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North Bay brewers think outside the hops

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I like a cold, bitter IPA as much as the next guy, but the ascendancy of aggressively hopped beers has shoved many other respectable styles to the side. In this year's annual beer issue, we take a look at a few alternatives to the hoppy hegemony of IPA. In the pages below, our writers look at unhopped brews, the boozy, malty power of barleywine and even—gasp!—non-alcoholic beer. Elsewhere in this beery issue, we look at gluten-free beers, Lagunitas' live music offerings and what brewers do with all that grain when they're done brewing. That's a six-pack of crisp and refreshing content. Cheers! —Stett Holbrook

BREAKING THE HOPOPOLY

What's the wildest, craziest kind of beer out there? Here's one hint, because you won't guess by scoping a shelf of today's hopped-up ales with amped-up labels glorying in ruination, damnation and evil: it's not IPA. Want a wild and crazy party? Stock the ice chest with gruit.

"Hops weren't always the darling we think of them as today," says Moonlight Brewing's Brian Hunt. "There are a bazillion alternatives."

Hunt, whose 1,000-barrel microbrewery has an avid following in the North Bay, is himself an avid follower of brewing history. Beer was once used the way herbal tea is today, he says. Dozens of herbs were brewed in beer, or a fermented grain beverage made without hops called "gruit," for medicinal purposes, as well as to enhance storage life—a property that hops hold no monopoly on.

Hops are light-green, papery little pillows packed with resin that the vine Humulus lupulus sprouts with abandon. When added to beer (often processed into pelletized form that resembles animal feed or fertilizer) during its boiling, fermentation or aging step, hops contribute floral, fruity aromas and a dry, bittering quality that counterbalances beer's malty sweetness on the palate.

But through the Middle Ages, it was one of dozens of popular additives—some of which are mildly psychoactive—and was perhaps better known as a mild sedative. Hops became the fashion around the time of Martin Luther, says Hunt. It was "especially in fashion because a lot of the herbs used in brewing tended to make wilder and crazier inebriated people."

Martin Luther had no gripe with beer, Hunt says, but had a notable beef with the Catholic Church, whose monastic orders had a lock on the production of herb-brewed gruit. Reformation-era German beer laws favoring hops were, the argument goes, partly a bid to curtail the Church's power, with the benefit of promoting a more sedated, "civilized" populace less likely to seek its services. "Maybe uncivil behavior led to more repentance and more babies? Who knows," Hunt speculates.

In 16th-century England, hops were denounced as "immoral and unpatriotic," although a distinction was made between English ale and beer for some time. Industrialization following the world wars finally swept away the holdouts, as manufacturers sought to appeal to the broadest possible segment of the population—resulting in the blandest possible beers.

Enter the craft-beer scene, in most respects wild, free and full of creativity. Except for a one-dimensional emphasis on hops—double hops, triple hops and more hops—that Hunt is emphatic about calling out.

"It's not that I have some horrible aversion to hops; it's just that they are being horribly overused," Hunt says, admitting he's getting a little burned out on the trend. "Imagine: there are 50 herbs that have historically been used in beers—and commonly! There's such diversity of beers right now, instead of using one species of hops, what if we delved into the other 50 choices? We haven't scratched the surface of what our options are. Isn't that crazy?"

Most Moonlight beers are made in the traditional style with hops—but maybe that's a problematic term, in context. "It's very traditional in Norway to use juniper," Hunt discovered. "A lot of my heritage is Scandinavian, and it's very traditional in all of Scandinavia to use spruce tips."

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Inspired, Hunt looked around for a locally sourced equivalent, and found redwood trees growing right outside the brewery. He can't brew enough of Working for Tips to meet demand, but only releases it once a year when the tips of the redwood branches grow just right.

Anderson Valley Brewing also brews its Boont Oude Bruijn with redwood tips—but that's "a nice 'tip' we picked up from Brian Hunt," says brewmaster Fal Allen. He also uses spices such as ginger, star anise and lemon grass in seasonal releases, while Marin Brewing's Chi Tonic contains medicinal herbs.

Like these, New Belgium's Lips of Faith gruit contains at least some hops in addition to horehound, bog myrtle, yarrow and wormwood; otherwise, it cannot legally remain in the beer category. San Francisco's Magnolia Brewing makes Scottish-style Weekapaug Gruit, while in Scotland, Williams Bros. Brewing's Fraoch is made with heather, following ancient recipes. In Kentucky, says Hunt, brewers are experimenting with bald cypress, which reputedly contains 20 cancer-fighting compounds.

"How many people would like to have a beer like that? So it's not, 'Why is this Brian guy putting this crazy stuff in this beer?'" says Hunt. "It's, 'Why isn't everybody putting other things in their beer?'"—James Knight

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