Ancient Brewing: Beer Before Hops

This year, the herb world celebrates hops as ‘Herb of the Year’, designated by the International Herb Association. Although hops offer myriad uses, we know it best for its role in brewing beer. Yet, hops is a relatively new ingredient in the long history of this beverage. In fact, a variety of other herbs traditionally supplied the main flavor in everyone’s favorite suds.

Ancient Brewing

Beer is one of the oldest known human-made beverages. The earliest mention dates back to around 2,500 B.C.E when the Egyptians were building the Great Pyramids. Workers on these monuments received a daily ration of bread and a primitive beer made on the worksite. Barley or emmer wheat was dampened with water and left to germinate, creating a malted mixture that fermented, turning the natural sugars from the grains into alcohol. Egyptian workers used hollow reeds to suck the porridge-like mixture from bowels.

Then, some bright soul realized that straining the solids out of the malted grains made it easier to drink. As centuries passed, this beverage grew increasingly popular in Europe, and the strained liquid became known as “gruit” {or grut}. To this liquid base, brewers added a variety of herbs to make a low-alcohol drink a bit more similar to today’s ale.

Once the basics of creating ale were discovered, it wasn’t long before people began to fiddle with the recipe by adding herbs, spices, and dried fruits to create more interesting and flavorful concoctions. The most common herbs added to Medieval ale included sweet gale {Myrica gale}, yarrow {Achillea millefolium}, and marsh rosemary {Ledum palustre}. Other brewing herbs included horehound {Marrubium vulgare}, heather {Calluna vulgaris}, various members of the Artemisia family, and, of course, alecost {Tanacetum balsamita}.

Most of these herbs served to provide a bitter tang that counteracted the sweetness of the gruit base. Some, however, also had side effects {often intended}. Germans favored marsh rosemary for its ability to make beer more intoxicating – almost narcotic-like. In Yorkshire, England, residents believed that sweet gale slaked the thirst better after a hard day’s work. Even the seemingly innocent yarrow, when used in high concentrations, was believed to “Stir up the blood and make one lose one’s balance.”

Brewers made three strengths of ale using the same mash. The first batch was “strong brew” and most likely fetched the highest prices. The second batch, simply called “brew,” was an everyday drink for the average citizen. The third and final batch produced “small ale,” a weak and slightly bitter drink with generally less than one percent alcohol content.

Virtually every segment of Medieval society consumed ale, including children. Before pasteurization, fresh milk couldn’t travel far, so children in towns and cities rarely drank it. And in a time when disease contagion was poorly understood and sanitary standards were abysmal, water from a town well was too dangerous to drink. A fermented beverage offered a safe alternative.

Unfortunately, ale made from gruit, while sanitary, had a short shelf life – less than a week. This meant that a household needed to make a batch of it regularly, so brewing was considered a necessary skill for any good housewife to posses. Those who excelled at the task were known as “alewives,” and they sometimes sold the excess as a means of supplementing the family income. They would advertise the availability of fresh brew by hanging a bush {probably from one of the herbs used in brewing} over the front door.

How important was beer in the Medieval world? Important enough to have laws on the books to ensure a quality product. Cities in England would employ ale-tasters, who were responsible for sampling the brews. One law stated: “You shall resort to every brewer’s house in this city on their tunning day {when ale was ready to drink}, and there to taste their ale whether it be good and wholesome for man’s body.”

alewife brewers


The Switch To Hops

Ale made with a gruit base and flavored with herbs and spices served ass the staple drink across Europe for many centuries. So, what happened to make people change their favorite tipple by adding hops?

There’s no one simple answer. We know that German brewers used hops as early as the 12th-century, as indicated in Hildegard of Bingen’s Physica, in which she admits that it “inhibits some spoilage in beverages,” but clearly holds a low opinion of this “hot and dry” herb, which she claims “causes…melancholy to increase.”

People believed that gruit made with herbs stimulated the mind and created a sense of euphoria. Hopped ale {the forerunner of today’s beer} was known to have some sedative and calming properties. {It also contained high levels of plant estrogen – good for aging women but disastrous for aging men’s sex drive.}

But in the end, it was most likely economics that tipped the scales. Hopped beer lasted much longer and could be shipped great distances from large breweries. It wasn’t long before European countries caught on to the financial advantages of beer made with hops.

The switchover appears to have begun in Germany, where, by the 12th-century, hundreds of monasteries were brewing their own beer to sell. Homemakers did not stop brewing gruit for the household, but monks had more time and resources to create a higher-quality beverage. {As a bonus to magistrates and nobility, this larger scale production could be taxed more easily.}

Slowly but steadily, gruit ale disappeared as beer made with hops became accepted. By the 17th-century, it was all over but the shouting. Small-batch makers such as country folk and beer gourmets still added herbs to their hopped brews and the use of herbs never disappeared completely, as evidence in A Modern Herbal, published in 1931, in which Mrs. Maude Grieve lists no fewer than seven recipes for beer.

Fast-forward to the microbreweries of today, where craft-beer makers and microbreweries are rediscovering and adding flavors such as spruce, chamomile, turmeric, elderberries, citrus, and even wormwood to their IPAs, lagers, stouts, and porters. As we celebrate hops as the International Herb of the Year, let’s not forget the other herbs that continue to provide zing to a mug of well-crafted beer.