Brewers in our modern era live in a time of riches unparalleled in the history of their art. The quality and range of ingredients, from grain to yeast to hops, provide both commercial and hobbyist brewers with the capability to make any style imaginable with steady consistency and high quality. With this wide variety of available ingredients it’s no surprise that brewers have taken to re-engineering craft beer’s signature and most successful style, the IPA, to highlight hop varietals from Japan to Washington and Britain to New Zealand. Brewers can go citrusy, piney, floral, earthy, and even “dank” depending on their selection of hops, all while remaining within the easily marketable IPA genre.
Last month, I wrote about how beer nerds and casual imbibers alike should start exploring craft beer beyond IPAs. I argued that there are so many interesting styles to explore that you’re doing yourself a disservice by limiting your intake to hop-forward beers. Furthermore, the prevalence of IPAs on our supermarket shelves and in bars across the country may put off potential craft beer converts who simply do not like the style.
With the gauntlet thrown down firmly on the side of balance and variety over brashness and homogeneity, I suggested some styles that were big on flavor from malt, yeast, and bacteria. But even malt-forward and sour beers that I highlighted still contain some amount of hops. After all, hops not only play a flavoring role in beer, they also play a chemical role. Hops possess antibacterial qualities, which extend beer’s longevity. They also play an important role in countering sweetness from malt. For example, in a dry Irish stout, such as Guinness, you wouldn’t detect any hop character, but hops play an important balancing role in the background.
So the question is raised: Can we remove hops from the equation entirely? Throughout history, and mostly due to geographic necessity, hops have not always been available in a quality suitable for brewing (or available at all). Going without beer was simply not an option, so brewers from the ancient and relatively recent pasts had to make do with what was on hand.
Below are several historical styles that have fallen out of favor, replaced in some cases due to advances (or changes) in technique, broader availability of ingredients, or changes in the tastes of modern consumers. What they have in common is a total absence or extremely limited use of hops. These styles give us is a story of how people lived (and drank) in times before our own.
Beers made with spruce tips in place of, or in addition to, hops have a long history in brewing. Vikings brewed a spruce beer to ward off scurvy on long voyages, and the beverage was also prescribed as scurvy treatment in the 18th-century British Navy, after the research of nutritionist James Lind deemed it effective in this regard.
Spruce beers moved off of the ship and into the home after making an appearance in the first American cookbook, American Cookery, written by Amelia Simmons and published in 1796. The original published recipe does in fact include hops, but in extremely small quantities. In a departure from modern brewing practice, the hops are boiled simply in water and the resulting “hop water” is used to make the rest of the beer. Spruce essence is used as a flavorant and bittering agent, and because American barley crops would have been unpredictable and imported grains would have been expensive and of low quality, the beer contains no grain. It is made simply with molasses as the fermentable sugar (gluten free!).
Founding father Benjamin Franklin had a spruce beer recipe of his own, and some who have tasted recreations of Franklin’s brew have described it as akin to drinking a “Christmas tree” or “Pine Sol.” Franklin’s recipe is also entirely molasses-based, and ferments in an open cask. The differences between late 18th-century tastes and our own being taken into account, this is admittedly a niche brew and probably not one you should re-create as a first attempt at brewing.
Spruce has a piney flavor (no surprise) that can also come across as citrusy or floral. These are also flavors and aromas that come across through many varieties of hops. Like hops, the differences in flavors are a factor of spruce species. Spruce also contains some of its own preservative compounds, making it a good substitute for some of the chemical properties that hops typically bring to the party.
If you want to try a spruce beer, the most widely available commercial example is Poor Richard’s Tavern Ale by Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia. It is “based on” Franklin’s original recipe, but it uses malted barley, so you needn’t be wary of having to suffer through a brew that tastes of cleaning products.
Predating spruce beer, Gruit is a catchall style that can encompass any beer made with a single variety or blend of herbs in place of hops. These beers were brewed in Northern Europe in some form perhaps as early as 5,000 years ago. A wide variety of botanicals were used as bittering agents, flavorants, and preservatives in these beers, including rosemary, juniper, and sage. In addition to grains, these beers would contain a large amount of adjuncts such as honey and fruit.
Of these herbs and other botanicals, heather has been used for brewing in Scotland for over 4,000 years. Similar to hops, heather can be boiled with the wort for bittering, or fresh flowers can be added later on for more flavor and aroma. Heather is a mild flavor and mimics more of the floral hop elements, rather than big citrusy or piney flavors or aromas.
To try a modern version of gruit, drinkers can pick up Fraoch, a heather ale, from Williams Brothers Brewing Co. in Alloa, Scotland. As native, wild ingredients to Scotland, heather and sweetgale are used to bitter this beer.
Perhaps the oddest of these unhopped beers is the Finnish sahti. Brewed before the introduction of metal kettles, ancient brewers would heat large river rocks in a fire. Once the rocks were blazing hot they would be thrown into wooden vats or barrels to heat the mash water. These extremely hot rocks caramelize bits of the mash, leaving a roasted character. Traditionally, sahti was filtered through freshly cut juniper leaves, taking on some of the spicy, resinous, herbal character that gin drinkers may be fond of. In a move that would shock most modern brewers, some ancient sahti makers would forgo the boil, moving the unfermented beer directly to the fermenter from their lauter tun without sanitizing the wort through a long, steady boil. This technique leaves the wort highly susceptible to the growth of unwanted microbes. Drinkers likely got around this by consuming the beer quickly, probably not an issue in the bleak, dark Finnish winters.
Sahti can be difficult to track down outside of Finland. Stateside you can find a riff on the style by Dogfish Head, appropriately named Sah’Tea due to the incorporation of black and chai teas along with other spices. If this modern version isn’t authentic enough for you, if you have access to large amounts of juniper it might be worth a shot to make a batch of your own. What a lovely surprise for your Christmas guests.
These styles challenge us to think about beer as more than just water, barley, hops, and yeast. They tell the complicated story of what was available, and give us a window into a time and place long gone but not forgotten. They also show us that beer production cannot be limited by the availability of certain ingredients, even if those ingredients are deemed essential in our modern conception of beer. As Ian Malcolm, Jeff Goldblum’s character from Jurassic Park, astutely observes, the course of natural order cannot be contained, and I believe the same applies to brewers. If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that beer will not be contained. Beer breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously. [Hops or no hops] beer … uh … finds a way.
James Sheehan is a homebrewer and cider-maker. He holds an MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society from King’s College London.
Photo credit: Moyan Brenn