A table, attractive due to its simplicity and comprehensive reach, indicates that in approximately 35 years before 1914, the average amount of hops used in the world’s beers fell by half, to .6 lb: see the details in this article, printed in February, 1914 in the Polk County Observer, in Oregon. Oregon was and is hop country, so an article of this nature gains additional credibility, quite apart from its inherent logic that is.
Students of brewing history know that until recently for certain types of beer (the craft renaissance), hop rates fell fairly steadily from the early 1800s. In c. 1850, nascent American lager used 1.5 lbs per hops per barrel. It remained in this range until about 1880 and then started to fall.
British ales today, excepting some of the craft revival, use much less hops than in 1914. Then, a pale ale might use 2.0 lbs per barrel, today, half a pound. There were variations of course in different producers’ practices, and some allowance should be made that average gravity for pale ale was higher then, but still.
Numerous reasons have been advanced for this. With refrigeration and often pasteurization, it is possible to keep beer stable for longer without the huge amount of hops called for in early recipes, particuarly for top-fermented ale and porter. Lager beer, due to the use of chilling in its production and processing, always used less hops than ale and porter but as mentioned that too came down a lot.
The expansion of the beer market, to include women and younger people, also has been suggested as a reason beer became progessivly less bitter.
But there is another reason, as important or more than those above. It is explained in the article linked: the more adjunct you use, the less hops you need. The reason is simple. Most grain adjuncts and brewing sugars contribute simple sugars which ferment out completely or almost. Little or no protein is left in the wort, little or no dextrin, little or no caramelized sugars which aren’t fermentable or only partly.
Each of these lends body or taste to beer. Grain adjunct and sugar thin out beer, they reduce malt flavour while contributing alcohol to the brew. If you use 1/3rd rice, say, which has very little flavour, you are dialling down your malt flavour and palate impact considerably. Anyone knows this who compares an all-malt beer to a high-adjunct one. I exclude all-malt beers which are highly attenuated but bear in mind that into the 1930s, as A.L. Nugey’s text shows, attenuation rates were much lower than today’s, I discussed this earlier.
In 1880, the “Free Mash Tun” rule became operative in England – all types of adjunct were henceforth permitted, not just sugar. Sugar had been allowed since 1845 but was not widely used until the Free Mash Tun law came into force 35 years later.
The table in the linked article shows the decline in hop rate precisely from 1880, it’s not a coincidence. America never needed that law, but adjunct use only gathered pace from about the same time. Anheuser-Busch was a key early influence in this regard. Budweiser, according to Michael Jackson c. 1985, was using one-third rice in the mash.
By c. 1900, this percentage was frequent in the American brewing industry. Premium beers used less and very rarely no adjunct, but adjunct use had taken hold of North American brewing well before 1914. Probably – it would be interesting to see figures – the rate slowly rose from 1880 as brewers gained confidence using a new material, one not permitted in lager’s spiritual home, Bavaria (it still isn’t).
Since the 1930s, adjunct use has only increased for North American adjunct lager. I don’t know what the average percentage is now, but I doubt it is under one-third and it is probably around 40%.
Britain’s famed ales use adjunct too, I am referring to the norm before the craft renaissance, but Britain commendably always used less than North America (c. 20%) and therefore, in part, used more hops.
It all makes sense but linking two well-understood pieces of data was not so obvious before I read this article, and that is after half a lifetime of studing beer’s technics. I suspect it’s similar for most who don’t haunt the precincts of the brewing classroom or lab (and even then…?).
The result of all this, something which made sense from many perspectives and worked in North America for a long time, was a race to the bottom: bland beers with little taste, light bitterness, no hop aroma.
To this action arose a reaction: craft brewing.
Note re image: this image of a rice field is in the public domain and was sourced courtesy Pixabay, here. Believed available for educational and cultural purposes. All feedback welcomed.