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How does hop-less beer tastes and looks like?
February 17, 2010 10:55 PM   Subscribe

Homebrewers here by any chance? I have always wondered how hop-less beer (hops, the bittering agent) tastes and looks like. Is it yellow-ish? Is it sweet?
posted by sanskrtam to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
The color will be whatever color the malt is--just like regular beer. Hops usually add very little color to beer. Malts come in all sorts of different colors, from pale yellow all the way to deep black. The color depends both on the original grain and how it was roasted.

And un-hopped beer tastes fucking disgusting. Vile. Sickly sweet, like vomit after you've drunk a bunch of cola. I don't mean that it's too sweet for my palate. I mean that the particular flavor of fermented malt, uncut with any bittering agent, would make most people vomit. It's horrific. I know this from personal experience. At the very best, it can taste like unsalted sweet soy sauce.

There are some very lightly hopped beers, like barley wine, that manage to avoid the vileness of the flavor. But, the brewers do this by being very, very careful with the selection of malt and by fermenting it as dry as they possibly can (using a modern, high-alcohol champaign yeast, often). And they still use hops, just not much.

However, hops are a relatively recent addition to beer (600 years, I believe). Before that, there were all sorts of different herbs used to balance out the sickly disgusting flavor of pure malt brew. So if you have a particular aversion to hops, you could try anything with a bitter, herbal flavor. Juniper is a good choice, for instance.
posted by Netzapper at 11:23 PM on February 17, 2010


If you want to know what it tastes like, you could start with bocks. Along that extreme, you might end up with something like Sam Adams' Triple Bock, which was, to my taste, an un-beer-like novelty that was mostly unpalatable.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:53 PM on February 17, 2010


Pursuant to Netzapper: I tasted an ale from Beau's Brewery made without hops but using the herb "green gale" instead, according to ancient recipes. Superb!
posted by Jode at 4:40 AM on February 18, 2010


Yeah, hops are a pretty essential part of beer's beeriness. To get a sense of that sickly sweet malt flavor, you might try a 'Wee Heavy' Style Scotch Ale. They tend to be light on hops and strong on malt. Some manage to pull it off, but I find many to be just cloying.
posted by usonian at 5:23 AM on February 18, 2010


An American Barleywine is far from being lightly hopped. The lowest acceptable IBU is 50 (according to BJCP style guidelines), and can be as high as 120. Its IBU range is higher than that of an American IPA, which is what people think of as a "hoppy beer". It's that there's a huge malt base, so you need a lot of hops to counteract that, but an American Barleywine is supposed to have a "moderately strong to aggressive" hop bitterness. English Barleywine has a lower acceptable IBU at 35, but that's still way higher than something like a Hefeweizen, where 8 IBU is totally acceptable. That's what I think of when I think of a "lightly hopped" beer.

It's all about balance. As Netzapper mentions, unhopped beer tastes vile and disgusting, and would definitely make you vomit.
posted by King Bee at 5:29 AM on February 18, 2010


I recently had a beer brewed with Scots Pine rather than hops and it looked and tasted like good beer. It was malty and complex, not vile and disgusting. The brewery also makes beer with heather as hops:
http://www.williamsbrosbrew.com/
People have been making beer without hops for waaay longer than beer with hops. Hops started to be used widely only in the 13th century.
"Laws to enforce the use of hops in beer were introduced in England in the 14th century, and later similar laws were introduced in other countries. In England, these laws led to peasant uprisings, since it was considered to spoil the taste, but these uprisings were brutally put down"

Hops are actually kind of estrogenic, so there is this rumor that the church pushed for such laws to quell male sexual desire. Maybe bunk, but I really like hopless ales and I think they are worth trying.
posted by melissam at 5:39 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh, I forgot to mention Sahti, the Finnish beer that has juniper berries instead of hops. I haven't tried it, but apparently Dogfish Head is brewing it.

Some more beers are listed at Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gruit

And guess that rumor is bunk
"Some authors present the switch to hops as a Protestant crackdown on feisty Catholic tradition, and as a Puritan move to keep people from enjoying themselves with aphrodisiac and stimulating gruit ales by imposing the sedative effects of hops instead.[1] However, the switch to hops started in Germany some four or five centuries before the Reformation.[citation needed] Its later gradual enforcement in the 15th and early 16th centuries can in part be traced through legislation drafted by political rulers before the Reformation started."
posted by melissam at 5:42 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know, I don't find yeast starters all that sickly-sweet. Unpleasant, sure, but more sour than sickly-sweet. Of course, they're usually something like 1.030 to start, so they couldn't finish all that sweet anyhow.

