The plant Humulus lupulus, conventionally known as the hop plant, plays a critical role in brewing beer, acting both to provide stability and also as a flavoring agent. Hops provide a tangy and bitter flavor to beer, which acts to give it its distinctive taste. In the modern day, it is unusual for beer to be made without the use of hops, but this hasn’t always been the case. Throughout history, brewers have been using a range of plants as flavoring for beer.
Beer itself has a history of roughly 9,000 years, but for the majority of this time, hops were not used! The very first mention of hops in relation to beer and brewing in recorded history was in 822 AD, in a set of rules for a monastery. These rules are the earliest evidence that hops was used in brewing, but there was no indication of what precise role hops played.
Although 822 AD is the first recorded use of hops for brewing, it is likely that hops were used well before this time and there are indications that hops may have been used by Egyptian and Babylonian cultures in brewing, although there is no solid evidence about whether this was the case.
The first evidence of any hops being cultivated commercially was in Germany around the 12th or 13th century and from approximately the 13th century and on Germany exported hopped beer.
The use of hops in England began later, and the first evidence of this occurring is from around 1412 in England. At this point in time English brewers were producing two types of beer. The first of these was ‘ale’, which did not contain any hops, while ‘beer’ contained hops. It wasn't until much later (late 18th, early 19th century) that the now famous India Pale Ale came about.
The role of hops in beer became even more prevalent after this point, as a law in Bavaria specified just three ingredients that could be used in the production of beer, one of which was hops. The English government took a similar approach in 1710, where hops were made the only legal bittering agent in beer.
From these early events, hops have risen from a completely unknown aspect of beer to a highly prevalent and near-essential component of beer.
In America, the production and use of hops occurred soon after the settlement of the early colonies and by the middle of the 1800s the majority of hops were made in New York State. However, the production of hops experienced multiple problems in this region, as issues with mildew almost destroyed all crops on two separate occasions.
From 1850 onwards, western states, including California, Washington and Oregon became heavily involved in the production of hops. In modern times, Idaho, Oregon and Washington are responsible for the majority of hop production in the United States and America produces close to one third of the hops in the world. We use a lot of them too, and West Coast IPA's have taken off as the flagship beer of California, Oregon, and Washington. Whoever says that American beer tastes like fizzy yellow water has not had a double IPA, I can tell you that!
With the recent rise in the craft beer industry, hop culture has grow immensely in the past few decades. There are now several hop breeding programs aimed at producing new hop varieties (also here and here as of 2014), and there are always craft breweries that are experimenting with new breeds.
In fact, there are so many, that it's hard to keep track of all the flavors associated with each kind. Needless to say, I'm slowly building my repertoire as I drink and brew.
I hope to write a lot more about hops in the future. I just bought the book For the Love of Hops, which is becoming the homebrewers bible to this wonderful plant.
Photo Credit: Davit Blaikie