Two years ago I planted four small hop plants at the foot of two metal arches in the kitchen garden and just look at them now: rampant foliage and cascades of flowers like bright green paper lanterns. This climber is an herbaceous perennial, meaning that this mass of growth was all produced since spring. It can do 0 to 6m in a single season! The intertwined stems are known by the pleasingly archaic name ‘bine’.
Although wild hops can be found scrambling through hedges and wood margins and along riverbanks all over northern Europe, the plant was taken into deliberate cultivation long ago, just like its relative, hemp. Hops’ principal use is as a flavouring and preservative for beer. German brewers have been using it since the ninth century. Their British counterparts resisted hopping their ales until around the fifteenth, preferring to stick with their own traditional herb additives. It’s the presence of hops that distinguishes beer from ale.
The flowers are the part used in brewing. Cone-like in shape, they are formed of overlapping scales, under each of which is a gland that secretes a resinous and aromatic compound called lupulin. It’s yellow and sticky with a heady, complex and distinct aroma. Hop plants are broadly divided into two types, bitter and aromatic, each lending a different character to the beer.
Most commonly the flowers are carefully dried before use. However, green-hopped beers, which use fresh green flowers like the ones in the photograph, are becoming increasingly popular. Again, both impart different characters. The harvesting window for the latter is of course pretty short.
In the garden, hops are not hard to grow. They like well-drained soil but are less fussy about soil type. Something to climb up is essential and though vigorous, the plant is not particularly invasive. They benefit from being mulched. Removing some of the emerging shoots in spring results ultimately in larger flowers and also provides an interesting spring vegetable. These can be treated like asparagus. A pillow stuffed with dried flowers is a traditional cure for insomnia, as they have a mild sedative effect. Whole ‘boughs’ – big sections of hopbine – are sometimes brought into pubs and hung above the bar as decoration.