hist-brewing: Hops -- was "ageing mead"

Martyn Cornell atrectus at blueyonder.co.uk
Tue Dec 18 16:56:05 PST 2001

on 18/12/01 4:49 am, PBLoomis at aol.com at PBLoomis at aol.com wrote:

> In a message dated 12/17/01 7:46:47 PM Central Standard Time, Charley at lcc.net
> writes:
>>  however I would like
>>  to point out that historically the hop was rather late in coming to parts
>> of
>>  the world. Gruits were much more common historically.
>   Y'know, it's funny.  Somebody, I think on this list, recently commented
> that in southern Germany, hops were in continuous use from Roman times,
> and we know that Hildegard von Bingen in 1172 mentions their use in beer
> in Germany.

Was it definitely 1172? I have seen estimates of circa 1150 to 1160 for the
date of her book Physica Sacra, which mentions hops. And she would have been
74 in 1172 ...

>   In England, they recently excavated a sunken riverboat from the 10th
> century, and found that part of the cargo was a bale of hops.

This is presumably a reference to the Graveney Boat, although I don't know
about "recently" ... the boat was actually found 30 years ago. And it wasn't
"a bale of hops", though there was clear evidence that the boat 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.

> Were they
> English grown or imported?  Were they intended for use in beer?  If not,
> what?  What other product in that time and place could use up a bale of
> hops before they lost their effectiveness?

Lots of things. The debate on the earliest use of hops in beer is made more
difficult because hops had plenty of other uses besides brewing. A
reddish-brown dye was once manufactured from hop sap and a yellow dye,
apparently, from the leaves and cones. The stems can also be used to make
ropes, sacking and paper, hops can be used as a substitute for oak bark in
tanning, and hop ash was used in the manufacture of Bohemian glass. IMHO, it
is just as likely that early references to hops, gathering hops, and even
growing hops were in connection with non-brewing uses of hop plants, such as
dye-making, as it is that these are early allusions to hops to make beer.

Some supposed early references to cultivation of hops/hop gardens are,
anyway, not what they are claimed:  many modern writers quote the
"humlonaria" mentioned in a deed giving land to the Abbey of St Denis from
King Pepin in 768. The deed in question names lands in the forest of Iveline
in France which among "diversa loca² 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 second problem is that even an early reference to hops in connection
with brewing is no guarantee that they were being used in the way that
brewers eventually used hops, to preserve the beer. You can use hops to
flavour your beer, by dry-hopping or running your wort through a bed of
hops, but you won't, unless I have got this wrong, see any proper
preservative effect. To do this, correct me someone if necessary, you must
boil the wort with the hops to achieve isomerisation and greater solubility
of the humulones. 

The pre-Conquest English may have flavoured ale with hops, and Ann Hagen in
her Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food and Production (pp209-212, ISBN 1898281122)
argues strongly that they did: her evidence, too convoluted to sum up here,
does not convince me, and it also fails to answer the question: if they were
using hops, why did they stop? In any case, once again there is no evidence
they knew hops could preserve ale.

The Germans certainly seem to have used hops in brewing from at least the
9th century, going on the evidence of a statute of Abbot Adalhard of Corvey,
a Benedictine monastery on the Weser in Westphalia, Germany in 822. This
covered, among other things, the gathering of firewood and hops ­ implying
wild hops, rather than cultivated ones. It also  says a 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, he should take steps
to get more from elsewhere to make sufficient beer for himself. But we
cannot infer from this that the porter was _preserving_ his ale with hops,
only that he was using them as an ingredient, which could be just for
flavouring. This is, incidentally, the first mention I know of that
definitely links hops with brewing.

The importance of Abbess Hildegard is that she was, as far as I know, the
first person to say that hops preserved beer: "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."

>From the first brewing with hops in England in the very early 15th century
it took 200 years for hopped beer to become the dominant drink among English
brewers. Hildegard was writing at a time when hops were not the dominant
flavouring - she mentions "grusz" (gruit) as well as hops - but by 100 years
after her death, that is about 1280, hops seem to have been top flavour
among German brewers: at least, this is when the Hansa towns in North
Germany began exporting hopped beer in quantity. It is a reasonable
assumption that hops' rise to dominance would have taken the same sort of
time in Germany as it did in England: resistance among those who held the
gruit monopoly might have delayed things, but even adding a century on,
giving 300 years from first brewing with hops as a preservative to hops'
dominance over gruit, takes us only back to around 980. So what was going on
between 822, when we know the porter at Corvey was brewing using hops, and
this putative take-off date for hops as beer preservative? My personal
theory is that while brewers were using hops as a flavouring for a long
time, it took a couple of centuries, at least, before somebody got round to
boiling their wort with hops for sufficiently long to get, and notice, the
preserving effect that resulted. Please now shoot me down in flames.

Martyn Cornell

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