When you hear the word hops, you may think of beer or bunnies. While I love the ever-bouncy bunny, I’m referring to the plant version of hops, aka Humulus lupulus. Hops, which are the female flowers/cones of this dioecious perennial, have a distinct aroma and flavor and are best known in the beer brewing world as a stability agent and for the bitter taste, they impart that balances out the malt. Hops also offer antimicrobial effects that help promote the activity of brewer’s yeast.
Acids and Oils
There’re three main compounds in hops that make them useful for brewing and culinary uses. These three compounds consist of the two main acids, alpha and beta acids, and also the essential oils. Alpha acids (humulones, cohumulones, adhumulones, posthumulones, and prehumulone) are the most important chemical compounds in hops for brewing as they impart the bitter taste when boiled with wort (the sweet liquid mixture of malted barley before fermentation) and are in higher concentrations in hops known as bittering hops. Beta acids (lupulones, colupulones, and adlupulones) are sensitive to oxidative decomposition and can moderately contribute to the bitterness over a long period of time when the beer is stored or aged. The essential oils (myrcene, humulene, and caryophyllene) provide the fundamental non-bitter flavors and aromas that hops possess. As beer is brewed, the volatile compounds of the oil evaporate during the boil. To ensure proper retention of aroma, the hops are therefore added to the very end of the boil, or not boiled at all, but added after the wort has cooled in a process known as dry hopping.
While hops are prevalent in brewing today, they weren’t originally used to make beer. Cultivated from its wild version, the modern hop is thought to have originated in Egypt. There are accounts describing hops in salads in the first century A.D., and being used for medicinal purposes to treat insomnia, restlessness, anxiety, digestive issues, and inflammation. True cultivated forms of the plant were started in the 8th century A.D. in Germany, with the use of hops in brewing beginning in the 11th century. Today hops are grown in various regions, including home gardens.
If you try your hand at growing hops you can do so for ornamental, brewing, or culinary reasons. It should be noted that hops are sometimes grown as a feed supplement for livestock, but usually in a larger, commercial manner, which also applies to growing hops for large scale brewing. Based on your reasons for growing them, you could pick a variety to suit your needs such as the hop cultivar Nugget, a common bittering hop, Centennial, an aroma hop, and Blue Northern Brewer, a nice ornamental. Whatever varieties you choose, make sure you know the hops design and biology before you plant.
Hops plants have rhizomes; large stems that run horizontally underground which strike up new roots and shoots. This is great for propagation, but it does give hops the ability to spread. To plant hops you will need to procure rhizomes or cuttings to plant, making sure you choose female plants to ensure nice hop production. If choosing rhizomes, make sure they’re taken well into the winter when the plant is dormant. If using a cutting, these can be taken throughout the growing season, with spring being the best time. Just make sure your cutting has a node at the top. Hops also have bines, not vines, for stems that climb and wrap themselves (clockwise) around trellises, etc., using small stiff hairs. If you plant hops they will need climbing room and structures.
When you’re ready to plant choose a spot that’s in well-drained (preferably silty loam) soil that allows your hops to get plenty of sunshine without shading out other plants. If you choose to plant more than one hop plant, space them at least 3’ apart. When planting, dig a hole that’s very roomy and large enough to accommodate the roots and then backfill with soil.
Pests and Problems
As the hops grow, water consistently, preferably only at the base of the plant, as wet foliage can lead to mildews. If you find you have mildew, organic fungicides containing copper can be used. Mites and aphids can also damage hop plants. To reduce the number of these pests in your garden invite predatory insects in by planting host plants such as marigolds or yarrow.
Unique Growing Requirements
Your hops will grow in the first year, but won’t reach full maturity until they’ve been growing for 3-4 seasons. During that first year, you will need to fertilize, but it’s not as critical the first year as it will be in subsequent years as the plants reach maturity and are in full production. As each year passes the hops will need a chilling period of <40°F each winter (30-60 days) to resume normal (adequate) growth in the spring. Hops also need the onset of short days (<8 hours of sunlight) to initiate reproductive growth. They respond to the increasing darkness by initiating non-twining lateral branches that produce flower clusters and the female plants’ flowers develop into the harvestable cones.
