Think only craft beer enthusiasts have a reason to plant hops at home? Think again!
Much more than an essential component of beer, hops (Humulus lupulus) is a pretty perennial plant with many uses. Hops are actually a bine, and not a vine, as they don’t have tendrils to wrap around structures to pull themselves up.
They wrap their stem around things instead and, interestingly, depending on their variety, they’ll wrap themselves either clockwise or anti-clockwise around a pole or frame, twisting like a bean stalk to climb.
It will happily climb any vertical structure, shading chook houses, pergolas and verandas, giving a beautiful display of flower cones (hops plants come in male or female and only the female flowers produce the cones for use as hops) in late summer before dying down in late autumn to give way for much needed winter sun. It will reappear in spring from an underground rhizome.
The history of hops goes way deeper than its modern-day use. In Roman times, it was grown for its relaxation and sleep-inducing properties and was turned into a tea to treat insomnia.
It wasn’t until 822AD that the first documented use of hops for beer were recorded. Without hops, beer can be quite sweet, and the addition of hops flowers to beer adds the bitterness, as well as flavour and aroma. Without it beer is basically just fermented barley.
When hops begin to emerge from the soil in spring, it can be harvested like young asparagus spears. In many parts or Europe, eating hops shoots is considered quite a delicacy.
Also referred to as “poor man’s asparagus”, it makes a great alternative to asparagus. However, it’s poor man’s title is very much as misnomer, because, believe it or not, it’s now one of the world’s most expensive crops, second only to saffron in value per kilogram. Maybe it’s time for a re-name!
Hops makes an aesthetically pleasing shade cover for windows, verandahs, pergolas, chook houses and out houses. It is really fast growing and, just like a bean, begins to lose its leaves and turn brown before going into dormancy at the start of winter.
Planted on the northern or western side of buildings, hops will offer summer shade and, depending on the varieties of hops grown, will produce a sweet citrus scent when it’s in flower.
Many years ago it was noted that farmers who were harvesting hops became tired easily and slept exceptionally well at night. This may have been due to their heavy physical workloads, but studies have found that the sticky resins in the green flowers of hops contain the compounds humulene and lupuline, which have mild sedative properties.
Making a tea from fresh or dried hop flowers is also said to ease symptoms of menopause including hot flushes and night sweats, as it contains a plant-based phytoestrogen compound that mimics estrogen in the body.
To make hops tea, pour boiling water over a small handful of fresh flower cones and let steep for a minute or two. The higher the flower to water ratio, the more of a bitter taste and intense your tea will be, so add more or less flowers depending on your taste or add a touch of honey for sweetness.
Once your hops start to die down in late autumn, the bines can be used for weaving before they become to dry and brittle, and make a beautiful wreath when weaved in and around itself in a circular shape. Leave some of the hop flowers on to give a sweet and strong aroma.
Dried hop flower cones can also be added to lavender bags or put a few in your pillowcase to help induce a good night’s sleep.
With the rise of niche craft and micro-breweries, you may find your hops are in demand depending on the variety you grow. Your excess hop flower cones could be a great trade for some locally made beer, so introduce yourself to your local beer brewer.