Friday, August 29, 2008

Hey Barkeep! Can I Get A Beer Without Any Of These Hops That Everyone Seems So Keen On?

India Pale Ale, Imperial India Pale Ale, Extra India Pale Ale, Extra Pale Ale, Imperial Stout, Imperial Oak-Aged Barleywine, Imperial Pilsner, Imperial Weizen.

Hops are everywhere. What's a beer drinker to do who doesn't want their beer bitter? Well, there's plenty of beer that puts the focus squarely on the malt: bock, kolsch, rauchbier, biere de garde, just to name a few. There are also beers that put the focus on spices and fruits: wit, framboise, fruited stouts, saison.

But what if you don't want any hops. Not just low hops. None. Zero. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nein. Of course, in many countries, you can't even call your beverage "beer" if it doesn't have hops.

Some people are allergic to hops. Some people just don't like the taste. Others like a challenge. In any event, there is at least some demand for a fermented malted barley beverage without hops. And, no, whiskey, bourbon and scotch don't count.

The problem is hops and beer have been synonymous for centuries. Ron Extract, Director of Sales and Distribution for Shelton Brothers Importers, provides a good history lesson: "Historical records of hop cultivation in Europe go back to the 8th century AD, and the use of wild hops in beer probably goes back much further than that, but their usage didn't really become popularized throughout Europe until the late 1400s, and even then they remained a rather unpopular addition to beer in certain regions.  In 16th and 17th century Britain, many traditional 'ale' drinkers eschewed the use of the hops, while 'beer' drinkers embraced it."

As a result, it is often necessary to go back hundreds of years to find beer styles, let alone recipes, that do not call for at least some hops. There are only a few breweries in the world that make a habit of brewing some of these old recipes: Dogfish Head here in the States; Jopen, based in the Netherlands (but temporarily brewing in Belgium); and, Legends Limited, based out of Baltimore, imports a few others, including those from Heather Ales, Ltd such as the Alba Scots Pine, the most popular of these traditional recipes,.

For example, Dogfish Head's Midas Touch Golden Elixer, a beer that we've reviewed on this site before, is a recipe reverse-engineered from traces of liquid found in a chalice in King Midas' tomb. Even it, a recipe that, in theory, dates back to 700 BC, contains 20 IBU (International Bitting Units - typically, a measure of hop bitterness - does anyone know if this measures bitterness in general, or just from hops?). This beer has pretty decent availability here in Wisconsin.

Jopen makes a couple of gruit-beers based on recipes from the early 1400s. Gruit was a Northern European mixture of spices frequently used in beer in place of hops. Shelton Brothers imports two of Jopen's gruits: the Adriaan (a beer spiced with yarrow, rosemary, and sweet gale) and the Koyt (brewed primarily with sweet gale). Michel Ordeman, head brewer at Jopen, admits that even these ancient styles had hops in them, and he uses them in brewing the modern versions: "In the days of gruit, hop was seen as a spice and most probably was one of the ingredients of gruit. The amount was very low (so little that is was not tasted). In our Adriaan we use a little hops and in the Jopen Koyt even less. The bitterness in the Koyt is from the gagel we use (Myrica gale) [ed note: myrica gale and gagel are both names for sweet gale] together with other herbs." From what Ron tell me, the Koyt is available to retailers from Beechwood, and because of this, may be available in the better-stocked beer stores in Madison (Rileys, Steves, Star, etc.) and Milwaukee; the Adriaan will become more available soon.

Finally, the Fraoch Heather Ale and the Alba Scots Pine, both imported by Legends Limited and available fairly readily in Madison, are the only beers I know of to be brewed commercially without any hops whatsoever. Or, at least as far as I know.


  1. IBUs are the parts per million of isomerized (chemically reconfigured) alpha acids. I don't know if anything besides hops have alpha acids - if they did and they become isomerized, IBU tests would measure them. Dogfish head may have the lab equipment to measure IBUs, but my guess is they calculated their likely value from hop additions. Bitterness from other common brewing sources, such as roasted barley, aren't counted as IBUs.

    I think Grumpy Troll's Flanders Ned was brewed without any hops.

  2. I think Yard's Tavern Spruce Ale was brewed without hops. Not sure if Yard's is still brewing it though.

  3. This might be a dumb question but does wheat beer contain hops? I found out I'm really allergic to hops but I still love to drink beer, especially if its mexican.

  4. Xingu Black Beer. I found it very delicious, and as a beer drinker who recently developed an allergy to hops, I am very happy I found it. Finding a beer without hops is like finding a needle in a haystack, as most companies don't even consider brewing without it, and generally beers brewers do not disclose the ingredients they use.


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