Beer Without Hops – How Does It Compare to a Normal Brew?

For a confirmed hophead like me, a beer without hops is a completely alien concept! Why would anybody ever want a beer without hops? It’s almost as strange as coffee without caffeine, but, then again, people have gotten used to the idea of decaffeinated coffee!

But I have to accept that maybe some people just don’t like a hoppy beer (weird!), or, even worse, some people may have an allergy to hops (such bad luck!).

Even though the brewing of beer can be traced back to the Sumerians around 4000 BC, the first record of hops being used in beer was not until the 9th Century.

What did those early brewers use in place of hops? Is there a name for these hop-less beers? And are any beers without hops still brewed today? Or, as an alternative option, which beer style has the least hops?

Whatever your reason for wanting a beer with no hops, let’s take a look at your best options.

Hops in Beer

three filled glasses of beer
Photo by Missy Fant on Unsplash

Hops are thought to have originated in China, and even though there is documentation of hops having always grown in Europe as well, Ancient brewers didn’t recognize the value of adding them to beer until much later at the start of the Middle Ages.

Historically, ancient beer styles were brewed with a variety of traditional herbs, spices, and other botanicals, including everything from yarrow to rosemary to spruce tips.

These plants were used to provide bitterness, flavor, and aroma to the beer, and were often chosen based on what was available locally. In the absence of hops, brewers had to get creative, using everything from dandelions to marigold flowers to create a unique flavor profile for their beer.

In some countries where harsh environmental conditions prevented the cultivation of hops, like Scotland, there is a tradition of using local botanicals like heather flowers or myrtle long after hops were discovered.

The first record of hop cultivation in Europe was in 736 AD in the Hallertau region of present-day Germany, which still remains the world’s largest producer of hops to this day. It wasn’t until a couple of hundred years later that there is any evidence of hops being used in German beers.

Instead, the first mention of hops linked to beer dates back to 822 AD when the abbot of a Benedictine monastery in Picardy, France wrote down a list of rules for running the abbey, including the collection of wild hops.

Other historians argue that it dates back to the same time but took place at a Bavarian abbey, not a French one, where the local millers were relieved of their duties of “grinding malt and hops”, which would be undertaken by the monks of the order.

A bottle of 13th Century Grut Bier at the Blind Tiger in New York City.
Image courtesy of wiki commons

Hops were originally added to the beer to act as a preservative as there was no refrigeration at the time. Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine abbess and philosopher, wrote about the preservative qualities of hops in beverages such as beer in the 12th Century.

But over time, the brewers of beer would discover that the hops could add new delicious flavors and aromas to the malt beer.

The Rise of Hops

green hops
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

From the 11th century to the 16th century, beers without hops, or Gruits, were slowly phased out as more brewers started using hops to make beer.

By 1516, using hops in Bavaria was literally the law when Duke Wilhelm IV wrote the first Bavarian Beer Purity Laws stating that beers should only use 3 ingredients – barley, hops, and water.

As hops made their way over to the United Kingdom, English beers would start to use more hops, and many of the beer styles of the time were born from the development of new hop breeds, especially in the “beer garden” of Kent where hops were cultivated.

Across the pond in America, hop production in New York was also booming by the 1800s before it started gradually moving West. Today in the US, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho are the major hop producers.

What Is Beer Without Hops Called?

selective focus photography of purple flowers
Photo by Yoksel 🌿 Zok on Unsplash

The original hop-less beers were known as Gruit after the collection of herbs and botanicals which were added to the beer for flavor, aroma, and bittering. As the beers had no hops but only grain, they were also referred to as “Grains of Paradise.”

Grains of Paradise were typically made with a main base of malted barley, although other grains such as wheat, rye, and oat were often used too. The other main ingredients would be the “Gruit” of bittering agents such as horehound, heather flower, yarrow, and spruce, although herbs and spices such as ginger, anise, and cinnamon would be added too.

The plants most commonly used were:

  • Yarrow – a plant used to add bitterness to the finished beer.
  • Mugwort – This would add a herbal flavor to the beer.
  • Heather flowers – Added a floral flavor and aroma to the beer.
  • Juniper berries – Berries could add a piney, almost woody flavor to the beer.
  • Licorice – Often used to add sweetness to the beer.
  • Spruce – again used to add a unique piney and woody aroma and flavor to the beer.

Are There Any Beers Without Hops?

Although the majority of beer enthusiasts would argue a beer without hops isn’t technically a beer, those guys at the esteemed BJCP do list some traditional beers such as Sahti as historical beers – who are we to argue?

