If you wish you could enjoy beer but just can't get past the bitingly bitter taste of hops, you're not alone. Many would-be beer lovers are put off by the unmistakable funkiness of the cone-like flowers and needlessly miss out on a lot of otherwise enticing imbibables as a result.
Luckily for you, there's a whole host of brews out there that are made entirely without hops.
In this article, I'll be highlighting a half-dozen-plus hopless beers that will undoubtedly appeal to both staunch traditionalists and pickier sippers. Let's get into it, shall we?
First, a quick note about "hopless" beers...
I hate to break it to you, but almost all beers contain some hops. That goes for several of the ones featured here, as well.
That being said, if a particular brew uses hops more as a stabilizer or preservative than an out-and-out flavoring, I have no qualms about including it on a list of "hop-free" beers. Just keep in mind that you're bound to encounter hops in some quantity or another, as they're essential to modern beer's basic makeup.
If allergies are a concern, you're probably better off sticking to mimosas.
I would be remiss to kick off a list of hopless beers without a nod to the one that started it all, the venerable Fraoch.
This specialty heather ale has been a staple of Scottish brewing since 2,000 B.C. when thirsty Gaelic brewmasters used to whip it up ahead of feasts, festivals, and other assorted celebrations. Its distant birthdate and impressive tenure give it a strong claim to the title of "world's first craft beer."
Fraoch (pronounced "frock") derives its mojo from the palate-pleasing blend of malted barley, heather flowers, and sweet gale, all harvested from the bountiful fields of Scotland. This union makes for a smooth, light, exceedingly drinkable brew that packs plenty of earthy sweetness and just enough spice to balance the scales.
A Gruit (also rendered as "gruut" or "gruyt") is a type of beer styled after an herbal mixture of the same name. Gruits were used to give fermented malt beverages their signature kick back before hops became the go-to method for bittering beer (sometime around the 14th century A.D., for all you history nerds).
A gruit might comprise any combination of the following herbs and herb-adjacent botanicals:
- Sweet gale
- Ground ivy
- Juniper berries
These days, beersmiths are still calling upon the aromatic virtues of gruit to lend timeless tasting notes to their beers, one of the most outstanding of which is the Gentse Gruut from Belgium's renowned Gentse Stadsbrouwerij Gruut brewery.
This elegant offering, which comes in blonde, white, amber, brown, and "inferno" variants, has a finely-honed floral flavor characterized by marvelous crispiness and a conspicuous absence of hops.
Widely considered to be one of the best Gruits on the market (at least by vocal internet users), Upright's Special Herbs is indeed special. The secret to its exalted status is its impetuous melding of off-the-wall ingredients headlined by notable mentions like orange peel, lemongrass, and Szechuan peppercorns. Yeah, it's as good as it sounds.
Rather than clashing, these disparate yet complementary flavors play off one another masterfully, making for a truly unique small-batch Saison that's equal parts complex and quenching.
Bottom line: if you haven't had a draught of Special Herbs yet, you're doing yourself a serious disservice.
Sah'tea is the cheeky nickname for Dogfish Head's take on sahti, a centuries-old Finish beer that's traditionally prepared by fermenting rye and juniper berries in large wooden barrels. The resulting wort would typically be pasteurized via boiling with fire-heated river rocks, a process that the widespread adoption of hops would eventually make unnecessary.
The updated ingredients list features such diverse and stimulating items as black tea and coriander. While old-school sahtis have a distinctive banana-like finish, Dogfish Head's revamped version is spicier and more savory, not altogether unlike an alcoholic Chai tea.
It's every bit as stout and musky as its Scandinavian forebears intended, but with a refined finish that promises to appeal to the evolved sensibilities of contemporary beer enthusiasts.
As you might have guessed, spruce beer is a peculiar variety of beer seasoned with the leavings of spruce trees—in some cases the needles, in others the sap or tender developing buds.
If you've ever lit a spruce-scented candle or worn a spruce-infused cologne, you know just how potent the fragrant tree can be. You can imagine, then, the wonders that potency could work on a beer when crafted by the right hands.
