This month, the “German Purity Law” of Reinheitsgebot (rine-HEIGHTS-ge-boat) turns 500 years old. FIVE HUNDRED YEARS OLD. That’s older than the United States of America, older than the writings of William Shakespeare, older than the discovery that planets revolve around the sun.
Although the Reinheitsgebot was legally taken off the books in the 1980s, most German brewers continue to follow the purity rule that states “the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be barley, hops, and water.” (Yeast was added later on after the discovery of its role in brewing in 1857.) At its inception, this law applied to domestic and imported beers, and what technically began as a bread protection act evolved into a proud national tradition that many refuse to abandon.
Originally decreed by Bavarian nobleman Duke Wilhelm IV on April 23, 1516, the Reinheitsgebot served many purposes. First and foremost, it prevented valuable wheat and rye crops from being “squandered” on beer brewing so more could be used to make bread - a dietary staple at the time. Secondly, it protected consumers by keeping the beverage pure. Water supplies were so polluted in the Middle Ages that most people drank beer instead of water to quench their thirst. But beer could be just as equally dangerous. It was being brewed with all sorts of weird (and sometimes poisonous) ingredients to increase profit margins, impart flavor, or add additional intoxicating effects i.e. mushrooms, spices, animal byproducts, preservatives, starches, etc - and the cheaper the better. The Reinheitsgebot theoretically kept these extra ingredients out, ensuring a safer product. As centuries wore on, rulers came and went; kingdoms dissipated and new ones took their place. But the Reinheitsgebot continued on, gradually spreading north to other Germanic states and becoming official law in 1906 under the realm of the Kaiser. By this time, yeast had been added to list of acceptable ingredients as well as malted wheat for top-fermenting beers such as kolsch and hefeweizen.
In modern times, most Germans interpret the Reinheitsgebot’s main purpose as ensuring a high-quality product. While not everyone can agree that following this recipe guarantees success, it is no secret that Germany produces some of the best-loved beers in the world. German brewers swear by the tradition and most foreign brewers will modify their recipes to gain appeal in the German brewing market. Throughout its history, the Reinheitsgebot has been the single most influential law guiding German brewing practices, and despite being struck down by the European court as a barrier to trade in 1987, dissenting beers are few and far between. In 2013, the German Brewer’s Association began the process of nominating the purity law for UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Brewing (and drinking) beer is a proud German tradition, but it’s not all rosy. In recent years, new generations of brewers and beer drinkers have begun to look at the bigger picture. While other countries are embracing experimental brewing and developing new beer styles, Germany continues to stick to the Reinheitsgebot, favoring convention over fad. Millennials are beginning to worry about how this will affect the future of German breweries in the age-old struggle between tradition and progress. Is a tradition worth clinging to if it holds back the natural evolution of human invention? Only time will tell, but one thing remains: the Reinheitsgebot lives on as a source of intense national pride for most Germans and certainly deserves its place in the history books.
So cheers to 500 years of great German beers! (Sorry, I had to.)
It's finally that time of year again! The ground is beginning to thaw and hop shoots are pushing their way through the frosty spring soil. And if you have a 2+ year old hop plant, your rhizomes should be ready to harvest.
Rhizomes are the thick, root-like stems that grow horizontally out from the crown one to six inches below the soil surface. Although they look like roots, rhizomes have groupings of small, peach-colored buds, and can be severed from the parent plant and repotted to produce genetic clones. To harvest, gently pull up the entire length of the rhizome and snip it off at the base of the plant. Then cut into six(ish) inch sections, keeping at least two bud groupings per section. If you don't have your own hop plants to harvest from, there are plenty of trusted online resources that sell hop rhizomes. I just bought some new varieties for our trellis from Freshops.
There are a few different ways to plant hop rhizomes, but I like to start them in one gallon pots to be planted outdoors later. This gives them a good head start for the season and you complete control over growing conditions. To begin, fill a pot partway with high-quality potting soil. Place the rhizome in vertically, with the buds pointed upwards, then cover with more soil. You can leave a little bit exposed or bury completely - it will grow either way.
