We have all seen them, those commercials with the rushing rivers and mountain peaks. And living in the Milwaukee area my entire life, the beer terminology floats around like the frothy head on a cold mug of Genuine Draft. All the companies claim that their beer is made with the best of ingredients – including the always mentioned, hops. But do any of us really know what a hop is? After a six pack, I doubt anyone would much care. Well, for you sober readers (and those who are more the brainiac, Cliff Clavin types) I will share with you my findings in search for the origin of hops.
Hop is a perennial and dioecious (boy plants and girl plants are kept separate, just like health class was in junior high) plant. It is a summer growing, twining vine which in nature, would block the light needed by surrounding plants. This is what gave it its first name by the Romans, Lupus Salictarius which translates to ‘good wolf’. Later it was given the English name, hops from hoppan, meaning ‘to climb’.
The first accounts of hops being used in beer was during the Babylonian times by people of Jewish decent. Not only did they use it for its drinking purposes but they also believed it to cure leprosy. Even today, hops are known to have medicinal purposes such as the alleviation of ear aches, tooth aches, nervous tendencies, sleep deficiencies, appetite arousal and several other benefits. Wow. Perhaps I should start growing my own hops!
The hops that are used for the production of beer are the unpollinated female hops because those are higher in alpha acids and that is what gives the drink the bitter taste we have all grown to appreciate. The hops petals contain an element called tannin. Tannin was also used as a dye back in the day and is what gives beer its darker colors. Tannins can be found in the leaves and bark of many trees and is known to cause the darker colors in many tree surrounded rivers, wines, teas and different flavinoid packed fruits.
These green, heart leafed plants are believed to have been first cultivated in Germany in 8th century in the Hallertau district. It made its way across the English Channel in the 15th century to be used primarily as a vegetable. It was eaten in the spring much like we eat asparagus today. You see, hops were given a timorous eye for quite some time and were even considered ‘illegal’ by the powers that existed during those times. Hops were assumed to be a hazardous additive to beer due to its possible melancholy effect. However, it is more likely that the opposition to hops was mainly due to the concern of the growers of the mixture of plants which had previously been used to flavor beer. This mixture was often called Gruit. Gruit was made up of a mixture of several herbs such as St. Johns Wort, Rosemary, Wormwood (that sounds yummy, eh?), yarrow and others. But eventually the hops won out and became instrumental in the brewing of beer; not only for the flavor aspects, but also financial ones.
Hops are essential in allowing beer to be preservable and shippable. Without it, beer did not last long and there was no way to really transport it without it spoiling. That would not make for very large profits. Also, because of its preservative properties, large amounts of alcohol were no longer necessary to keep the beer lasting longer. It does not effect the alcohol content other than the fact that less alcohol was needed once hops was an option for preservation. This kept the costs lower for the brewers. And as we know – profits always win the joust even in the middle ages of jolly ole England.
And let us not forget flavor! According to Michael Jackson (not the moonwalker, but the affectionately acclaimed ‘Beer Hunter’), “Hops have no influence on the alcohol content of beer. What they contribute is aroma and flavor. Depending upon the variety used, the hoppy character may be cedary, piney or lemony, or reminiscent, for example, of orange zest, aniseed or mint.”
So, what it boils down to is that hops’ basic functions in the production of beer are preservation and flavor.
In seventeenth century, The Massachusetts Bay Company had hop seeds shipped from the UK. The majority of hops grown in the US were in New York. Once the Erie Canal became available for shipments, brewers in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana began using Hops transported from NY. But as the land seemed to shrink and cities grew and grew, hops had to make its way to other parts of the country.
Around 1857 hops were introduced to sunny California’s Central Valley by a settler from Vermont. Then it was onto Wisconsin in the 1860’s, Washington in 1866 and Oregon in the 1880s.
Today, America is the second largest producer of hops, Germany being first, of course. Washington State is the center of hops cultivation in the US.
I don’t know about you, but I am suddenly quite thirsty and that sweaty, gleaming bottle of Rolling Rock is looking pretty tasty. So I bid you a fair adieu as I pop the top and enjoy my hop.