Growing Hops – For more than beer

By Darren (Plot 219)

Hops are best known as a key ingredient in beer – and have been cultivated for this purpose from the early Middle Ages. Before hops, early brewers used a mixture of herbs (called “gruit”) to add flavour and bitterness to beer – including ginger, nutmeg, juniper to caraway, ivy, mugwort and yarrow. Once they realised hops could add the desired bitterness and aroma, the use of gruit fell away.

The popularity of craft beer and homebrewing has seen an increase in hop production and naturally brewers want to grow their own hops to add to beer. Hop flavouring is at the forefront of “hoppy styles” such as pale ales, IPA’s and English bitters.

However, hops are also a popular natural remedy, and have been used to combat stress and anxiety, help with insomnia, and as an antioxidant. Hops also have anti-microbial and –bacterial properties, and have been shown to be anti-inflammatory.

The easiest way to enjoy hops without having a beer is to make hop tea – simply steep hops in hot water (whole or in a tea bag) – and due to their bitterness, some lemon or honey can be added to sweeten the tea. Hops are often an ingredient in sleep remedies, so a cup shortly before bed can help you get a good night’s sleep. Apparently you can even add dried hops to your pillow and the aroma will help you drift off!

The hop plant itself is a vine, and grows in temperate climates where it can get 8-10 hours of sunlight a day in summer. They can grow up a single rope or trellis up to 30 feet tall, or trained horizontally or around a frame. A perennial, they can grow (and produce hops cones) for 20+ years.

To grow hops, rhizomes (root structures similar to that of ginger) can be purchased or cut from mature plants. It is important to ensure you have female plants, specifically from Humulus Iupulus, as some hop types are purely ornamental. Hops themselves are the female flowers of the vine.

They require well-drained soil, and can be thirsty so light, regular watering is best (too much and the rhizomes can rot). Plenty of manure and compost will promote healthy growth. Planted now, they will shoot in early spring, and grow rapidly over spring/summer (sometimes up to 30cm a day!) before dying back in autumn, when they can be cut back almost to ground level. They will be most productive from the second year onwards.

A few hops are being planted in the Slater communal herb garden, to grow along the fence. They should produce hops this summer if all goes well. The varieties include Mount Hood, Fuggle and Victoria – all have low “alpha acids” suitable for making hop tea that isn’t too bitter…or, naturally, for adding to your homebrew!

Note: Also try  Aussie Home Brewer (AHB) to check out the hops thread around May to July when members are selling (or sometimes giving away) hop rhizomes.