You could find out (sort of) with a jar of malt syrup and a packet of bread yeast from the supermarket. (Bread yeast doesn't make good beer, but I've seen tests where it doesn't make undrinkable beer, either, believe it or not.) I wouldn't recommend it, but it would be a cheap and easy experiment.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:58 AM on February 18, 2010


Oh, I forgot to mention Sahti, the Finnish beer that has juniper berries instead of hops. I haven't tried it, but apparently Dogfish Head is brewing it.


Oh my god, I have to find that.

I can vouch for the vomit-taste mentioned above.
posted by fake at 6:06 AM on February 18, 2010


"Beers and Wines of Old New England" by Sanborn Brown has a few recipes for the home brewer that do not use hops as the bittering agent. It has recipes using ginger, spruce tips or ground ivy. Beer needs the bittering agent, generally, as a preservative and to balance the sickly-sweetness of fermented malt... it needn't be quite as in-your-face as Hops generally are, tho.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:21 AM on February 18, 2010


contrary to what other people are saying, you absolutely do NOT need hops to make a real beer. in fact, people were brewing beer long before hops were discovered. it is definitely sweeter, but i wouldn't say sickly sweet at all. we tried one a few weeks ago by Dogfish Head called "Midas Touch", apparently it is a recipe they discovered in a tomb that was found around the time that the real King Midas was alive. Anyhew, they reproduced it exactly and it's not bad at all. expensive, but it's interesting to drink the same beer that royalty drank 2000 years ago. it has honey, muskat grapes and saffron notes in it.
posted by assasinatdbeauty at 9:49 AM on February 18, 2010


Gueuze is a form of lambic, and as such it is made with aged hops, which means they've lost most of their bitter flavor. Personally, I prefer the fruit-flavored lambics (kriek, framboise, etc) to gueuze, but you might want to give it a try.
posted by fings at 9:54 AM on February 18, 2010


assasinatdbeauty: No one is saying you must have hops in a brew for it to be beer, rather that you have to have some sort of bittering agent for it to not be disgusting.

Even your Midas Touch example has saffron in it and rings in at 12 IBUs.
posted by turbodog at 10:10 AM on February 18, 2010


I recently had a beer brewed with Scots Pine rather than hops and it looked and tasted like good beer. It was malty and complex, not vile and disgusting. The brewery also makes beer with heather as hops:

As others have said, you can use all kinds of things as bittering/preserving agents, and they usually taste quite interesting. Allagash's 2007 version of their Fluxus series is one of the most tasty beers I've ever had, and used yarrow as the bittering agent. I liked it so much, and yarrow's so rare these days, I'm actually looking into using it for a homebrew. Wonderful stuff!
posted by Greg Nog at 10:40 AM on February 18, 2010


Wow, there's really some extreme (and massively naive) opinions in this thread!

Let's start with someone who's apparently never even tasted real, unhopped "ale":
And un-hopped beer tastes fucking disgusting. Vile. Sickly sweet, like vomit after you've drunk a bunch of cola. I don't mean that it's too sweet for my palate. I mean that the particular flavor of fermented malt, uncut with any bittering agent, would make most people vomit. It's horrific. I know this from personal experience. At the very best, it can taste like unsalted sweet soy sauce.

However, hops are a relatively recent addition to beer (600 years, I believe). Before that, there were all sorts of different herbs used to balance out the sickly disgusting flavor of pure malt brew.


Netzapper, I respect that you have a right to your opinion, but it's astounding to me. Unhopped beer ("ale", in the traditional definition) was the only sort of beer available in most of Europe pre-1300. Hopped beer didn't become popular in England (with the native English) until well after 1400. (Cite: Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, Judith M. Bennett). The other addititives you mentioned did indeed balance out the sweetness, but not because of "the sickly disgusting flavor of pure malt brew" - they were used to add interest (much as flavorings are today- think of maple-flavored, chocolate, or pumpkin beers) and to retard spoilage (much as hops are used - they're just much better than most of the other flavorings as a bactericide). Such adultered beers were called "gruits". Mention of gruits, and gruit ingredients, are much rarer than those for pure ale, ergo: literally millions of people who lived, dined, and frolicked pre-1400 would laugh at your bizarre opinion that ale is "[s]ickly sweet, like vomit after you've drunk a bunch of cola". The rest of that quote makes it plain that you are discussing unfermented malt tea, or "wort", instead of ale. IOW, I think that you have never tasted the drink you're ravaging so vehemently!

So what does ale taste like? Well, certainly not sickeningly sweet - the yeast eat a substantial portion of the sugar in the process of early fermentation. Malty, sure, but not too sweet, with distinct tartness from the lactic bacteria (if allowed to wild ferment). Dry, but with a distinct malty flavor, and notes of fruit, spice, or other esters provided by the yeast (which can be quite prominent) - IOW, just like "beer", but without the bitterness.

