Drinking beer can cause the mind to wander, and to ponder the important questions of our time. Sometimes it can even lead to intriguing hypotheticals. That’s where I found myself several weeks ago when I was having beers with Matt Kirkegaard, an Australian journalist who covers beer. He asked me, quite seriously: If beer was invented today for the first time, what would it look and taste like?
After a little thought I came to the conclusion that it would likely not include hops. Since that particular plant is really only used in beer production, I don’t know if it would have survived over time, or been as widely cultivated when it didn’t have a beery purpose.
To back me up I asked Stan Hieronymus, a journalist and author of For the Love of Hops: The Practical Guide to Aroma, Bitterness, and the Culture of Hops his thoughts on this and received the reply: “I agree that if beer were starting at Year Zero today, just like Year Zero the first time around, it would not contain hops. But hops still grow in the wild today – both in the US and in Europe – so the question would be how long would it take for somebody to put hops in beer, and then for somebody to discover the value of boiling hops. We don’t know how the heck that happened first time around, so it would be a guess. But I suspect the understanding of isomerization through boiling would come quicker.”
For his part, Kirkegaard believes that if something called “beer” was created today it would be akin to a light lager, the kind that is typically pale yellow and served on beaches. A beverage designed not to offend, but to appeal to the largest amount of people from all walks of life.
We had such a lively conversation on these theoreticals that I recently opened up the discussion on my Facebook page, asking various friends in the industry their thoughts. The responses did not disappoint.
“I can see a few scenarios that would create a new genesis moment for beer. If we assume that everything else in our society remained the same and we are currently in the same situation – minus beer – I could see a few origin points,” says Carla Jean Lauter, author of the Beer Babe’s Brew Reviews. “Since barley is fermented in the process of making spirits, I could see that someone along the line somewhere might taste that mash *before* it became the spirits. Then a creative few would see what they could do with this mixture creatively by enhancing its flavor. Look at our foodie culture now – we’re “reclaiming” parts of animals and ingredients that were overlooked as useless, and chefs, etc., are looking for anything new and interesting. So those that were creative could use the idea born of the mash that was a ‘useless byproduct’ before.”
She then addressed my hop point, saying brewers would likely experiment “with all kinds of bittering agents, until they reached hops. However, I think they’d be more likely to run through everything fermentable as an additive first – meaning that the first beers might be sours and fruit-laced.”
Gerard Walen, author of the book Florida Breweries agreed saying “I wonder if the inventor would even see the need for a bittering agent. The collective palate of humanity has become accustomed to overwhelming sweetness as something pleasurable and desired.”
On the thread there was a big run towards sweet, with many theorizing that a new “beer” would be heavy on the fruit flavors. A stronger malt-forward beer was also discussed, until Don Tse, a journalist from Canada, jumped into the fray and opined that the drink would be much more rooted in corn than barley.
“Corn is the dominant crop today and is used in everything (high-fructose corn syrup, for example, is in a lot of our food). Yes, I realize that corn is used in a lot of beer today, but I mean beer would be MUCH more corn-based. And if you look at pre-hop days of beer, beer was spiced with all manner of herbs and spices, so I think that would be the case if beer were invented today. With corn being a lighter flavour, I think what would differentiate brands of beers would be the spices they use (not unlike how craft gin makers are now trying to differentiate themselves using different botanicals.”
For many others, the concept of modern beer was bleak. It would contain “Caffeine, ginseng, taurine, guarana, and yellow dye number five,” speculated Jonathan Moxey, a brewer at Perennial Artisan Ales in Missouri. Journalist Jeff Cioletti thinks it would be nothing more than fermented high fructose corn syrup spiced with elderflower.
Bottom line, jumped in Kirkegaard “as a new product it would need to be exciting enough to arouse interest and create excitement…”
There might also be a silver lining for some of us, as Jamie Magee, publisher of the Yankee Brew News pointed out: “If it were Year Zero, John Holl, you and I would be a lot thinner.”