Thursday, June 16, 2016


I was just idly flicking through the channels one evening when I happened upon an old Huell Howser video about his road trip to Chico in which he has ended up at the Sierra Nevada Brewery. At the point I came in he was talking about the brewing process and was discussing the importance of hops with the brewmaster.

I like beer, and in recent years have developed more of a taste for hoppy beers than I once had. Hops are all the rage now, or maybe they went too far and are now becoming a little less overwhelming in whatever's fashionable, but I have to say that until that moment I had never once in my life considered what a hop was. This is more or less what they looked like on the show, sitting in a barrel waiting to be added to the vat:

Although beer may have preceded civilization, the use of hops doesn't go back very far. Pliny the Elder mentions them in the late seventies, AD, but they don't really get a brewing mention until around 822. (Hops fanatics can check out this very easy to read post at Beer Scene Magazine HERE.)

This is what they look like in (cultivated) nature:

Apparently, hops ousted another contender, grut, or gruit, which was a mix of bitter herbs and spices that helped preserve beer.. Hops have an antibacterial effect, according to Wikipedia, which favors brewer's yeast over other microorganisms. But they also add their own flavors to the brew. 

Here's an image of hops growing in a hopyard in Germany. The plant's tendrils have to be trained upward in order to get all parts of the plant the right amount of sunlight.

I think that might be all I have to say about hops--for now. If you were looking for any kind of brewer's recipe, you came to the wrong place.


  1. I've always thought of beer as going hand in hand with development of civilization, something the first civilizations took into account as they set themselves up:

    Were hops and their predecessors originally added as preservatives and only later found to affect taste? That would not be the only such instance in the history of alcoholic drinks. The discovery of port, for instance, was a fortuitous result of trade tensions between France and England, which is why many of the great port houses in Porto have England and Scottish names, such as Graham, which you will no doubt know.

  2. Yes, according to that Beer Scene website, which is actually called the Philly Beer Scene once you get there, beer is older than civilization and there's a professor at Davis who claims that beer is "the basis of modern static civilization". His name is Charles Bamforth and he's "Professor of Brewing Science". Nice work if you can get it.

    It seems that the Romans ate hops at bitter vegetables and they were used medicinally, so I'd guess flavor and anti-bacterial qualities went hand in hand.

    Yes, though I'm not a big port drinker, I have noticed that Graham label.

  3. It makes sense that one of the first tasks, even defining characteristics, of a a civilization would be to take account of and control and direct and regulate features already present, in this case beer.

    I would say that the prominence of beer in Sumerian law codes does nothing to disprove your beer-swilling professor's thesis. And you know all that hyperventilated praise of wine, how it's the nectar of the gods and a transporting aesthetic experience and such? It's all bushwa--except in the case of aged tawny port.

  4. I'd always heard that it was cultivation that stopped people from being nomadic, but I wouldn't have guessed that the thing that really drove them to it was beer.

    On second thought, people being what they are, it makes a lot of sense.

    I think my favorite wine is zinfandel, but red wine tends to make me insomniac these days, more's the pity.

  5. Though I have heard that cultivated people drink port.

    But those millennia-old beer laws say much, don't they? That trade and commodities existed, that someone felt the need to regulate them. The first thing that struck me when I read the Epic of Gilgamesh was the proud description of Uruk, that so many thousands of years ago people were proud to their cities (though I'm not sure when the first book of the epic, from which those city descriptions come, originated.)

    This is all by way of saying that for whatever claims Egypt and the Indus Valley have to being the cradles of civilization, Mesopotamia is the only place where people seem to have regarded their own civilized beginnings with so much interest.

  6. For every pleasurable thing, there is always someone who feels the impulse to regulate it. So say I.

  7. On the other hand, bars in ancient Mesopotamia appeared to offer ample employment opportunities for women.