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Hops: Beyond Beer

Monday, March 6th, 2017 at 8:46 pm

In the Do-it-Yourself (DIY) culture, there are few notions more alluring than crafting your own beer. In fact, the popularity of craft brewing has been increasing year after year for nearly the past decade. Searches on google for craft brewing reached an all time high in the United States in the summer of 2016. With the increasing popularity of craft brewing, there is a growing interest in the climbing perennial known as hops.

Humulus lupulus, or Hops, is an herbaceous perennial “bine” which spreads underground through rhizomes. Bines are similar to vines in that both climb fences and other vertical supports, but vines use tendrils or suckers, while bines grow in a helix (or spiral) and often have bristles to help them maintain grip. Careful attention should be paid when handling hops, as these bristles can have an irritating effect for some people. The rhizomatous habit of hops isn’t too often a problem, provided they are given an adequate structure to support themselves. If the plants do become too cumbersome, they’re relatively easy to split or remove, as the roots do not typically go very deep. The plants do exceptionally well in medium moisture soils in both sun and shade and will even tolerate dry shade.

The leaves of hops are lobed and somewhat resemble leaves of the grape family. I personally recommend Humulus lupulus as a non-invasive alternative for Ampelopsis brevipedunculata or porcelainberry. Though it is not as deeply lobed and lacks the showy berries, the foliage is still pleasing and the cones are delightfully fragrant. When winter comes, the vines of hops will die back to the ground. Simply cut them back and allow them to shoot the following spring.

Various leaf forms of hops Photo by H. Zell via wikimedia commons

Various leaf forms of hops
Photo by H. Zell via wikimedia commons

In Beer

Hops first appeared in beer production in the 9th century, replacing older herbal blends. The preservative nature and strong fragrance of hops sealed its use in beer for the centuries that followed. The United States is one of the leading producers of hops, with much of the production on the west coast. If you or your customer wants to grow hops for beer production, look for varieties like ‘Cascade’, ‘Willamette’, or ‘Brewer’s Gold’. Ornamental varieties are much fewer in number and while you can use ornamental varieties for beer production, it’s not generally recommended.

Fragrant cones of hops Photo by H. Zell via wikimedia commons

Fragrant cones of hops
Photo by H. Zell via wikimedia commons

And Beyond

Beer production isn’t the only use for hops. The fragrant cones have long been used as a sleep aid and can be combined with other relaxing fragrances like lavender and chamomile to make a “sleep pillow” or “hops pillow.” Hops is also being researched for other medicinal uses including anaesthetic properties. The flowers of hops are also attractive to butterflies.

Female flowers of hops. Photo by H. Zell via wikimedia commons

Female flowers of hops.
Photo by H. Zell via wikimedia commons

It is important to note that hops, like Ginkgo or Ilex, produce female flowers and male flowers on separate plants. If you’re growing hops for beer or for the fragrant cones, you must ensure that you have female plants.

Male Flowers of Hops Photo by H. Zell via wikimedia commons

Male Flowers of Hops
Photo by H. Zell via wikimedia commons

‘Aureus’ is an ornamental variety with chartreuse foliage and will produce cones on stems that will easily grow 15-25 feet high. ‘Sumner’ or Summer Shandy Hops has similar, though perhaps more striking foliage that will grow to about 10 feet in height. Summer Shandy has been grown for foliage and growth habit, and does not produce an abundance of cones.

Disclaimer: Hops are toxic to dogs. It is not recommended to plant hops in places that dogs may frequent.

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