Once you've got all your rhizomes planted, water thoroughly and place in a sunny spot. Keep an eye on the moisture level for the first few weeks. You want to keep the rhizomes damp but not saturated. Over watering kills. Every time. When they've pushed a significant amount of green growth, you can water more frequently. And don't forget to label your pots, especially if you're growing different varieties. It's virtually impossible to tell the difference between hop varietals without chemical testing if you've gotten them mixed up.
Supplement your hops with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer once they've grown at least eight inches tall. I like to use blood meal, although it can stink up the greenhouse for a day or two afterward. When you're ready to plant outdoors, choose a sunny spot where the hops will have plenty of room to grow vertically and a structure to climb on. They can tolerate heavy frosts once they're established, but need to be hardened off prior to planting outdoors. To do this, bring your hops out during the warmer hours of the day, leaving them out progressively longer each day until they've acclimated to their new environment. Two or three days usually does it. Finish the planting off with a top dressing of compost and mulch, and enjoy! If properly cared for, hops can grow several inches per day and will come back every spring.
Everyone knows hops are used to brew beer. Hops are, in fact, almost exclusively grown for the brewing industry, but they have possess other properties that make them valuable for alternative uses.
Decorating with hops - especially in the PNW - has increased in popularity along with (and probably thanks to) the craft brewing industry boom. Hop-themed weddings include hop flowers in bouquets and boutonnieres, on cakes and arbors, even hanging from rafters and chandeliers. Decorative hops look great for any event (or in your own home), and you can find a bunch of beautiful examples over at our Pinterest site. If you're interested in purchasing hops for an event, keep in mind you can only get them around harvest time - late August to early September. That's when the cones are at peak maturity and their prettiest. Contact a local farmer to put in your order for next year.
Multiple parts of the hop plant are edible, too. Coined the "poor man's asparagus," young shoots can be sautéed with garlic, salt, and olive oil for a garnish that tastes like a cross between asparagus and spinach. You can use the flowers in pickling, meat smoking, bread making, confection baking, and much more. Just don't feed any to your family pet - hops are poisonous to dogs and cats!
Most importantly, though, hops have little-known medicinal traits that were more commonly utilized in the late 1800s, when the first wave of hop farming was sweeping through the U.S. Since then, modern medicines have come to replace the old remedies, but you can still find hop extract medications at most co-ops and natural food stores. Hops are most widely used - in combination with valerian extract - as a mild sedative to treat insomnia, anxiety, restlessness, irritability, and ADHD. If you have whole cones, you can make hop tea (I recommend flavoring with honey, chamomile, or lemon balm as hops by themselves are very bitter) or a hop pillow to sleep with at night. Hop soaps, lotions, bath oils, and oil diffusers are additional tools at your disposal. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Hops are anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial, making them useful for indigestion relief, appetite recovery, and emergency poultices. Recent research also suggests them as a safer, lower-cost alternative to antibiotics in animal feed. Hops contain phytoestrogen, a plant-derived chemical that mimics estrogen in the human body, helping mitigate menopausal and post-menopausal symptoms. And as a diuretic, they can help manage the effects of diabetes by increasing urine flow. Some even claim anti-carcinogenic benefits.
With such a long list of ailments and treatment methods, it is important that you talk to your doctor before starting any sort of major regimen. While hops may be able to provide you relief from minor symptoms, they are not a replacement for more advanced medicine. Pregnant women are also discouraged from coming into contact with concentrated levels of hop oil as there is not enough research on how this affects fetus development.
As you can see, hops can be used for so much more than beer brewing (although that is still my favorite). And we've got loads of information and ideas on our Pinterest page, so be sure to check that out!
Lisa Sanco, WGC Horticulturist & Program Manager
Grant Tandy, WGC Hopservatory Manager