The Real History of Beer with Hops

Beer, as we know it today, was created in the early Middle Ages when people started brewing ales with hops. It is almost impossible to pinpoint a very first instance of brewing beer. As the brewing of beer was very much a gradual process with a lot of places like England preferring to brew ales instead of beer all the way until the 16th century.

To find out more on the history of beer check our Times in History Beer Changed the World.

Ales, mead and beer

A glass of wine, a glass of mead and a glass of beer.

By the time of the early Middle Ages, humans have been brewing mead and ale for millennia. Using mostly gruit but also many other things like fruits or honey to mix with malted grains like rice in the east and wheat and barley in the west. With almost every people group in Europe making some sort of ale by mixing malt with various things it wouldn’t be far-fetched that at some point someone somewhere happened to brew malt with hops making the first beer.

After all, humans like to experiment with making alcoholic beverages and hops was a known plant in ancient Europe. Being used for mostly medicinal purposes also coloring or rope making. It is fair to say that before the 8th to 10th century any potential brewing with hops would have been very limited with the practice only growing in popularity during this time.

Brewing beer with hops

Beer being poured from a bottle into a glass surrounded by hop flowers in the middle of the forest.

The first even written mention of hop cultivation comes from Geisenfeld, Bavaria, wherein 736 a Western Slavic prisoner is mentioned to be cultivating hops for some reason. It is also important to note that the cultivation of hops in the 8th century was quite rare. Outside Geisenfeld there were only a couple of other mentions of it happening by the 9th century mostly in France and Switzerland.

This was because the way most people got their hops for medicinal purposes was through the gathering of wild hops rather than cultivation. There is also a theory that brewing with hops comes from Eastern Europe, specifically from the Balto-Finnina and Slavic tribes as their word for hops is from the same origin.

With all that said the first mention of hops directly associated with brewing was written by Adalarad of Corbie. Most likely in association with the establishment of the new monastery of Corvey in 822. In it, hows were mentioned to be collected along with firewood for the brewing process.

Ale tax

It wasn’t until the 10th and 11th centuries that more written records started to mention hops being cultivated instead of just gathered from the surrounding area.

All across medieval Europe, there was a well-established tax on gruit which was used to brew ales. Before beer has introduced this tax was quite a sizeable part of the income to the upper-class estates and sometimes even the church.

But now that people started to use hops, a plant readily available in the wild. this tax income started to disappear. this meant that many rulers outright banned the use of hops in brewing. Similar events of beer versus ale happened all across Europe most notably in England in the 15th and 16th centuries.

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