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What was beer like before the age of hops?

People have been brewing beer since about 9,000 BC, but hops have only been the dominant flavour in beer since 1516. That’s when the Bavarian beer purity law standardised the brewing process by enforcing hops as one of three ingredients allowed in brewing. Beer would never be the same. But how did beer look—and taste—before the age of hops?

Beers have always been brewed with whatever ingredients the brewer had nearby. For thousands of years, beer was flavoured with a combination of fruits and spices known as “gruit.”

Beer flavoured with gruit wouldn’t have been the golden lager we recognise today. Instead, these brews took on the colour of the malt used during the brewing process. Depending on whether or not the malt was roasted, the beer could have a colour from pale yellow to dark brown or even black. But the biggest difference was the way beer tasted without hops.

Remember, hops add the bitterness to beer, and they’re also a natural preservative. So beers brewed without hops tasted very sweet and spoiled quickly. These brews were actually so sweet that today’s beer lovers would find them undrinkable. Instead of that nice balanced flavour, you’d mostly taste fermented malt, plus whatever herbs and berries the brewer threw in. Not exactly a refreshing pint!

In fact, it was the sickly sweetness of early beers that led brewers to seek out bitter ingredients to balance the flavour. The first record of using hops in brewing beer comes from 822 AD. The unique bitterness of hops, combined with the plant’s calming effects and its natural anti-bacterial properties, made it the perfect candidate for brewing.

It took a while for the use of hops in beer to become an industry standard. This led the way for Joseph Groll to use Saaz hops, which are especially prized for their characteristic crisp flavour and aroma, when brewing that first batch of Pilsner Urquell in 1842. He must have done something right, because more than two-thirds of the beers you drink today are pilsner-style lagers.