Food, shade, flavoring, and a pillow for your head. This hard plant does more than flavor and preserve beer.
Around the world and through the centuries, few plants have been used on the scale of hop (Humulus lupulus); it is arguably one of the most important agricultural herbs. Best known for its fruit, which preserves and flavors beer, hop has also traditionally been used to flavor mineral waters and tobacco products and to treat a range of ills from sleeplessness to prostate trouble. The ancient Hebrews considered it a plague preventive. An oil from the hop plant has been used in perfumes, and the stems in basketry and wickerwork. In Sweden, a coarse yarn and paper are made of the stalks. The leaves and flowers yield a dye that colors wool a maize yellow, and a decoction of the flowers apparently has improved the rise of bread, as evidenced by this quote from Gerard’s Herbal: “The flower of hopes make bread light; the lump to bee sooner and easy leavened, yf the meale bee tempered with liquor wherein in they have been boyled.”
Hop is the name given to two species of vigorour vine which, with marijuana (Cannabis sativa), are the only members of the hemp family (Cannabaceae). Common hop (H. lupulus) is a herbaceous perennial whose fruits, also called hops, are used in beer manufacture. Japanese hop (H. japonicus), usually grown as an annual, is grown manily as an ornamental, especially the variegated form. Don’t confuse these plants with wild hops (Bryonia spp.), a member of the cucumber family (Cucurbitaceae) which is poisonous if ingested.
Common hop is native to both North America and Europe and has become naturalized in many other regions. Look for it along roadsides and rivers and at abandoned house sites: it was once grown as a kitchen herb. Today, it is cultivated commercially in northern Europe, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States (California, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho).
Hop vines have rough, angular stems and lobed, toothed, heart-shaped leaves resembling large grape leaves. The thin, rough, hairy vines twine clockwise around nearby supports and cling with anchor-like hooks. Pliny the Elder dubbed the plant lupus salicarius or “willow wolf” because of its habit of twining tightly around willows and other trees in its damp natural habitat.
Male and female flowers grow on separate plants. The tiny male flowers are greenish yellow and bloom in July and August. Female flowers are pale green, consisting of relatively large bracts with two flowers at the base of each. The greenish to greenish-pink con-like fruits (strobiles) are covered with yellow glands that contain powdery aromatic bitters called lupulin. This substance contains all of the bitter acids of hops as well as more than 200 aromatic oil components.
The oil of the hop fruit is sometimes extracted by distillation, but most frequently, the entire fruits are used directly for flavoring, clarifying, and giving their characteristic bitterness and aroma to beer.
As early as the ninth century, hops were popular in France and Germany as a preservative in beer. In England, however, hop fruits were not widely used for beer making before the seventeenth century; the bitter herbs of choice were alehoof (ground ivy, Glechoma hederacea) and alecost (costmary, Chrusanthemum balsamita). The English claimed that hop was an unwholesome plant that causes melancholy, and Henry VIII prohibited use of the fruit in ale during his reign, considering the plant “a wicked weed that would spoil the taste of the drink and endanger the people.” Seventeenth-century writer John Evelyn opined that the hop fruit “preserves the drink, indeed, but repays the pleasure in tormenting diseases and a shorter life.”
Hop finally gained acceptance in England in the seventeenth century as both a preservative ingredient in beer and as a medicinal herb. When George III was ill in 1787, he used a pillow filled with hop fruits instead of opiates to promote sleep. (To try this for yourself, see the sidebar below). Several Native American tribes, such as the Pueblo, also drank hop tea as a sedative. The Snoqualmie peoples heated the flowers in a bag and applied it to the face as a soothing sedative. Other tribes have used hop to treat indigestion, expel worms, stimulate milk flow, relieve headaches and toothaches, lower fevers, and promote urination.
Modern herbalists still value hop for its sedative properties; workers in commercial hop kilns say that the drying hops keep them constantly drowsy. For those who don’t work around hops, drinking a few cups of hop tea or swallowing capsules of a freeze-dried extract of hops may induce sleep when nothing else will.
Research on the medicinal uses of hop goes on even today. Scientists at the University of Minnesota have found that the two primary chemical components in lupulin—humulone and lupulone—stimulate the production of liver enzymes that metabolize toxins, but it’s not clear how much of either component ends up in the beer after brewing. (We certainly can’t assume from this that increased intake of beer will lead to a healthier liver.) In other countries, especially China, hop preparations are being used to treat tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, leprosy, dysentery, skin ulcers, and frostbite.
Varieties of Hops
More that 100 hop cultivars are used around the world, and the characteristic flavor of beer from different countries is due at least in part to the variety of hops added to the brew. Some popular German hops are ‘Hallertaur’, ‘Tettnanger’, and ‘Saaz’; English ales typically contain ‘English Bullion’, ‘Fuggle’, or ‘Golding’ hops. Early American beermakers traditionally favored the ‘Clusters’ variety, but varieties that are popular in America today include ‘Bullion’, ‘Cascade’, Comet’, ‘Nugget’, ;Chinook’, ‘Brewer’s Gold’, and ‘Willametter’.
Hop varieties are of two types; bittering and aromatic. Bittering hops are the standard beer ingredient and include the varieties ‘Bullion’, ‘Comet’, ‘Brewer’s Gold’, and ‘Willametter’. Aromatic hops are more flavorful, the best choice for eating, pillow stuffing, and tea. Aromatic hops are known in beermaking as “finishing hops”, added for flavor refinement. Popular aromatic variestis include ‘Fuggle’, ‘Golding’, Hallertauer’, Saaz’, ‘Willametter’, and ‘Tettnanger’.
