If you’ve been brewing your own beer for any length of time, you’ve probably already committed its four staple ingredients to memory: water, grains, yeast, hops.
The first three of this Fab Four seem to make total sense. Water makes up about 95% of beer, so no water = no beer.
With no grains, there would be no sugars for the yeast to eat and produce alcohol with.
But have you ever asked yourself whether it’s possible to brew beer without hops?
Being a bit of a history geek, I knew about the reinheitsgebot laws in Germany, but I wanted to find out more about beer before hops.
The truth was completely at odds with what I’ve always taken as a given.
Brewing beer without hops is possible. One ‘beer’ made without hops is called gruit. It is made with a range of botanicals as bittering agents, preservatives, & flavorants. Other hopless beers are spruce beer, using spruce tips instead of hops, and Finnish sahti, spiced with twigs & juniper berries.
While you may be utterly devoted to hopped beer (I know I am!), it’s totally normal to be curious about the hopless versions:
What do they taste like? How do you even make them, and why would you want to?
I’ve got you covered on these questions and more, so read on!
How to substitute hops in brewing beer?
Firstly, perhaps you’re in the very beginning phases of researching how beer is brewed.
If that’s the case, let’s start off on the same page and discuss how hops are used in commercial and homebrewing and what happens if you remove them from your recipe.
In very straightforward terms, hops are used for both bittering and flavoring beer. This is achieved by using the alpha acid content within them which is released by boiling up the hops.
When added at the beginning of the boiling phase of brewing, the hops will release more alpha acids and add to a beer’s bitterness.
When added later in the boil, the hops don’t add so much bitterness (measured as IBUs) but rather give the beer aroma and hops flavor.
Dry hopping, another method of using hops in brewing, also adds more flavor that bitterness to a beer.
So, simply, a brewer can substitute hops with another ingredient, often a herb, which will do much the same thing as hops; adding bitterness and/or aroma and flavor.
Common hops substitutes
Beer is reported to have been made as early as 5,000 BC (or BCE if you prefer!), but likely it goes back to the very beginnings of our species.
Hops probably started to be added to beer around the 9th century according to Hildegard of Bingen but it was certainly one of many ingredients brewers were putting into their beer at the time.
Here are some commonly used alternatives to hops which have been used in the past and are seeing renewed use today:
* added at the start of the boil
**added at the/ towards the end of the boil
What does hopless beer taste like?
As you may imagine, the taste of hopless beer depends on what ingredients are used instead of hops.
As with any beer you brew, the balance between the sweetness of the malt character and the bitterness of the hops (or other bittering agents in this case) character is key to the overall finished product. In this mix, you also have your yeast at play of course.
So, if anything, as brewers we are rather limited in the flavors we can get because we generally only rely on one plant.
Our fore-brewers weren’t that restricted and the drinks they made are a testament to that!
If you want to get a flavor for what people were drinking before hops even came onto the scene, I can really recommend the collaborative book by Patrick E. McGovern and Sam Calagione (of Dogfish Head brewing fame) called “Ancient Brews” (available on Amazon).
What does gruit ale taste like?
Gruit technically is the umbrella term for the mixture of herbs used as flavorants and preservatives in beer before the days of hops.
Some common descriptions of gruit ale’s flavor include floral, herbal, earthy, malty, Saison-like (minus yeast character), and there was even one vote for bong water (wow!)
In other words, it really comes down to what kind of gruit was used in the ale. If it’s heavier on the yarrow, it’ll be more floral. More bog myrtle, and it’ll have a more astringent, resinous taste.
Bong water? I don’t know what would yield that particular note.
What does spruce beer taste like?
Spruce beer uses the tips from spruce trees (buds, needles, or essence) in place of (or even in addition to) hops.
Again, though, the exact flavor depends on what species of spruce is used, how much, and which part(s).
Some spruce beer recipes are said to yield very piney results, almost like drinking Pine-Sol. Other common descriptions are refreshing and cooling.
It sounds like the perfect beer for a hot afternoon!
Depending on the recipe, there may also be sweeter components to the flavor, including molasses, dates, and caramel.
What does sahti taste like?
Sahti is a traditional Finnish beer which is often hopless.
What makes sahti so unique is that the mash is filtered through juniper twigs into a trough-like container, so a key flavor in the resulting product is juniper.
The bitterness of this juniper tends to nicely balance the other key flavor in sahti, which is banana.
The banana flavor comes not from actual bananas but from isoamyl acetate via the use of baking yeast rather than ale yeast (though some sahti styles do use ale yeast).
Check out my article on using regular bread yeast to brew beer if you are interested in finding out more.
Does beer without hops still have alcohol?
Absolutely. The exclusion of hops doesn’t impact the ABV of the beer at all. There’s still malt, and there’s still yeast.
In fact, some hopless beers styles can be on the higher end of the ABV beer spectrum.
