From a bitter time to a better time.

being a brief history of hops used in beer   |    by Paul Gilbert


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While you may naturally assume hops are part of the 1,2,3 of beer-making, history would disagree. Canadian craft producers are increasingly referencing hop ingredients. Beers become identified by the hop varietals ‘Citra’, ‘Mosaic’, ‘Centennial’. We will tell you a bit more about the varietals shortly.

Beer was originally constituted of barley, water and yeasts. This formula is believed to be as much as 9,000 years old. But it wasn’t until the Dark Ages that monks in France began using hops as part of the beer-making process. Why?

The simple answer was, they helped preserve the beer. Until then, without refrigeration, the monks made beer in small batches and had to ensure (not too difficult) that they consumed it rapidly. Beer finished with hops could be set aside for longer periods of time. However, hops also have medicinal qualities in traditional medicine. They are said to be a relaxant – an aid to insomnia and anxiety. American first nations used them for inflammation and pain alleviation.

Between the Dark Ages and the 20th century, the politics of ‘hopping’ ale makes for an interesting story. In Britain, the distinction between ‘ale’ (often preserved with fruit & herbs, not hops) and ‘beer’ (with hops) went on for centuries.

Today, we know that soft resins found in hops contain the acidic compounds that both preserve beer and produce bitterness. Today, the huge numbers of varietals in the craft beer industry are driving subtle differences in flavours and, are a critical component of the brewmaster’s arsenal.

The last thirty years have seen an explosion of hop breeding programs, hybrids and crosses. It is now a symbiotic industry – as brewmasters innovate, hop breeders create new variations. But, hops are only part of the story – don’t overlook the resurgence of grains and malting. This could not be a more exciting time for beer.

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Paul Gilbert