Hops are great, but they aren’t the only tasty thing out there. And having beer can be a matter of life and death.
In honor of the upcoming Vancouver Craft Beer Week, I’d like to talk about plants used in beer. Well really, about plants which aren’t used in beer that much.
The basic ingredients of beer are water, yeast, a cereal grain (often barley, but also wheat, rye, rice, or corn), and hops. But throughout beer making history, people who wanted to make beer didn’t always have access to hops. Like coffee, hops only grows in certain regions of the world, which can make it expensive to obtain, or even impossible, if supply lines are disrupted by war. And people need their beer. Literally, need it to survive – in places where water sanitation is not a guarantee, it can be healthier by far to drink beer, because the alcoholic environment is hostile to many pathogenic microorganisms. A major foundation of the field of epidemiology was laid by physician John Snow after the London cholera epidemic of 1854, when he realized that brewers (who largely drank their own beer) fared far better than their neighbors who drank the local water supply. Their lives depended on beer.
So what to do when you can’t grow or buy hops? You come up with something else to flavor your beer. Several plants have been used in place of hops when conditions weren’t right – for example, the history/mythology around heather beer in the British Isles is astounding. Among colonizing peoples of North America, the fruits of Ptelea trifoliata, commonly known as Hoptree, have reportedly been used. This glossy leafed, small tree species is the northern most member of the Citrus family (Rutaceae) in the New World, and is also known charmingly as Stinking Ash or Wafer Ash. Pretty much all the parts of this plant have a bitter, citrusy, scent, which is perhaps why people first thought to use it to make beer. Unlike many citruses, its fruits are samaras, or dry, winged fruit, like maples, elms, or ashes, with the seed in the center. What it tastes like in beer, I am very curious to find out.