The most common alternative beers styles with no hops include:

Gruit – The herbal mixture we have already discussed which is making a comeback. Many commercial brewers are now starting to recreate this style to meet the demand of those looking for a hop-less beer.

Fruit Beers – Fruit beers will use fruit in the brewing process and, while hops are typically used in beer to balance out the sweetness, a fruit beer doesn’t normally add hops, which results in a sweeter beer.

Sahti – All-natural farmhouse beers from Finland, which are believed to be one of the oldest old-school beer styles still being brewed. Made with malted barley and rye, juniper berries and boughs are used to balance the flavor of the rye and add bitterness to the ale.

Sakė – Although you may not think of Sake as a beer, this traditional Japanese drink is brewed and fermented in the same way as a beer but hops are never added.

Spring Tonic – Another alternative to beers with hops, spring tonic organic beer is brewed with various herbs including dandelion, burdock root, and fennel seed to give the beer a slightly bitter flavor. Traditionally spring tonic was used for cleansing the body after a long winter hence the name “spring tonic.”

Spruce Beer – This is strictly not a totally hop-less beer as it is made with hop water, which sugar and molasses are added to for a gluten and grain-free “beer.” The addition of spruce needles and branches gives the beer its flavor and aroma without any hops added for the characteristic bitterness.

Kvass – This is a traditional Northeastern European fermented beer-style drink, where grain production is not sufficient to make beer a daily drink. Instead, bread, normally sourdough or rye, is steeped in hot water with a baker’s yeast and then has flavor added from the use of such botanicals as honey and herbs, rather than hops, for a desirable bitterness.

Which Beer Has the Least Hops?

Modern beers which contain the fewest hops tend to be light lagers. These beers are typically brewed with fewer hops, and they have a more subtle flavor than other types of beer. They’re also less bitter, which makes them easier to drink for people who don’t like that strong hopped beer taste.

Traditionally a German Maibock or Helles lager would use the least hops of all the German beers. As a result, these beers tend to have a lighter, slightly sweeter flavor and a delicate hop subtleness.

Many Belgian beers can also be lower in hops with rye or wheat beers using very few as the flavors and aromas come from the grain. Sour beers or lambics rarely use too many hops, and if they do they use aged hops which have less of a hoppy flavor but still offer the preservative qualities to the beer.

Stouts and dark beers also tend to use fewer hops, instead taking their mild bitterness and flavors from the dark roasted malts they use in the brewing process.

The 8 Best Beers Without Hops

If you are one of those people who doesn’t like a beer with hops, fortunately, many brewers are now recreating the Gruits – hop-less beers.

Although many of them are very small-batch, very local beer releases (remember hops are a preservative so hop-less beer doesn’t tend to keep as long), many of the beers we’ll take a look at can now be found nationally through most good beer retailers.

Marigold by Scratch Brewing Company, Illinois, Chicago

  • ABV 6.4%

A completely hop-free ale, this farmhouse-style ale from a nature-inspired Illinois brewery makes use of marigold stems, roots, and flowers to bitter and flavor the wild-fermented beer.

The beer is then aged in oak for 9 months for that woody flavor you often get from the hops, and finished with dried marigold flowers for a more intense flavor – almost like dry-hopping but using no hops!

Scratch Brewing Co is a farmhouse brewery that specializes in foraged beers, making the most of wild-growing local ingredients, such as nettle, elderberry, ginger, dandelion, maple sap, hickory, lavender, juniper, and chanterelle mushrooms of the nearby Shawnee National Forest.

Named one of the most beautiful places to drink beer in the world by All About Beer Magazine, unfortunately, at the time of writing, Scratch Brewing Co doesn’t ship alcohol and all beer sales have to be made by pick up. But hey, it’s a good excuse for a road trip to Illinois!

Kvasir by Dogfish Head Brewing, Milton, Delaware

  • ABV 10%

With the help of biomolecular archaeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern, Dogfish Head has re‐created another Ancient Ale, this time from the Nordic climes of Scandinavia.

The recipe for Kvasir was developed with the help of chemical, botanical, and pollen evidence taken from a 3,500‐year‐old Danish drinking vessel. The analysis pointed to the ingredients used in this unique brew: wheat, lingonberries, cranberries, myrica gale, yarrow, honey, and birch syrup.

The base of Kvasir is toasty red winter wheat, and the bog-grown berries deliver a pungent tartness. The earthy, bitter counterpunch to the sweet honey and birch syrup used in the brewing comes from the herbs.

