[Beer Lecture] Word on Hops
Historical period: the 14th-16th centuries CE
Scene of action: German, Baltic, and Netherlands Cities
Starting from the 14th century CE, gruit usage (and therefore gruit monopoly profits) begin to decline. The reason was the spread of a cheaper, more effective, and more convenient additive: hops
First, hops bitterness allowed to beat unpleasant odors off. Second, hops were a way more effective preservative than herb mixture: alpha acids (or rather their isomers produced by heating wort) present in hops suppress the growth of bacteria, which prolongs the shelf life of beer up to half a year and even more. Third, and probably most important, using hops allows using the raw materials more efficiently. English documents from that time mention that adding hops results in producing twice (!) the amount of beer from the same amount of grain: wort might be left to ferment longer, allowing more sugars to convert into alcohol without the risk of spoiling.
The monks were probably the first who started brewing with hops, as the monasteries were the only beer producers in the early Middle ages who made enough beer to care about prolonged keeping. The first known mention of adding hops to wort comes from 822 CE in the instructions of Adalard, the abbot of Corbie, France, written for his brothers. In the 9th-10th centuries CE, the usage of hops in monasteries was already widespread, being found both in chronicles and archeological evidence. Furthermore, hops were sometimes a part of gruit. And yet, it took several hundred years (!) for hops to dismiss gruit. A few reasons were named by scholars.
- Technological issues: hops start to work as a preservative only if boiled (which allows alpha acids to isomerize, and it’s the isomers that possess anti-bacterial properties). Hops added to gruit are useless from that point of view, and they might even spoil the wort. So brewing with hops implies having an additional step of boiling wort with them for an hour or two. Hops became generally used when brewers accumulated enough capital to have separate vessels for mashing (e.g. preparing wort from ground grain and water) and boiling.
- Bitter taste of hopped beer repulsed the consumers. We now think that modern beer has a neutral taste, but for a 15th century Englishman, the sweet taste of ale was so habitual that bitter beer was drunk only by Dutch expats despite its production being twice more cost-effective.
- Hops undermined the monopoly on beer ingredients, so their usage was frequently opposed by local authorities, especially in the Dutch towns.
One way or another, hops started to supersede gruit in the 13th century, region after region. The important consequence of that (apart from bishops’ and barons’ whining about their incomes) was the beginning of commercial brewing at scale. Beer became a product to deliver to other towns, not just local ones.
The true meaning of the word ‘gruit’ was already forgotten in the 15th century. There are surviving examples of using it as a synonym for brewing tax (sometimes even as hoppengruit, literally ‘the hops gruit’) and also as a verb meaning mixing something as an ingredient.
With technological advancement, the division of labor emerged. Brewing beer and selling it became different occupations. First brewers’ guilds and beer trade regulating laws are known since the 13th century in English and German lands.
Beer, however, is a product poorly fit for transportation because of its considerable volume and weight. Moving beer by roads is suboptimal: the cost of a barrel increased by 25–70% every 100 kilometers, depending on the ground type. Beer trade wasn’t a luxurious one, and its margins were low. But beer was quite a convenient commodity for maritime transportation, given that it was a customary product to provide drinks and calories to the sailors. First mentions of the naval beer trade begin in the Viking era, circa the 11th century CE; in the 12th century, Bremen and Brugge were already dealing beer at scale. But the real maritime beer trade started with the development of the Hanseatic League.
One of the two founding cities of Hansa, Hamburg, had literally become the world brewing capital in the 14th century (partly because of being one of the earliest abolishers of the gruitgeld). In 1369, Hamburg exported 13.3 million liters of beer and consumed probably the same amount locally, having around 14 thousand inhabitants. At its peak, the Hanseatic League sold more than 50 million liters per year, and the League’s navy drank another 25 million. Beer gave jobs to roughly half of Hamburg’s craftsmen (475 out of 1075 in 1376). Other cities of the League weren’t that far behind: there were 300 brewers in Bremen, 250 in Erfurt, 200 in Wismar and Leipzig (each), 180 in Lubeck. Another number is even more impressive: 25–40% of all the grain that those Medieval cities were buying was used by brewers.
In the 15th century, however, the Hansa started to lose markets: the Dutch were forcing them out of the business as the more advanced maritime power and the more efficient beer producer alike. During the second half of the 14th century, the Netherlands, figuratively speaking, converted from an agrarian village to an industrial city. The most important industrial sector was undoubtedly the textile one; but for sure brewing was the second-most important one.
