crop in 1866, and Oregon was known as a hop market in 1880.

By then, the American brewing industry was using 30 million pounds of hops each year. The majority were grown domestically and half of those in New York, still the king of the hop industry and perfectly located for the major eastern ale breweries, which used more hops than the western lager brewers.

But blight and mold sometimes destroyed a crop, and New York began to lose its edge. As in England, hop prices could swing wildly. With the average being 15 cents a pound, the price could drop to a nickel or rise to a dollar.

Gradually, the hops of the western growers, especially those of California and Oregon, gained in popularity. Brewmasters in the eastern breweries heard reports of western growing conditions with an abundance of early rainfall combined with warm summer sun, ideal of curbing the inroads of downy mildew and growing premium hops.

But the shift westward was not sudden. In 1903, New York hops were still noted as the best grown in America, while those of Washington, Oregon and California were cited as very important to brewers in America and England. Internationally, Germany still had the highest production of any nation and its hops were imported extensively into the United States for special brands of beer for which the German hop flavor was desired.

In the years from 1903 to 1914, before the darkness of Prohibition descended, American brewers imported three to ten million pounds of hops each year, mostly from Germany, and American hop growers exported ten to twenty million pounds, mostly to England and Canada.

After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the New York hop industry continued to decline, although hops would still be grown and harvested into the 1950s. Today, the United States is second only to Germany in hop production and the growers are centered in Washington state.

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Sources: A History of Brewing by H.S. Corran (1975); Brewed in America by Stanley Baron (1972); One Hundred Years of Brewing, published by The Western Brewer magazine (1903); The Brewing Industry in England, 1700-1830 by Peter Mathias (1959); New World Guide to Beer by Michael Jackson (1988); Wines and Beers of Old New England by Sanborn C. Brown (1978).

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