Dogfish Head Brewing also produces a Sahti no-hops beer called Shatea which uses the traditional Finish hop-free recipe of juniper for the bitterness but also adds black tea to the mix with a higher alcohol percentage of 10% ABV.

Fortunately, both of these beers are available nationwide but as their release schedule is labeled “rarity”, make sure you keep your eyes open.

Varona by Fox Farm Brewery, Salem, Connecticut

  • ABV 5%

A Norwegian-style farmhouse ale this hop-free beer uses sweet gale and spruce tips which have all been foraged around the property to give life to this hop-less beer.

Unfortunately, just like the earlier farmhouse brewery we looked at, they don’t currently ship their beers, and pick-up is the only option, although some of their beers are available in limited quantities on draft across the state. They also make a fine Nettle Farmhouse Ale with added ginger and Japanese Yuzu to give a bright and hop-like flavor to the ale.

Gentse Gruut White by Gruut Brouweji Ghent, Belgium

  • ABV 5.5%

Gruut White beer is very aromatic with a fragrant fruity smell and a slightly herbaceous sharpness. The body is light but soft. Thanks to the spices, the flavors are ‘round’, very fine, and complex. The first impression is a spicy dryness with an underlying slight, creamy sweetness.

Made using traditional Gruit recipes in Ghent, the Gruut brewery also produce blonde, amber brown, and inferno (read intense) Gruit ales.

The beers (or Gruits) can be found in most good Belgian bars or beer wholesalers across the US.

13th Century Gruit Bier by Professor Fritz Briem Brewery, Freisling, Germany

  • ABV 4.6%

An expert in microbiology, Professor Fritz Briem now runs a small-batch experimental brewery in Freisling, Germany.

The professor’s first beer was an ancient Gruit-style ale which was bottled unfiltered and unpasteurized for a hazy-style beer. Flavored with bay leaves, ginger, caraway, anise, rosemary, and gentian, it uses wheat and barley as its base for the very definition of a Gruit, an ale made sans-hops.

It is brewed according to a recipe from the 13th century that pre-dates the Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Laws).

And the best news is that this beer is available through the Louis Glunz Beer Inc beer wholesalers across all of the mainland states.

Spring Tonic by Scratch Brewing Co, Illinois, Chicago

  • ABV 4.4%

Another hop-free beer from Scratch Brewing Company is their annual limited release of Spring Tonic. A bottle-conditioned sour ale, it is brewed without hops and bittered and flavored with spring greens harvested at the beginning of spring from their gardens with added local ginger.

The beer has a sharp lemony tartness accompanied by the zing of the ginger which is balanced out by the green bitterness from dandelion and carrot tops.

Every year they have a special release party towards the end of May with online reservations available for a maximum of 12 bottles and reservation fees are donated to a local charitable cause. Be quick, though, as bottles are strictly filled on a first-come first-served basis.

Working for Tips Redwood Ale by Moonlight Brewing Co, Santa Rosa, California

  • ABV 5.5%

Moonlight Brewing is a small brewery in Santa Rosa that uses pre-industrial brewing methods to craft out-of-the-ordinary beers in California.

This Redwood Ale (Gruit) is brewed in a fire-fuelled copper kettle and uses fresh redwood branches instead of the usual hops for a herbal, toasty yet malty Gruit ale with a unique woodsy taste straight out of the forest.

Redwood branches, as well as fruits, herbs, and spices, are common features in most of Moonlight Brewing’s portfolio of beers.

Posca Rustica by Brasserie Dupont, Tourpes, Belgium

  • ABV 8%

Even some of the traditionalist Belgian breweries like Brasserie Dupont, who are better known for their bottle-conditioned ales like Saison Dupont, have now released their own Gruit.

It can be quite hard to find a bottle of Posca Rustica after it was named one of the best beers in the world. Using sweet woodruff, bog myrtle and a dozen other flowers with herbs and spices takes this artisanal brew to another level.

Although it’s not listed on the brewery’s website for year-round releases, Gruit fans all over the world eagerly await its next release or the next masterclass Gruit from Brasserie Dupont.

Hops or No Hops – Last Orders

Although I don’t plan on giving my hoppy IPAs up anytime soon, beer without hops can often be a unique and delicious alternative to traditional beer.

While it may not be for everyone, those who enjoy exploring new flavors and ingredients will find plenty to love in these unique and flavorful brews.

If you’re interested in trying beer without hops, look for traditional beer styles that use alternative ingredients, such as gruit, sahti, and kvass.

These beers have been brewed for centuries using ingredients such as heather, juniper, and bread, and can provide a unique and satisfying drinking experience.

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