One prime example is commercial Finnish sahti, which is usually about 8.0% but can range from 6.0 to 12%.
Gruit ales typically run from 4.0 to 6.0%.
Commercial spruce beers appear to typically run between 6.0-7.0%.
One note about spruce beer, though: soft drinks called “spruce beers” exist in some regions where spruce was historically used as a beverage flavorant, notably Newfoundland and Quebec.
“Spruce beer” in these regions could mean the non-alcoholic drink or traditional alcoholic spruce beer.
So if you ever find yourself up north and you want to try a spruce beer, be careful to ask for the right thing!
Do any modern breweries sell hopless beer?
Hopless beers have seen a resurgence in popularity in the last twenty years, and microbreweries have been churning out some interesting hopless brews—on a much less regular schedule than hopped beers, though.
They’re much harder to find than regular hopped beers because most beer drinkers aren’t looking for them, which means a lot of vendors aren’t noticing, purchasing, and selling them.
To illustrate, the Beer Advocate database includes 32,576 IPAs and only 273 gruits.
That doesn’t mean low/no hops beers aren’t out there, though! You’ll find a lot of microbreweries have them in their collection but that they’re “not currently available.”
It’s one of those things where you just have to keep your eyes open and your Google search fresh.
To be honest though, most commercially sold beers in the USA will always have some hops in them due to the State and Federal laws brewers have to abide by. So, for the true hopless experience, you’d better brew your own.
Here are a few of the most consistently available no/low hops beer on the market:
There’s still hops in it (and in their other Historic Ale offerings) but much less than in a contemporary brew. And most importantly, these ales are all made with botanicals gathered by the brewery itself.
Garrison Brewing Company of Nova Scotia produces a spruce beer on a rotating/seasonal basis that’s a real crowd pleaser.
Traditional hopless sahti is best (and most easily) experienced in Finland itself, but you’ll find plenty of breweries putting their own spins on the drink, including Dogfish Head’s Sah’Tea.
How do you make beer without hops?
Luckily for curious homebrewers like myself, it’s easy to get our hands on recipes for low/ no hops beers!
Gregg Smith’s “Beer in America” (available on Amazon here ) includes the spruce beer recipe of Ben Franklin himself.
This recipe for Smoky Walls Gruit Ale is pretty authentic and tasty.
I good beginner book which also has a spruce beer recipe (though it does have hops in it) is Greg Hughes’ “Home Brew Beer“.
When it comes to making your own sahti, you’ll have to get your head in a different “brew space” than you’re used to.
Sahti is the oldest beer style on earth, and brewing an authentic version of it is very process dependent. That means some of the processes involved in making this unique beer are going to feel totally wrong to you if you’ve ever made modern beer, but you need to stick with them.
The ingredients list also doesn’t need to match precisely with that of a Finnish sahti-maker, either. Again, it’s the process that’s key to getting sahti.
Brewing Nordic has an excellent comprehensive sahti recipe. While it’s not something a total beginner might want to attempt, it doesn’t seem too daunting to brew for someone with a few more kegs under their belt.
Why would you choose to make beer without hops?
You and I may love the taste of hoppy beer, but not everyone does. For those people, sometimes the only thing holding them back from beer enjoyment is the presence of hops.
Some people are also allergic to hops, so beer is normally off the menu for them for health reasons. Present them with a hopless brew, though, and they can get in on the fun.
Speaking of fun, maybe the only thing more fun than homebrewing your own beer is homebrewing something totally new. Going no/low hops can make it feel like your first time brewing again!
Is it technically “beer” if it doesn’t have hops?
Why wouldn’t it be? If hops were integral to beer, wouldn’t that make an IPA more “beery” than a lager?
When it comes to the modern beer market though, some laws require the presence of hops in a beverage in order to market it as “beer.”
This is reminiscent of the 1516 Bavarian law Reinheitsgebot (“purity order”) that restricted the ingredients of beer to no more or less than water, barley, and hops.
Yeast was present too, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that scientist first understood what it was, then told us brewers I suppose.
A great book about this and how to brew beer which adhere to this 500 year law, check out Dave Carpenter’s book ‘Lager‘ which is a great read. (link to Amazon).
Anyway, in general ‘down the pub’ terms, I think we can still call it beer even even if no hops are added.
When did people first add hops to beer, anyway?
The first recorded use of hops dates back to the 9th century. Prior to that, gruit was king (or queen, considering it was usually made by women).
Only in the 1200s did hops really start to compete with gruit when—in some parts of Europe—if the nobility taxed hops, brewers switched to gruit. If gruit was taxed, they hopped back over to hops.
Like most things, when hop farming began to make profit for land owners, laws came into effect, like the Reinheitsgebot in Germany and other laws in other countries, which shifted the entire industry onto a distinct hops footing.
It’s up to use homebrewers to experiment and keep the old pre-9th century beer styles alive and well.