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2018 International Herb of the Year Hops (Humulus lupulus)

Hops are a vigorous bine. That’s not a typo: the long stems of the hop are considered bines, not vines! The difference is that unlike vines that use tendrils and other means to climb, bines climb with the help of short, stiff hairs along the stems. Hop flowers are called cones, and bloom in shades of green and yellow. They resemble miniature pine cones but are composed of thin, papery, leafy bracts. At the base of the bracts are waxy, yellow lupulin glands that contain alpha acids responsible for the bitter essential oils that give beer flavor and aroma. Cones are also used in herbal remedies (like teas that help you sleep or as an ingredient in sleep pillows).

Hops are an attractive plant in the garden and if you give them the proper growing conditions they will reward you with lush foliage and amusing flowers. Hops thrive in moderate climates in Zones 5-7 with a soil pH of 6.0-6.5. Growing hops in North Texas can be a challenge as we are on the edge of their climate comfort range and they may suffer in very hot and dry summers. Our soil pH is also considerably higher than they prefer. In the last few years, there has been some local interest in growing hops as a cash crop and some success has been achieved, so it may be worthwhile to experiment with growing hops. Two varieties that are said to perform in Zone 8 is ‘Cascade’, which has good disease resistance and produces high yields, and ‘Summer Shandy’, a dwarf (growing to 10 feet) that produces golden to chartreuse colored leaves.

Plants need plenty of room to grow (it’s not unusual for them to grow over 40 feet in one season) and prefer to grow vertically on arbors, trellises, teepees, or a sturdy fence; but they can be grown horizontally if necessary. Bines don’t start producing side shoots that form cones until they reach 15-20 feet in length. Start training the bines onto the structure when they are about 1-2 feet long. Full sun (at least 6-8 hours daily) is required for plant health and cone production. Bines will grow in a part sun exposure, but cone production will suffer. A warm southern exposure is ideal.

To grow robustly, bines require well-drained, nutrient rich soil amended with compost, and consistent moisture (but will not tolerate standing water). Amounts of water needed will vary according to weather and soil type, so check the ground near the roots on a regular basis. Drip irrigation is preferred to assure that water reaches deep into the soil without wetting the foliage which can introduce disease.

Hop plants are perennial, with the first year devoted to establishing a strong root system. Cone production may be spotty the first year, but begins in earnest in the second year. Since the root system is key to production, maintain a thick layer of mulch around the root zone to avoid soil temperature extremes and maintain consistent moisture.

Bines are best planted in the spring when the risk of frost has passed. Most plants are sold and shipped bare-root and the rhizomes are packed in sawdust. Be prepared to plant them as soon as they arrive so they don’t dry out. Plant the rhizomes 4-6” deep in a hole amended with compost; the buds should be pointed upwards, but if it’s unclear which way is up don’t worry they will right themselves. Within a short period of time the rhizomes will send out roots and then shoots. Choose 2-3 of the most vigorous shoots to develop into bines, and pinch out the remaining shoots. When the bines are 2-3 feet long, wind them clockwise around a support and watch them grow.

Amending the planting hole with compost and keeping a thick layer of mulch around the plant should provide the nutrients that plants need to thrive, but if the plants fail to thrive or appear chlorotic (yellowing foliage), apply a water soluble fertilizer high in Nitrogen and Potassium.

Hop plants are dioecious (plants produce either male or female reproductive organs), but only female plants produce cones. Male plants can easily be identified by the many-branched panicles of flowers with five petals and should be removed; otherwise they will produce pollen that is carried by the wind to fertilize female plants. Fertilized female flowers produce seeds that negatively affect beer flavor and are useless for brewing.

Depending on the variety, hops are ready for harvest in August and September. One plant will produce 1-2 pounds of cones. A ripe cone is puffy and has a soft, light feel to it; they are slightly drier than non-ripe cones and will spring back when squeezed. Cones may ripen at different times, so the best method is to hand pick the cones as they become ripe. Another method of harvest is to cut the bines down to 3-4 feet to the ground when most of the cones are ripe and remove the cones. After harvest, cones are dried in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight for 3-5 days. Cones are completely dry when the center stem is brittle. They can then be stored in the refrigerator or freezer until needed.

After harvest and when the weather begins to turn cold, cut the bines down to 3-4 feet to the ground and remove any weak or diseased bines. Lay the bines down and bury them under a 4-6” layer of mulch to overwinter. In the spring, after all danger of frost has passed uncover the bines and prune them back to healthy buds to stimulate growth. If properly cared for, plants will send out new rhizomes from which new plants will grow. Hop plants are not considered invasive, but if you want to contain the plants, root prune around the rhizomes in a one foot diameter in spring.

Ale has been brewed for over 9,000 years from water and barley flavored with spices and fruit and was referred to as “gruit” or “grut”. Ale did not contain hops; they are a relatively new ingredient. Hops provide bitterness to balance the sweetness of malt sugars as well as flavors, resins and preservatives to retard spoilage. There are many recipes for extracting these properties, but in general, cones are boiled to extract taste and aroma and added to the remaining ingredients.

