Almost All About Hops

Hop Flower ConeIt has taken me a long time to write an article on hops for many reasons. I’m not going to tell you anything here that you can’t find or read about anywhere else, but there’s so much to this plant and about its use that no single source seems to capture it all. I think it answers most of the questions about hops that I originally had, plus some lesser-known trivia I found along the way.

The hop plant, or Humulus Lupulus, is a perennial climbing flower that is quite vigorous during spring and summer. I’ve heard some people say that the hop plant can grow up to eighteen inches in a day (which gives me an idea for a stop-motion video project next summer).

Growing Hops

Hops are grown worldwide and Germany is the world’s top hop grower, having originated the cultivation of hops in the 8th century. A little-known piece of trivia is the second-place hop producing country: Ethiopia. Hops in the U.S. are grown mostly in the Northeast – Washington and Oregon, but Wisconsin is trying to get back in the game too. Hops can be grown anywhere, though. Next summer I plan to grow a few plants in my back yard in Georgia.

If you’d like to grow your own, you can order rhizomes from a number of producers come March every year. Many plant companies like Burpee have rhizomes available to order, as well as dedicated hops people like those at freshops.com.

You’ll need decent soil (don’t plant them on the beach or in stone) and something for them to climb. Hop plants are expected to grow at least 20 feet from the rhizome every year, so provide plenty of room! Not to worry, though – it dies down to the ground in the winter and back up in the spring. Hop farmers stake a string to the ground and tie the other end to a line about 20 feet in the air, then train each hop plant to climb up and around its string (clockwise). I plan to let mine grow up a vertical lattice, like roses would, or up on a canopy-type raised horizontal lattice to provide shade for other things.

They need full sun and daily watering, though I have heard of some people succeeding with only weekly watering. It depends on your climate.

After you’ve harvested your own hops, they must be dried and put away if you’re going to be using them in home brewing. There are many ways to do this, and I imagine the big producers have warehouse and machines for it. The process is like home brewing as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. Break up the strobiles without rupturing the lupulin glands and lay them out. Put them somewhere dark, hot, and dry, and leave them for a few days. Pack them up and store. You can use storage bags or vacuum packs – up to you. I don’t see anything wrong with freezing them.

Hops in Beer

Only the non-pollinated female hop flower is used in brewing beer. The male flower is smaller and doesn’t have the same acids and chemical makeup as the female; I don’t know much more about why we only like the girls.

What we like about the hop flower is its bitterness lent to the beer during the boil. Other plants and herbs (including dandelion and heather) were previously used as bittering agents, but over time (and long, long ago) brewers figured out that beer brewed with hops is less prone to spoilage. Each flower petal is called a bracteole, and each contains a lupulin gland, a soft little pouch inside the leaf. Lupulin glands hold soft resins (alpha and beta acids) and essential oils; those resins are the main source of bitterness.Bracteole

Alpha acids give beer the lasting bitterness in the taste of the beer. The longer they are boiled, the more bitterness they impart. Every hop variety has a different concentration of alpha acids (you’ll see some percentage of “AA” on the label or in the description). Cascade, for example, is a hop variety used in many American craft beers. Its alpha acid content is around 9% and produces a fairly bitter taste. Alpha acid content ranges from around 1% to 20% and sometimes higher. Scientists are still working on increasing alpha acid content today.

Beta acids give a bitter punch to the nose. These boil off quickly during brewing, so the aroma (or finishing) hops chosen for the beer are typically added within the last 15 minutes of the boil to produce that welcoming smell all of the hop-heads appreciate. One finishing hop variety is Fuggle, with around a 4% alpha acid content.

Other Uses and Useless Facts

Hops have a calming effect in their natural form; the resins that rub off on the hand when picked can enter the bloodstream and cause involuntary relaxation. I read somewhere that hop farmers used to think the farm hands were lazy because they’d get tired after a few hours of harvesting. They were picking strobiles bare-handed and that skin contact with the resins caused them to be tired.

A pillow made of (or filled with) hops can calm a person and help them get to sleep. I’m pretty picky about my pillow, so you might could try putting a sack of hops under your pillow instead of replacing it.

Hops are extremely toxic to dogs. Their ingesting hops can cause hyperthermia resulting in seizures and death. Steer your puppy clear if you choose to grow hops.

Hops are classified in the Humulus genera, of the Cannabaceae family of flowering plants. Also grouped in the Cannabaceae family is Cannabis, or hemp. I recently read a forum post at a pro-marijuana website about the idea of smoking hops. Their conclusion? Not worth it. The resins are in the lupulin glands; you’ll get nothing from the leaves. It was quite disturbing to read what else those folks rolled up and put fire to.

Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats in Delaware has an outdoor patio shaded by climbing hops overhead.

The Boston Beer Company’s Samuel Adams line produces an IPA called “Latitude 48″ that is brewed with hops from around the world that are grown along the 48th parallel.

In conclusion, I’ve read an awful lot in the past few weeks and I likely didn’t capture absolutely everything here.  I hope that I included enough links to get you to the information you seek; if not, leave it in the comments and I’ll be sure to include whatever I’m missing in the post.  Have a great brewing season!

Cheers!

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