Welcome to Ask Kate About Beer, in which The Takeout’s resident beer expert answers everything you’ve ever wanted to know about beer but were too drunk to ask. Have a question? Shoot it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I first started drinking, I went the “cheapest bottle of vodka I could get, plus OJ” route. It wasn’t until I was out of college that my friends introduced me to beer... and the results were terrible. Halfway through the first can, my head began to throb. By the second, I had to hide in the bathroom for hours, and I was miserable the next day. This from a guy who can drink hard liquor by the bottle without a hangover! Every attempt since has been met with failure, no matter what I tried. If it was beer, I was doomed to an active hangover before I finished the first bottle.
Some recent agonizing tests lead me to believe that I’m allergic to hops. While I’ve made do with cider when hanging out with my friends, it isn’t the same, and though my friends understand, there’s still some teasing. Are there any hopsless beers out there that I might be able to turn to, or is it just not beer without the hops?
First of all, my condolences. Hops are delicious, and I’m sorry that something about the plant humulus lupulus doesn’t agree with you. I wonder if hops aren’t slightly irritating in general. I have a bunch of hop plants growing in my backyard, and their fuzzy-scratchy bines do irritate my skin if my hands rub against them too much.
That said, are you sure it’s the hops? I’m not doubting you, but I’m also not a doctor (sorry, mom and dad). According to the Cleveland Clinic, numerous beer ingredients can cause allergies in certain people: barley, hops, yeast, grain proteins. The Cleveland Clinic suggests seeing your doctor for an allergy test to get that sorted out.
But there is a portion of your question I can answer: Yes, there are beers made without hops! They’re called gruits (GROO-its), and they’re a historical category of beers that isn’t terribly common anymore. That said, some brewers are reviving the hops-less style, and you might be able to find one you like. They date to about the Middle Ages, before brewers figured out how to domesticate hops and use them for brewing. Instead of hops, brewers flavored and bittered their beers with blends of botanicals, from bog myrtle to yarrow to wild rosemary (Craftbeer.com has a good run-down of the history here).
As you might expect, gruits don’t taste much like modern beers made with hops. In my experience with them, they’re botanical, earthy, sometimes herbal, spicy, and—at their worst—a tad medicinal. As vaunted beer author Randy Mosher puts it in his book Tasting Beer: “I’ve tasted a number of homebrewed gruits and I can report that either tastes have changed since then, or we’re missing some important part of the picture.”
One I can recommend is Spring Tonic from Ava, Illinois’ Scratch Brewing. Those brewers really know their botanicals, and Spring Tonic is delightful—you won’t even miss the hops. Sadly, many gruits are small-batch, very local beer releases, so you’ll have to do some digging to find one available near you.
If I were you, I’d stick to cider. There are so many great, not-too-sweet ciders being made these days all across the country, with fruits and spices and flavoring and single-varietal apples that provide plenty of variety. And if your friends are still giving you shit about drinking cider, tell them Kate said they’re a bunch of overgrown manbabies.