How to Grow Hops
Hopos will grow just about anywhere except in extremem desert areas, but they prefer warm climates and deep, damp, well-drained, humusy soi, with at least half-day sun. They can be grown elsewhere if mulched generously with nutrient-rich compost. The roots are hardy to -35 degrees Fahrenheit, and plants do best in soil with a pH or 6.0 to 7.0.
Hop plants trained on a trellis or fence use very little ground space but take up a lot of air space. In commerical hopyards, hops are grown in hills, each hill containing several plants that are spaced about 18 inches apart and trained onto wire trellises, usually suspended from an overhead network. Commercial hills are spaced 6 to 19 feed apart to allow equipment access, but the home gardener can plant hills closer together—four to six feet should allow some space between hills at the height of growth.
Lush green foliage (or golden in the case of H. lupulus ‘Aurea’) and thick, rapid growth—often more than six inches of vine per day—can provide summer shade or screen an ugly view. The vines can be trained on a trellis into a small weeping tree, or they can be used as a ground cover for large areas. Grown as a windbreak, plants grow lanky and yield less fruit. They can be trained to grow horizontally across the top of an arbor, along a fence, or in espalier; the stem tips need frequent attention at first to guide them into the desired shape, but once started, they’ll keep growing in the direction of the trellis or wire.
Hops can be grown from seed or cuttings, but the seed does not always come true to variety. The cuttings most likely to root are those that include part of the rhizome (a portion of the stem that grows underground). However, stem cuttings can be taken from the lower sections of the aboveground vine if it has buds on it, and even new shoots have been known to root after being buried a foot deep. At the end of the season, you can save 4- to 6-foot pieces of healthy vine for propagating new plants next spring. Bury them for the winter in a shallow trench and mark their location; in spring, cut them into pieces four to six inches long, making sure each has an eye or bud, and plant them where desired.
Buying rooted cuttings of female plants will give you a head start; male plants are not needed for pollination, as the unpollinated female flowers produce the most desirable fruits. When you receive your cuttings, store them in the regrigerator until ready to plant: as soon as the ground is workable. Working compost and/or mild fertilizer into each hill will promote establishment of the plants.
If established hopvines were not cut to the ground in fall, just prune away the old growth as soon as the ground is workable, and new growth will sprout from the roots.
Plant each cutting horizontally in a trench six to eight inches deep, with buds or shoots facing up and roots spread out to the side. Within two or threee weeks, depending on soil temperature, the plant will start sending up shoots that resemble miniature asparagus spears. In warm weather, the shoots will quicikly grow to 18 to 24 inches long, at which point you should provide them with a sturdy trellis or other support. Select the three or four most vigorous shoots and train them up the support by tying them with soft string or pieces of old nylon stocking. Cut the remaining shoots at ground level. Once started, the shoots will climb of their own accord.
Newly emerged hopvines require ample moisture. In hot climates, mulching and/or drip irrigation are beneficial. At this time, you can add another layer of compost or fish emulsion around the hill and water it in. Granular fertilizer can be used, but it should be diluted, and the risk of burning the young plants is greater than with compost or fish emulsion.
Your hopvines probably will not flower the first year after planting. In the second year, however, curious green blossoms appear in mid- to late-summer, and as they develop, they begin to look like soft green pinecones or small globe artichokes. Depending on variety, the cones will measure from one to three inches long and as much as an inch in diameter at maturity.
Caution: Handling fresh hops causes contact dermatitis in some people. Wear gloves during picking to minimize this possibility.
The hop fruits should be harvested in late summer or early fall before the first frost, when they are beginning to dry and turn amber yellow. Pick a cone and split it with a sharp knife from top to bottom. The cones are ready if they feel springy and produce a sweet-pungent aroma when the two halves are rubbed together. The lupulin glands at the base of each scale (bract) will be dark golden yellow.
When the hops are ready, cut off the vine with a sharp knife just below the first cluster of cones and remove it from the support. The rest of the plant will continue to grow until frost. It can then be cut off at ground level and the exposed crown covered with mulch for the winter.
Pick the cones from the vines and dry them immediately so they won’t wilt and spoil. From dehydrators or homemade hop dryers can be used, but small quantities can be dried until “papery” as other herbs are: on a screen in the shade. The dried hops should be stored in an airtight container, away from heat and bright light, and should be used within a few months to avoid spoilage. Hops can be frozen after drying, and they’ll keep for several months, but their odor will not be confined by regular freezer bags; thick plastic or glass is advisable. To preserve hops for medicinal purposes, make a tincture as follows: combine one ounce dried hops and eight ounces ethanol; add water to create a 50 percent alcohol solution; cover and let stand two weeks, shaking once daily; strain, bottle, and store.
The dried hops can be used in arrangements or on wreaths, but keep in mind that their odor will become stronger after the first couple of months. The vines can be braided into wreaths or woven into baskets. The spent hops or residue from beer making are valuable as a garden fertilizer, compost, or mulch, containing 2.5 to 3.5 percent nitrogen when dried.
If you decide to grow hops in your home garden, you will be continuing a practice that has gone on for centuries and is environmentally correct today. All parts of the plant are usable: the young shoots for food, the leaves for shade, the fruits for beer or a medicinal tea, and the old vines for crafts.
Some other sources you may find interesting:
A Product from our store that you may enjoy:
Sleep Herbal Balm
Bobbi A McRae is the author of the new Herb Companion Wishbook & Resource Guide, Nature’s Dyepot, and The Fabric and Fiber Sourcebook. Bobbi has used hops to dye wool yarn and fabric, make beer, and calm herself down after all that writing.