While beer has been around for over 5,000 years, hops haven’t been used in the mash tun for nearly as long. Before hops were used as preservatives, strong aromas, and a reason for us to argue over internationals bitterness units, hops were a medicinal plant used by the Romans. So how’d they become so popular that their flavor and worth is so frequently discussed?
Let’s start with their medicinal properties. While hops are mostly used in beer, people all around the world continue to use these potent buds as they were used hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago: to relieve anxiety and promote healthy sleep. Hops are packed full of a lovely chemical compound known as dimethylvinyl carbinol, and this compound is likely responsible for the sleep inducing effect of the plant. The Cherokees were using hops as a sleep aid for centuries and in some areas, people filled cloth pillows with hops to act as a sleep aid.
Then in 1150 AD, the Abbess Hildegard Bingen in Germany praised the preservative nature of hops and lamented that it made the “soul of man sad.” We’d like to argue, but perhaps, for some of us, this still holds true.
Later Henry VI is said to have made distinctions between beer and ale and claimed that ale could not contain hops, but that beer had no restrictions in terms of ingredients. While there were arguments about what was purest, ale tended to reign supreme. Still, many drank a hoppy beer all whilst the Catholic Church pushed to keep production low. Why? Finical ties to ale production, of course!
As the 1900s dawned, the Pale Ale was born (and the India Pale Ale soon after). There are plenty of myths surrounding the addition of hops in excess to beer in the name of the British army occupying India, but the jury is still out.
As science progressed, Americans began racing to create the perfect hop, and even universities got in on the action. In 1971 the University of Oregon and the US Department of Agriculture worked together to create one of the most popular and prolific varieties of hops: the Cascade hop. These days, the American Pale Ale, brewed from the aforementioned cascade variety, are essential ingredients for any craft brewer.
Popularity of hoppy beers have ebbed and flowed with time and some argue that the age of the ultra-IPA has passed. While hop production continues to rise to meet the growing demands, we don’t think it’s time to shun the IPA lovers just yet.
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