The first written appearance of hops is in Physica Sacra, written by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen in 1150. She used hops as a preservative. In 822, Abbott Adalhard of the Benedictine monastery of Corbie in Picardy, France was the first to add hop cones to ale.

Around 1150 Germanic tribes began brewing with hops. In 1516, William IV, Duke of Bavaria adopted the Reinheitsgebot which certified that only water, hops and barley malt were permissible ingredients in beer.

The cultivation of hops was introduced from Flanders to Kent, England. Hop growing became a lucrative cottage industry, and by 1655 hop cultivation grew to include 14 counties. In a successful year, one acre of hops was more profitable than 50 acres of arable land. 1878 was the peak of hop growing with 77,000 acres under cultivation. When pasteurization was developed in the 1870’s, fewer hops were needed as a preservative, and by 1909 there were only 32,000 acres of land dedicated to growing hops; 23 years later the acreage had fallen to 16,500. At one time, hops were grown in almost every region of England, but is now confined largely to the West Midlands and Southeastern counties.

The brewing of beer in North America arrived with the English settlers, who considered beer a staple of life (nearly as important as bread and water). The first cultivated hops were introduced by the Massachusetts Company in 1629. New England became the dominant hop growing region with 1,441,936 pounds hand-picked at its peak in 1836. By 1839 New York produced 32% of U.S. hops, but 20 years later that amount had risen to 88%. Because hop production was so profitable, other states attempted production and by 1850 hops were grown as far south as Alabama and as far west as Wisconsin. Hop production was in full swing in California by 1870, with dry summers and mild winters creating a growing advantage. Yields in Oregon were not as great as California, but quality was excellent and today Oregon is recognized as the top hop producing state.

At the beginning of the 20th century, brewers realized that it was the soft resin in hops that contributed to preservation. In 1906, Wye College in Kent, England began the first program of cross breeding hops to develop specific qualities and flavors. In 1995, the University of Oregon began a hop breeding program and has developed cultivars with significantly different taste profiles.

21st century brewers use a portfolio of hops ranging from low alpha acids of 4% to higher alphas nearer 20% and individual flavors of hop varieties are taken into consideration. Horticulture research continues today at Wye College with the most recent introduction being a category of hops called hedgerows (so named because they grow only 8’ tall). They are less expensive to establish, easier to harvest, and require less chemicals to produce.

Beer is one of the oldest and most widely consumed drinks in the world (the third most popular drink overall after water and tea) and a growing craft beer movement bodes well for the hop industry. Production has changed from small, family farms to large scale commercial farms, and with continued scientific research and breeding programs we can expect to see more changes in the future.

The Oast House

An oast house, sometimes referred to as a hop kiln, is a building designed for drying hops. Early oast houses were adapted barns, but by the 18th century distinctive tall buildings with conical roofs were commonplace. Oast houses are generally rectangular one or two story buildings with layers of thin, perforated floors. A kiln (originally a manure fire) produced hot air that rose through the floors and escaped through a cowl (conical shaped structure in the roof which turned with the wind). Freshly picked hop cones were placed on the floors in thin layers and when dry were raked out to cool before being bagged and sent to the brewery for processing.

Oast houses are primarily found in southeastern England. The earliest surviving oast house is at Golford, Cranbrook near Tunbridge Wells. It dates from the 17th century. Today hops are dried industrially and oast houses have been converted for other uses.

Dream Pillows

The practice of placing herbs inside pillows dates back centuries and was originally thought to promote restful sleep, produce good dreams, protect against evil, foresee the future – even bring a lover into one’s life. They were once called comfort pillows and were used in sickrooms to ease the nightmares that came with the use of strong medicine, and to mask the smell of disease. Today they can be an easy and non-medicinal way to help promote peaceful sleep.

These pillows are filled with relaxing herbs such as Calendula, Catnip, Chamomile, Hops, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Rose Petals, Rosemary and Sweet Marjoram. To encourage good dreams, include Cloves, Lemon Verbena, Mugwort and Peppermint. Create a mix that appeals to you.

How to Make a Dream Pillow

Select an organic cotton or other soft fabric. Cut two 5” x 12” pieces of fabric and pin the right sides together. Stitch along three of the edges, stopping 1” from the edge of the open side of the pillow. Turn the pillow right side out through the unsewn edge. Using a funnel fill the pillow with the herb blend you created (1/2 cup if using a 5” x 12” size). Finish the pillow by sewing the open seam shut. Place the dream pillow inside your pillowcase.

Dream pillows are easy to make and fun to give as gifts!

At a Glance: Growing Hops

Growing Zones: 5-7

Recommended Varieties for Zone 8: ‘Cascade’ and ‘Summer Shandy’

Preferred Soil pH: 6.0-6.5

Sun: 6-8 Hours of Full Sun; a Southern Exposure is Ideal

Water: Provide Consistent Moisture; Drip Irrigation Recommended

Plant: Rhizomes in the Spring; Amend Planting Hole with Compost

Care: Maintain Mulch Layer to Regulate Soil Temperature

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