The Delft — Gouda — Haarlem triangle became a center of the Low Lands beer industry. These three cities were producing 100 million liters of beer in the second half of the 15th century and at the beginning of the 16th century, having a combined population of approximately 40 thousand people. In the heyday of beer production in the Netherlands (starting from the end of the 15th century up to the beginning of the 17th century) the beer incomes (including excise, taxes, and customs duties) of many Dutch towns comprised one to two thirds of the total income.
How to try
Given the ferocious competition between dozens of cities and hordes of brewers, there is no surprise that new beer trademarks were emerging, reaching heights, and disappearing into nothing in hundreds if not thousands. One expert, Heinrich Klaus, counted 150 types of German beer only. To denote all these beers a plethora of words with dubious etymology and ever-changing meaning was used. Nevertheless, some of them gained so much popularity that they were still in use centuries after, and because of that, we may taste them today. (The longer a beer style existed, the higher was the probability somebody bothered to write the recipe down!)
The most authentic of such ‘dinosaurs’ is the modern reconstruction of one of the most popular beer styles of the 14th century, the Dutch koyt (also spelled kuyt or kuit). You may judge how influential this beer was by the fact that citizens of Leeuwarden revolted in 1487 because koyt imports from Haarlem had been banned.
The notable characteristic of koyt is using a large proportion of oats (more than 50%) which was the most widespread grain in the Netherlands during those times and probably allowed brewing better beer for the same money. Nowadays many microbreweries in the Netherlands (and some in the US) produce beer in this style:
- the most precise reconstruction named Klavervier Koyt; brewers from Klaverviewr not only produce authentic beers but also contribute to the research of brewing history;
- two Jopen brands, Padvinderskuiten and Frans Hals Bier (Jopen Koyt despite its naming is not a koyt);
- Oedipus Shampoo;
- Elora Windmolen Dutch Kuyt;
- Noord-Hollander Kuyt Bier;
- Grutte Pier Kuit;
- Ramses Bier Kuiter;
- Leidsch Kuitbier;
- High Oats by the Jabeerwocky-Nepomucen collaboration;
- Koyt by the Wander-Reuben’s collaboration.
Another beer style originating in the 14th-16th centuries is bock. It is told that its name derived from the city of Einbeck; that Martin Luther particularly loved that beer, and that he strengthened his will at the Diet of Worms of 1521 with it. However, we tend to be very skeptical regarding this story as the sources that tell it are quite far from being reliable. Nevertheless, technically speaking bock is quite close to the alleged pinnacle of the brewers’ art of the 16th century: dark (of course) aged (therefore lacking smoky flavors) strong (means ‘expensive’) hopped beer. Einbeck, being a Hanseatic League member, was famous for its rigid control over beer quality.
What is called ‘bock’ in nowadays Germany is a totally different beer, a dark strong lager (see the next chapter). Dutch brewers (La Trappe, Hertog Jan, Jopen) and the Belgian ones (Leute) are closer to the canonical recipe. Still, German bockbier (such as Ayinger Celebrator, Paulaner Salvator, Spaten Optimator, and other -or’s) are quite good, though represent a later brewing tradition.
This is Chapter 6 of my book on beer and brewing history. The work continues on Github.
- 1 Swinnen, J., Briski, D. (2017), p. 17
- 2 Bennett, J. M. (1996), p. 85
- 3 Unger, R. W. (2001), p. 27
- 4 Nelson, M. (2005), p. 110
- 5 Unger, R. W. (2004), pp. 54–55
- 6 ibid, p. 56
- 7 ibid
- 8 Bennett, J. M. (1996), p. 60
- 9 Verberg, S. (2018), p. 56
- 10 ibid, p. 57
- 11 Meussdoerffer, F. G. (2009), p. 13
- 12 Unger, R. W. (2001), p. 27
- 13 Meussdoerffer, F. G. (2009), p. 16
- 14 ibid, p. 17
- 15 Unger, R. W. (2004), pp. 63–64
- 16 Meussdoerffer, F. G. (2009), p. 15
- 17 ibid, p. 20
- 18 Unger, R. W. (2001), p. 55
- 19 ibid, p. 73
- 20 ibid, p. 69
- 21 Unger, R. W. (2004), p. 185
- 22 https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/23532/what-exactly-happened-with-beer-and-leeuwarden-in-1487
- 23 Unger, R. W. (2001), p. 127
- 24 Jackson, M. Original Bock: the beer the doctor ordered
- 25 Swinnen, J., Briski, D. (2017), p. 19