So why did hopped ales ("beer", in historical parlance - the terms "ale" and "beer" differentiate between the two in English documents of the transition period) come to dominate the market? Because, as I have mentioned, hops are an excellent preservative. In 14th-c London, it was illegal to sell ale more than three days old - it would spoil that quickly! (It's possible that ales made with large amounts of malt per gallon would ferment high enough to keep longer, but this wasn't typical alehouse ale.) With ales, you can sell it up to 2 days cart-ride away, and that's about it (based on some court documents I'm reading from the 14th-c). Pretty much kills the export trade. Hops allow beer to be preserved for days, weeks, even months. With hops, you can export your product across the country, or even send it across the Channel. Pure, simple economics: beers eventually dominate because of their greater (pardon the pun) liquidity.

Along that extreme, you might end up with something like Sam Adams' Triple Bock, which was, to my taste, an un-beer-like novelty that was mostly unpalatable.
Blazecock Pileon, this is a terrible example, as even the most devoted beer afficianados will admit it's an extreme flavor. It's like saying that Coca Cola syrup mixed 50/50 with soda water is an example of what pop tastes like.

There really aren't any unhopped, unherbed (non-gruit) ales on the market in the USA that I'm aware of. But there's nothing wrong with the flavor of fermented malt.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:41 PM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


The rest of that quote makes it plain that you are discussing unfermented malt tea, or "wort", instead of ale. IOW, I think that you have never tasted the drink you're ravaging so vehemently!

In fact, I have tasted it.

During my underage college homebrew period, I made a 1-gallon batch of unhopped, unadulterated "ale" (to use your parlance). I made this specifically because I wondered about the exact question the OP posed. I made it from the same wort I made up for a batch of American lager. The lager turned out great, while the unhopped stuff tasted like like weak, watery wort. The sweetness was definitely less than the original wort, but what sweetness remained struck primarily at the rear of the mouth--a little like Nutrasweet's aftertaste, actually, but much stronger. It was, as compared to most beers, very sweet. There was also a weird not-sugar aromatic sweetness as of overripe fruit. All of this was then volatilized on the alcohol, resulting in a flavor that could probably be appreciated with sufficient practice and if served near frozen, but that few people would find immediately drinkable. It didn't even have the mass-produced piss-water pilsner's dubious quality of being flavorless and refreshing.

I don't remember the specific gravities, but I do recall that the hopped and unhopped stuff had nearly identical levels of alcohol by the end of it.

You say it should taste "Malty...but not too sweet, with distinct tartness from the lactic bacteria (if allowed to wild ferment)". I'll grant you that wild-fermented "ale" can be quite delicious, as in some lambics I've had. But this is a balancing flavor just like bitterness. I'll grant you that I was imprecise, in failing to mention that sour can be used instead of bitter for balance. I should also note that I did not wild-ferment my particular "ale", instead using the same lager yeast as for my other batch. I used a very sterile procedure, and the taste was similar to the hopped lager, so I don't think that any substantial bacterial culture formed

I tried the stuff, and found it vile. I also gave it to my roommates, who refused to consume it. Several people at a party tried it and found it undrinkable, with the exception of one fellow reporting that he quite enjoyed it. However, the exceptional individual failed to finish his second bottle of it, instead asking that I furnish him with a bottle of lager as a replacement.

So while millions of people undoubtedly found unbittered beer to be a satisfactory and praiseworthy drink, bittered beer clearly has an edge when it comes to pleasing the modern palate.
posted by Netzapper at 6:20 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


In fact, I have tasted it.

OK, Netzapper, I apologize for my wrong guess. Your description really left me believing you hadn't. However, you clearly haven't much experience with the drink, by your own admission.

So while millions of people undoubtedly found unbittered beer to be a satisfactory and praiseworthy drink, bittered beer clearly has an edge when it comes to pleasing the modern palate....
... a comment you make based on sampling a single batch of homebrew, with a single pitch of yeast. Sorry, but that's like sampling a can of Coors, and declaring, "This beer stuff is vile! It tastes like backwash, and modern people just won't like it!"

Your tastes are not those of others. There's little reason to believe your tastes are even like those of the majority of people.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:45 PM on February 18, 2010


Wow, so many answers.

The reason I ask this questions is because some of my friends who visited the nearest Koreatown in my city had 'makgeolli'. It is a grain-based fermented booze and I was wondering how un-hopped beer tastes like.

I think it's safer to say that the earliest forms of bear were less alcoholic than today's Coors Light, consider that beer was a suitable alternative to water that is often contaminated from the European climate.
posted by sanskrtam at 10:17 PM on February 19, 2010


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