Humankind has been brewing beer for almost 6,000 years that we’re aware of. The first use of hops is thought to have been sometime around the 9th century, that’s around 4,800 years later. Most brewers can tell you the year the famous German purity law, the one that states beer must be produced with barley, hops, and water, went into effect (1516). So you ask most any brewer or drinker what the four main ingredients are in any beer, and they’ll tell you grain, yeast, water, and hops.
But why hops? Well, there are a variety of reasons. Brewing Microbiology, edited by Fergus G. Priest and Iain Campbell, suggests that it could be because beers brewed with hops “were the most resistant to spoilage.” There’s also the sweetness from the sugars in malted barley, maltose, that the acids in hops help to mellow out.
The thing is, hops are not the only way to achieve balance. There are an incredible array of herbs and spices out there with the potential to balance yeast and hop characteristics in ways hops simply can’t. We have attached ourselves to a tradition that takes up around 17 percent of beer’s life. At this point in time, I don’t think it’s a conscious choice, but, to some degree, an unwitting one.
Some of you may be thinking of ancient beer recipes that have been reproduced that turned out…less than impressive. Nick Ryan, owner and brewmaster of Herbiery Brewing—a brewery that exclusively brews hop-free beer, says, “I think a lot of recreating of old recipes has resulted in not great beer because it’s been to the letter of those old recipes.” If we still brewed with herbs and spices aside from hops, evolutions in process would’ve modified recipes to better balance ingredients. “I’m taking inspiration, but clearly I’m not recreating Ancient Egyptian recipes.”
The established styles of beer that so many know and love didn’t come out of thin air. The majority result from years and years and years of proven track records. But imagine having access to a random house recipe from the 1300s and recreating it today. I’m not so confident it’s going to knock anyone’s socks off.
Something misleading the drinker in the contemporary brewing world is the use of some of these alternate herbs and spices in excess, almost like a chef who just discovered salt. “I think in the past, people who have done herb beers have gone really in the deep end of herbs and added too much,” says Nick. It’s to be expected, but lack of experience with hop adjuncts is certainly no reason to abandon them completely. Rather, it seems like a great start for thoughtful experimentation. “So balance was something I wanted to strike. My first two beers were a sage Witbier and a ginger Lager. Ginger Lager is very light on the ginger. It’s an intro, and it’s meant really to be an American Adjunct Lager that is just the best American Adjunct Lager you’ve ever had and then a little bit of ginger.”
Nick’s philosophy showcases that getting hopless beers into the mainstream of brewing doesn’t mean abandoning established styles. Quite the opposite. Embrace what’s come to this point and build from there. “I love that there are traditional styles to play with because it gives you a baseline. So you know if you order a Pilsner you’re going to get something familiar.” Of course, Nick’s Pilsner wouldn’t technically be a Pilsner. His approach isn’t to abandon the style, but to “just augment it. Make it a little bit more interesting. … There’s so many other flavors that can be achieved with these herbs and spices that pair well with the phenols yeasts produce.”
But going a little out there in terms of augmenting styles isn’t off the table. It’s more that a practiced hand is needed to guide beer drinkers into the new. Looking at when kettle sours started making a comeback some 15 years ago (anecdotal), I was caught off guard. There was no transition, and it nearly left me completely turned off. But the opportunity for transition was very much there. If I worked from, say, a Saison to a Meerts and kept going, I might’ve been more open to the explicit tartness when it struck me.
This fall, Nick is hoping to have something out there that’s a little…out there. “I want to do a Hefeweizen with sumac berries and coco nibs. I think Hefeweizen would benefit from a slight coco nib chocolatey, single-origin, really specific-flavor coco nibs.” It might muddy the distinction between celebrating the idea of a Hefeweizen and throwing out the wort with the spent grain, but it’s the next step toward making hopless beers less gimmicky and more their own thing.
Something really great about these hopless pursuits would be the net benefit to local agriculture. Often hop farms focus only on growing hops. Duh, right? But Nick, with a growing background in herbs and their farming, points out the potential harm in this practice. “I think the monoculture of hops is damaging to the land. I think, grow hops beside other herbs and spices and create that polyculture. That’s good. That’s good for the land. That’s good for everyone.”
A light Porter and a stout Blonde walk out of a brewery, so why not a hopless variety? Nick and I share in the vision of every brewery having a hop-free option on tap. It makes more sense than trying to get everyone to make their favorite Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream flavor into a beer, and it has strong historical significance. In the case of Herbiery Brewing, it also means using things grown locally. No one here is trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re looking at how we got the wheel in the first place. And I think we’re seeing more and more that there’s something to that foundational perspective.
To our collective health and good fortune. May it afford us opportunities to give time to the present and presence to the times.
Kyle Jacobson is a writer and copy editor for Madison Essentials.
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