Harvesting and Storing
Once your hops are in full production you will have a crop to harvest. To harvest, the hops look for mature cones that have a dry, papery feel and possess a “hoppy” aroma. Remove the mature cones and use them fresh or dry them in a shady location in trays with a mesh bottom or on old window screens to allow moisture to escape. Heat drying cones isn’t recommended as temperature >125°F can cause oil loss and reduce quality. Store dried cones in plastic bags, with little to no air, and placed in the freezer or refrigerator to avoid degradation.
Nutrition and Uses
Most often hops are grown for beer production, but that’s not all they’re limited to. While calorie and nutrient content aren’t readily available, hops can be used in food and have several health benefits. Hops, like their cousin cannabis, are known to help with relaxation and relieve insomnia due to their sedative qualities and can also improve the effectiveness of other herbs and medications taken for depression, anxiety, and sleep*. Hops can help promote milk production in nursing mothers and act as a relaxant to allow for better let down at the time of nursing**. Hops also act as a diuretic, reduce bloating, and increase stomach acid production which all can aid in digestion and improving gut issues.
As mentioned before hops contain acids. These acids not only give the hops flavor and aroma, they also act as an anti-inflammatory, help prevent fibrosis in chronic liver disease, reduced joint swelling, and aid in osteoarthritis pain. Beyond acids, hops also contain a flavonoid called xanthohumol. Xanthohumol has the ability to act as an antibacterial and antiviral agent, which have shown to be effective when included in the treatment of acne and even HIV. Plus, xanthohumol has been linked to improved cardiovascular health, reduced cancer risk, and improved blood glucose regulation.
So beyond drinking beer, since some of the properties of the flavonoids and acids are lost during brewing, how else can you get a dose of these helpful hops? To add hops into your diet you can pick the young shoots of the plant and sauté them in olive oil, salt, and pepper. However, many of the benefits are derived from the cones. There are several ways you can add hops into recipes, just like you would any herb, but you should keep mind that hops are going to be, well, hoppy flavored, so add sparingly. I have added them into cinnamon brownies, cheese dips, and lightly sprinkled them on buttered mashed potatoes. These are all good ways to hop up your recipes, but my favorite way to add hops is in the following recipe.
4-5 fire roasted tomatoes (you can even use canned tomatoes when in a hurry)
1 jalapeno (seeds and veins removed)
1 garlic clove (minced)
1 small bunch cilantro
3-4 fresh or dried hop flowers (don’t use pellets)
Juice from 2 limes
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a food processor
Blend until desired consistency
Enjoy as a dip or to top chicken or beef
Hops are a specialty crop that you won’t see in everyone’s garden or dinner menu. However, if you’re looking for some uniqueness to add to your growing space and palate, hops are for you. With some patience and time, you can have hops hopping right along in your garden to use for food, beer, or just for ornamental reasons. Hoppy gardening!
*If you are using herbs or medications to treat any condition be sure to talk to your herbalists and/or doctor about combining certain foods, such as hops, with your current medications and herbs to prevent any possible complications.
**If you are pregnant or nursing always be sure to talk to your medical professional before taking any medications, supplements, herbs, or making dietary changes.
Cochran, D. April, 2016. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. HORT 3051. https://store.extension.iastate.edu/Product/Hop-Production-101-Site-selection-and-planting
Molecular Nutrition & Food Research. Hans-Ulrich Humpf. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/advanced/search/results
Townsend, B., et al. July 2015. Oregon State University Extension Service. Growing Hops in the Home Garden. EM 9115. https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/sites/catalog/files/project/pdf/em9115.pdf
Vanhoecke, B., et al. June 28, 2005. American Journal of Cancer. Antiinvasive effect of xanthohumol, a prenylated chalcone present in hops (Humulus lupulus L.) and beer. V:117. Pages: 889–895. DOI: 10.1002/ijc.21249. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ijc.21249/full