Over the next little while our own Katie Bryski, Beer Expert at Black Creek Pioneer Village, will be supplying us with guest blogs on a variety of beer related topics. Katie has been working at the Village in a variety of roles over the past few years and is a published author to boot! Enjoy!
Can you imagine beer without hops?
Today, hops – the flowers of the Humulus lupus plant – are inextricably linked to beer and the brewing process. The small, pine cone-like flowers act as both a flavouring and preserving agent. Not only do they give beer its distinctively bitter taste, they help keep beer from spoiling: highly important in periods before artificial refrigeration!
While Victorians (like us) expected hopped beer, the earliest brewers didn’t use them at all. The first record of hops as a flavouring agent doesn’t appear until the 9th century. Given that beer has been brewed for almost seven thousand years, hops are a relatively late addition! Early medieval brewers flavoured their beer with gruit: a mixture of yarrow, bog myrtle (also known as sweet gale) and marsh rosemary. While gruit helped flavour beer, it lacked hops’ preserving qualities, which meant that beer’s “shelf life” was quite short – brewers tended to brew for personal or immediate consumption, rather than for export.
Bohemian towns experimented with and eventually perfected hopped beer by the 13th century, but the issue of hopped versus unhopped beer was more than a matter of taste. It was a political issue as well! Production of gruit was a privilege bestowed by the local lord or archbishop; granting permission to make gruit was thus an important source of income for them. Brewing with hops meant that brewers no longer needed to seek this permission, which meant a loss of revenue for the lords!
The English distinguished between unhopped “ale” and hopped “beer.” Similar to their Victorian descendents, they were fiercely protective of their national drink; hops were banned in England until about 1600. As Englishman Andrew Boorde wrote in 1542:
Ale for an Englysshe man is a naturall drinke… Beere is made of malte, of hoppes, and water; it is a naturall drynke for a doche [Dutch] man, and nowe of late dayes it is moche vsed in Englande to the detryment of many Englysshe men … (from Ale Brewing in Late Medieval and Early Tudor Times)
But palates adapted, and the benefits of hopped beer quickly became clear. Thanks to the preservation afforded by hops, beer lasted longer, and so could be brewed in larger quantities and exported further away. Without hops, brewing might never have developed beyond its roots as a small, home-based industry.
While wild hops spread like wildfire, by the nineteenth century hop farming had become a thriving industry, with specific hops strains cultivated for certain flavours. In Canada, hop-pickers could be paid 30 cents per box of hops. Boxes held about thirteen pounds, and an expert picker could fill two per day.
The use of compacted hop pellets was developed by New Zealand’s University of Otago in the late twentieth century, but in Black Creek’s Historic Brewery, Ed uses hops just as the Victorians did, adding whole dried flowers to the sweet wort during the boil. If you’d like to taste our hops at their best, try some of our India Pale Ale. The distinctively bitter, grapefruit-like taste comes from the hops. More specifically, Ed uses a combination of Chinook, Nugget, and Citra hops, all of which are noted for their fresh floral and/or citrus-y characters. And after you’ve sipped some IPA, take a wander behind Laskay’s Emporium to see our very own hops. This feisty climbing vine is small now, but will have achieved some impressive height by the time of our Hop Harvest in the fall.