What? No hops?

In a first for this column I’m going to tell you about a beer without hops.

Sacrilege! You might cry. How can it be? Isn’t there an obscure German rule that says beer must be made with hops? How can it be craft beer if it doesn’t have hops; isn’t craft beer just hoppy pale ales?

No, no, no … but first some history.

Hops only came to beer around 600 years ago, which means that for 90 per cent of the time since beer was invented, there were no hops in the mix. Before hops, there was gruit.

Throughout Britain and Europe, gruit was the generic name given to pot pourri of herbs and spices used to flavour and bitter ale. The mixture varied but usually contained the leaves of a fragrant herb or shrub such as sweet gale, laurel, yarrow or heather. Other spices such as juniper berries, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and aniseed could be added.

Most towns had a gruit maker who concocted unique recipes. And because governments, or the local duke, liked to make money by taxing thing, gruit was heavily taxed. Eventually these taxes did what taxes do: they started to annoy people.

The Dutch were the leaders in looking for other options to gruit in the 13th and 14th century and gradually adopted hops, which had first appeared in beer around the ninth century but hadn’t fully caught on.

The English were the last in Europe to start hopping beer, regarding hops as a weed. They distinguished between their traditional gruit ale and the new-age biere hopping across the channel. Eventually in the 1500s, they too succumbed to hop-mania.

With modern brewers embracing the “everything old is new” philosophy, they are discovering the joys of herbs and spices in beer. These days, when we we have everything from chili to tea in our beer, it’s only natural gruit should come back into the equation.

There are plenty of spiced ales in New Zealand, from the iconic Mussel Inn Captain Cooker, with its manuka tips, to Emerson’s Taieri George, made with cinnamon and nutmeg, and Mata’s Sahti, a Finnish beer made with juniper berries.

Until recently I’d not had a spiced beer totally devoid of hops – but let me introduce you to Outlier Cartel’s Wunderkammer.

Outlier Cartel, and Auckland-based contract brewery, is the brainchild of Carlos de la Barra and Mark Nagy. Both have connections to Austria, with de la Barra living there after his family left Chile as political exiles while von Nagy’s father is Austrian, as is his wife.

They’ve created some stunning beer in their short existence, many with unusual twists drawn from their shared European history.

Wunderkammer, an imperial cream ale (9 per cent ABV), has a distinct marzipan flavour with layers of vanilla, cinnamon and honey. Its creators say they used an almond croissant as the design springboard for a beer that’s luscious, sweet, complex and warming.

Wunderkammer, which can translate to cabinet of curiosities, is a great name for a beer full of interesting ingredients, with the greatest curiosity being the absence of hops.