Those hands belong to the capable brewers at Ballast Point, who have graced their limited-edition seasonal Spruce Tip Sculpin with honest-to-goodness spruce tips that impart hints of licorice, molasses, and pine, along with faint suggestions of (interestingly enough) marmalade and cola.
Following in the footsteps of OG Fraoch, Scotch-style ales tend to play up the malt and play down the hops (sometimes dispensing with them altogether).
Dirty Bastard (pardon my French—er—Scottish), courtesy of the bona fide brew gurus at Founder's, is no exception. But don't make the mistake of thinking that that means it's short on flavor. Quite the opposite—the heavy caramel-colored ale is bitter, smoky, a wee bit fruity, and so rich that it could practically serve as a meal replacement.
Fair warning: while the hops aren't particularly pronounced in this one, they do come through more than in many of the other offerings on this list.
Now for something completely different.
If your favorite part of the day is downing that first perfect cup of coffee in the morning, Left Hand Brewing's Hard Wired Nitro is for you. This delectable coffee porter takes all the best elements of java, beer, chocolate, and soda pop and rolls them into a single beverage that works surprisingly well regardless of how strange it might look on paper.
One of the neatest things about Hard Wired Nitro is that since it's a nitro brew, meaning it's been pumped full of millions of tiny nitrogen bubbles, it has a distinctly creamy texture despite not containing any actual cream. Eat your heart out, Starbucks.
Lastly, I thought I'd pay lip service to Scratch Brewing Company's quirky Spring Tonic, if for no other reason than its one-of-a-kind charm.
There are no hops whatsoever to be scowled at in this sassy Gruit. Instead, Scratch's brewing crew has infused it with the kinds of greens you would expect to find growing in a flourishing springtime garden bed (carrot tops, dandelion, clover, and zesty, locally-sourced ginger, just to name a few).
Consequently, it tastes like a spring harvest sampler—grassy, vegetable-y, bright, and fresh through and through. Furthermore, it boasts a remarkable lack of bitterness that's sure to tickle your fancy if hops are a turn-off for you.
Hop-free beer is a bit of an oddity in the brewing world, so naturally, it generates its share of questions. To satisfy any curiosity, I've devoted a separate section to answering a few of the ones I see most often.
Why would you make beer without hops?
Originally, it was a matter of necessity. Before hops became as crucial to the outcome of a batch of beer as they are now, brewers had to find other ways of flavoring and preserving their concoctions. Herb mixtures like gruit were the obvious answer.
These days, many breweries just like to offer exploratory beer drinkers something different, especially those that don't get down with ordinary hop-heavy outings.
Which modern breweries sell hopless beer?
Pretty much all of them. If you look hard enough, you'll find hopless beers from big-name brands like Sam Adams, Dogfish Head, New Belgium, Scratch, Upright, D9, Moonlight, and Williams Bros.
And that's just the American mainstays. There are innumerable breweries throughout Europe that specialize in brewing beer without hops, such as Gentse Stadsbrouwerij Gruut, Kemker Kultuur, and Brasserie Dupont.
What does hopless beer taste like?
While they run the gamut in terms of flavor, some of the most common tasting notes of hop-free beer are malt, herbs, grass, juniper, cinnamon, black pepper, spruce, berries, lemon, chocolate, molasses, caramel, and coffee. In other words, they have something to offer everyone.
Even if you're a diehard hop-head, I heartily recommend trying out a few hopless varieties here and there. You may be surprised by how much you dig them.
Does beer without hops still have alcohol?
Yep. The alcohol in beer comes not from hops specifically but the fermentation of the wort more generally, and you can make a wort from just about anything, including (but not limited to) grains, gruits, fruits, and other various other plant products.
Is it still technically beer if it doesn't have hops?
Without a doubt. Some of the oldest styles of beer known to man were devoid of hops. In fact, hops are a relatively recent addition to what we now think of as the baseline formula of beer.
If the ancient civilizations that invented the stuff considered their creations to be beer, who are we to argue?