Archbishop of Cologne

The Centuries-Old Debate Over Hops in Beer

If you’re a fan of India pale ale, you can thank your medieval ancestors for introducing hops to brewing. The Greeks dismissed hops as a wild plant, and the Romans used them as an herb and a form of natural medicine. Both ancient cultures also regarded beer as the beverage of choice of barbarians.

It wasn’t until the eighth century that hops were used in brewing. During the reign of Pepin the Short, Charlemagne’s father, the king gave humlonariae—hop gardens, probably—to the abbey of St. Denis. The monks likely used the hops to flavor their beer, and in the process discovered that they were a preservative as well.

Still, it took centuries more for hops to become a standard ingredient in beer. The abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen mentioned their use in beer and for medicinal purposes in the 12th century, indicating that their benefits were quite known by the High Middle Ages. In 1380, the archbishop of Cologne outlawed hopped beers from Westphalia in an effort to promote the use of his own gruit in brews. A century and a half later, King Henry VIII also tried to ban hops in order to maintain the standard of “Good old English ale.”

Today, almost all beer is hopped, but the debate is hardly over. Some members of the craft beer community have begun to rebel against highly-hopped ales.

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