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Saint Hildegard and the usefulness of Hops – Cheers!

by Michael Conti 1 Comment
Saint Hildegard and the usefulness of Hops – Cheers!
“Hops are the soul of beer.” – Jim Koch, Founder, Boston Beer Company

A Time Before Hops

Hops weren’t always used in beer brewing—in the earliest days, brewers used all kinds of plants to flavor beer.   Generally, a beer created without the use of hops is called a ‘gruit’ or ‘grut’. ‘Gruit’ (or ‘grut’) can also be the term used for the mixture of spices working as a bittering agent in the beer.

Some herbs commonly used in gruit:

  • sweet gale
  • mugwort
  • yarrow
  • ivy
  • horehound
  • heather
  • juniper
  • ginger
  • aniseed
  • carraway

and really, anything else a gruit producer thought would taste good in their brew. Gruit fell out of common usage in the last century or two, but is seeing a bit of a revival these days, so there are lots of resources available like Gruit Ale and Unhopped beers website.

But this article is about hops, not gruit,  so according to this excellent Short History of Hops by beer historian Martyn Cornell, one early mention of the usefulness of hops comes from a surprising source: Abbess Hildegard von Bingen, the German mystic whose latin texts inform some of what we know about Medieval Europe.  I

Historical Perspective

About 1150, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), mystical philosopher and healer, published a book called Physica Sacra, which translates best as “The Natural World”. Book I, Chapter 61, “De Hoppho”, or “Concerning the hop”, says of the plant:

“It is warm and dry, and has a moderate moisture, and is not very useful in benefiting man, because it makes melancholy grow in man and makes the soul of man sad, and weighs down his inner organs. But yet as a result of its own bitterness it keeps some putrefactions from drinks, to which it may be added, so that they may last so much longer.”

In Physica, Hildegard described the preservative qualities of hops when added to a beverage like beer. In the same book, she also mentioned that hop increases melancholy or “back bile,” one of Hippocrates’ “four humors” of physiology; the others are man’s choleric, phlegmatic, and sanguine dispositions. Today we know that hops can relax the nervous system and thus have a calming, sedative effect, which promotes sleep. This insight made Hildegard a progressive in her time, given that her contemporaries recommended hops as a treatment for exactly the opposite affliction, depression. Hildegard also wrote extensively about barley, which she considered beneficial for the stomach and intestines; she recommended a drink made from barley as a restorative after a cold or stomach flu.

Modern thinking

Jay. R. Brooks of Brookston Beer Bulletin in his researched article on chasing down the origins of Hildegard being consider the patron saint of beer,  comments “If you made it through all of the accounts of her life, including her Wikipedia page, one thing you’ll notice is that none of them mention her contribution to the brewing sciences, or indeed anything about her mention of hops. That appears to be a more modern interpretation, though I’m not sure of its origin. One thing seems clear, however, and that it’s an association that here to stay.”

German farmers were doing good business selling hops to breweries across Northern Europe by the 13th century.

While I like the idea that Hildegard has something to do with the idea of the homeopathic benefits of using hops in beer,  her way of thinking about things continues to support the idea that she is the patron saint of creativity.   Who doesn’t want a beer after finishing their creative pursuit?  Especially one called Naughty Hildegard (tongue in cheek)?

Naughty Hildegard ESB from the Driftwood Brewery in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

The Health Benefits of Beer and Hops

Research continues to support the health benefits of beer and the moderate consumption of alcohol, including wine. Many of these health benefits are associated with hops, though some are also linked to trace elements like silicon or the affect of low-levels of alcohol.

Healthy Hildegard gathered a few of the most well-documented health benefits of beer to help you feel better about your nightly pint.

More on hops here.

Wet Hop Beer: The Real Seasonal Brew You Should Be Drinking This Fall

Hildegard von Bingen receives a vision (maybe about hops, who knows?).