New beers skip the hops

It may seem like a novel idea, but brew­ing with­out hops is as old as beer it­self. Michael Don­ald­son dis­cov­ers a great lo­cal ex­am­ple.

The Dominion Post - Your Weekend (Dominion Post) - - Drinks -

In a first for this col­umn, I’m go­ing to tell you about a beer with­out hops. Sacri­lege! You might cry. Isn’t there an ob­scure Ger­man rule that says beer must be made with hops? How can it be craft beer if it doesn’t have hops; isn’t craft beer just hoppy pale ales? No, no and no… but first some his­tory. Hops only came to beer around 600 years ago, which means that for 90 per cent of the time since beer was in­vented, there were no hops in the mix. Be­fore hops, there was gruit.

Through­out Bri­tain and Europe, gruit was the generic name given to pot pourri of herbs and spices used to flavour and bit­ter ale. The mix­ture var­ied but usu­ally con­tained the leaves of a fra­grant herb or shrub such as sweet gale, lau­rel, yarrow or heather. Other spices such as ju­niper berries, cin­na­mon, nut­meg, gin­ger and aniseed.

Most towns had a gruit maker who con­cocted unique recipes. And be­cause gov­ern­ments, or the lo­cal duke, liked to make money by tax­ing things, gruit was heav­ily taxed. Even­tu­ally these taxes did what taxes do: they started to an­noy peo­ple.

The Dutch led the hunt in look­ing for al­ter­na­tives to gruit in the 13th and 14th cen­tury and grad­u­ally adopted hops, which had first ap­peared in beer around the 9th cen­tury but hadn’t fully caught on.

The English were the last in Europe to start hop­ping beer, re­gard­ing hops as a weed. Even­tu­ally in the 1500s, they too suc­cumbed to hop-mania.

With mod­ern brew­ers em­brac­ing the “ev­ery­thing old is new” phi­los­o­phy, they are dis­cov­er­ing the joys of herbs and spices in beer. These days, when we have ev­ery­thing from chilli to tea in our beer, it’s only nat­u­ral gruit should come back into the equa­tion.

There are plenty of spiced ales in New Zealand, from the iconic Mus­sel Inn Cap­tain Cooker, with its manuka tips, to Emer­son’s Taieri Ge­orge, made with cin­na­mon and nut­meg, and Mata’s Sahti, a Fin­nish beer made with ju­niper berries.

Un­til re­cently I’d not had a spiced beer to­tally de­void of hops – but let me in­tro­duce you to Out­lier Car­tel’s Wun­derkam­mer. Out­lier Car­tel, an Auck­land­based con­tract brew­ery, is the brain­child of Car­los de la Barra and Mark Nagy. Both have con­nec­tions to Aus­tria, with de la Barra liv­ing there af­ter his fam­ily left Chile as po­lit­i­cal ex­iles, while von Nagy’s fa­ther is Aus­trian, as is his wife.

The brew­ery has cre­ated some stun­ning beer in their short ex­is­tence, many with un­usual twists drawn from their shared Euro­pean his­tory.

Wun­derkam­mer, an im­pe­rial cream ale (9 per cent ABV), has a dis­tinct marzi­pan flavour with lay­ers of vanilla, cin­na­mon and honey. Its creators say they used an al­mond crois­sant as the de­sign spring­board for a beer that’s lus­cious, sweet, com­plex and warm­ing.

Wun­derkam­mer, which can trans­late to cab­i­net of cu­riosi­ties, is a great name for a beer full of in­ter­est­ing ingredients, with the great­est cu­rios­ity be­ing the ab­sence of hops.

Wun­derkam­mer, which trans­lates as cab­i­net of cu­riosi­ties, is a beer by Out­lier Car­tel that – rather cu­ri­ously – is made with­out hops.

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