Before Hops: Exploring the Flavorings Used in Ancient Beers

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Today, we take it for granted that the beer we’re consuming will use some type of hops. In fact, hops have been one of the key ingredients for beer for quite a long time – dating back to the Reinheitsgebot in Germany, although it took quite some time for the use of hops to spread throughout Europe and even longer for England to get on board.

When Did Hops First Appear?

Beer dates back at least 6,000 years into the dim and misty past of human history. However, hops don’t actually make an appearance until about 77 AD, when Pliny the Elder wrote his Naturalis Historia. Of course, hops were probably used to bitter beer before this point – it was just a very regional thing, and not particular well known.

Nevertheless, beer was flavored before the use of hops became widespread. Without some sort of bittering agent or other flavoring, fermented wort is cloyingly sweet and hardly drinkable. So, what did ancient brewers use to flavor their beers?

Ancient Beer Flavorings

First, before we get too far into this discussion, understand that beer flavorings and additives have evolved a great deal over time, and from region to region. They also varied depending on the type of government or governing body in a particular area. For example, during the middle ages, gruit was the primary seasoning mix for beer. However, the Catholic Church controlled the availability of gruit, and charged licensing and usage fees for brewers. To get around those extra costs, many brewers turned to ingredients not included in gruit.


Since we’re on the topic, let’s talk about gruit for a moment. Pronounced “groot”, it is low German for “herbs”. What herbs were in the typical brewers batch of gruit, though? Some of them include the likes of rosemary, sage and bog myrtle. There were others in the mix, too, such as broom, wormwood, nettles, bergamot and the like. You’ll even find things like ground ivy and ginger included. It varied from place to place depending on growing conditions, availability and time of year.

So, how did gruit fall out of favor? Actually, you can thank Martin Luther for that – the same guy who nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the church and started the Protestant Reformation. Unlike most of his modern Protestant descendants, Luther enjoyed beer a great deal. However, because the Catholic Church controlled gruit, he had trouble brewing his tipple of choice.

To counteract that, he and his followers started using and promoting hops as an alternative. They weren’t taxed by the church, or controlled by the government. They were also plentiful and weren’t used for much of anything. In fact, most people thought of them as an invasive weed.

The rest, obviously, is history.

Additional Spices, Seasonings and Additives

To combat the sweetness of plain wort, some brewers would add other ingredients to their beers. For instance, juniper berries and twigs were heavily used in Scandinavian countries. Wormwood was also a popular addition in those areas. Interestingly, horseradish was also a popular additive.

Scotch breweries used a number of other ingredients, depending on the style of beer in question. For instance, heather was needed to make froach, as was sweet gale. Meadowsweet and gooseberries were used in the making of grozet. Pine and spruce tips were used in other Scottish beers, and even seaweed made an appearance here and there.

It wasn’t all about bitterness, though. Some additives were put in to boost sweetness, or at least sugar content. For instance, London in the 1700s was home to quite a wide range of fruit beers and additives frequently used included apricots, cherries, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. Londoners also famously used a number of ingredients that we would really not expect to see in beer today at all, like peppercorns and tea, or licorice and cloves.

Some of the more exotic brewing ingredients used throughout Europe and into Asia include star anise, cumin, vanilla, coriander, black pepper, parsley, sage, thyme and elderflower.

So, as you can see, ancient brewers used pretty much anything they thought would bring flavor and taste to their brews.

The Shift in Today’s Beers

While you’ll find that almost all beers brewed today use hops to at least some extent, many brewers are starting to experiment with ingredients that would definitely not be found in the German Beer Purity Law. Dogfish Head is a great example of a brewer doing this, but you’ll find others out there, including Stone, New Belgium, Left Hand, and even stodgy-seeming Sam Adams.

Given the fact that today’s brewers have access to an incredibly wide range of hops grown all around the world, this focus on ancient additives might seem a little confusing. Why, if they could source hops from England, Germany, New Zealand or the Pacific Northwest, would brewers play with things like nettles or spruce?

Part of it is simply a reconnection with the ancient past. There’s a lot to be said for recreating ancient beers, something that Dogfish Head has done several times with great results. Part of it is also tied to the wealth of hops available today. Once, only noble hops were available. Then, English hops were added to the mix, bringing earthy, grassy and floral notes to the table. US hops are often citrusy or piney, while those from the Southern Pacific often have tropical fruit notes.

The explosion of hop varieties means that brewers have an even wider palette to use when crafting their beer, and they are trying to pair other ingredients with those newer hops in the hopes of creating something completely unique and surprising.

Where do you fall in the argument, personally? Are you all about the hops, or would you like to see more options made with nontraditional spices and seasonings? Add your thoughts to the comments section below.